Arts and Entertainment

Strong preparation helps alumni find early career TV opportunities

Recent graduates Christian Heilman and Marielena Balouris earned on-air positions with WTAJ-TV in Altoona, part of a large contingent of Penn Staters at the station. Credit: WTAJAll Rights Reserved.

Less than five months after walking across the stage in the Bryce Jordan Center, one Penn State graduate is a visible face in Elmira, New York, anchoring 15 news broadcasts a week for a local news station.

“It’s incredible in just a couple months how my life has been completely flipped upside down,” said Amy Simpson, who is an anchor and reporter for WETM-TV, an NBC affiliate.

Simpson, who anchors the 6, 10 and 11 o’clock newscasts, is one of countless students who have gained on-air television and production experience at Penn State and transferred that experience into a career opportunity. With coursework, a student-produced TV newscast, a student television club and many other opportunities, there are multiple ways for aspiring broadcast journalists to get involved in the College of Communications.

Like Simpson, it wasn’t long ago that Marielena Balouris and Christian Heilman were racking up that on-campus experience as undergraduates. Now, TV viewers also see them regularly. Balouris, who graduated with Simpson in May, and Heilman, who graduated in 2014, both work for WTAJ-TV, a CBS affiliate that covers Altoona, Johnstown and State College.

“The beauty of Penn State’s journalism program is the ‘real-world’ preparation it gives students, so when they graduate, the transition is seamless to a local TV station,” said Steve Kraycik, director of student television and online operations. “Our students are anchoring, reporting and producing newscasts while still in college.”

Balouris is a reporter and multimedia journalist. Heilman is a reporter, fill-in anchor and producer at the station. The two initially met during Balouris’ freshman year while they were both at PSNtv, the student television club.

“It’s really cool to have not only somebody that I went to school with, but a friend,” said Balouris.  

All three young alumni landed jobs in strong TV markets for on-air talent just starting their careers. Johnstown-Altoona-State College ranks as the nation’s 104th TV market and Elmira falls at 174. Each member of the trio has the chance to hone all their skills in a many ways -- reporting, writing, editing and producing -- while building a network of contacts.

While the jobs require long hours and a variety of tasks, the three are reaping the rewards of hard work, producing content and seeing themselves on-air.

“I love doing it,” said Heilman. “You have to love doing it. That’s the important thing that I think people can sometimes overlook. You need to have an internal drive to keep doing what we’re doing.”

At one point recently, Heilman was filling in as an anchor, and cut to Balouris for one of her packages. They are just two members of a strong Penn State contingent at WTAJ, which Balouris said includes producers, a floor director, photographers, the news director and the station’s vice president/general manager.

WETM also has a Penn State presence. Along with Simpson, 2014 journalism graduate Torri Singer is an on-air reporter.

Heilman and Balouris, both from the Pittsburgh area, are thankful to have landed in Altoona, which is about halfway between State College and their hometowns. Simpson is now about 250 miles from her hometown of Columbia, Maryland, hoping to someday return to the Washintgon, D.C., area. Balouris and Simpson also studied political science at Penn State, adding to the draw of D.C. for each of them sometime down the road.

Another bonus for Heilman and Balouris being in Altoona is their knowledge of the region because they each spent four years in State College prior to moving to Altoona. They also worked for “Centre County Report,” the weekly student newscast that covers the markets.

“As a reporter, you have to care about the community you’re in to enjoy working,” said Balouris. “If you don’t care about where you are, then it’s just going to be a drag and you’re not going to get that satisfaction. As reporters, we want to tell stories that affect our community, that changes things for the better, that impacts somebody, that makes someone’s day.”

One consistent message echoed from each of the young alumni to current and prospective Penn State students: get involved early. The College of Communications provides a variety of clubs and organizations to invest in from the first day on campus, or anytime during a student’s career.

“The thing that I loved about coming out of Penn State, I started work five weeks after graduation,” said Simpson. “It was a pretty quick turnaround. On Day 1 of my job, I felt completely prepared for the things they were asking me to do. I credit that completely to my time at Penn State.”

Heilman pointed particularly to the equipment and facilities the College offers.

“The equipment used at Penn State is so advanced and so top-of-the-line, that it will better than your first job,” said Heilman. “You will never walk into a computer lab with 20 computers with the latest editing equipment and the latest hi-definition cameras and one of the best sets in college television.”

Just months after graduation, Amy Simpson hosts 15 newscasts a week for an NBC affiliate in Elmira, New York. Credit: Photo SubmittedAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated June 02, 2021