ALUMNI Q&A: What’s the Biggest Risk you Have Taken?

Mary Celenza ‘95

Mary CelenzaI thought about this question from a number of angles. I have taken the kind of chances with jobs that are typically considered big risks. I moved to L.A. on a whim, and now I’ve been here 16 years. At the time I had a great job working at ABC for Barbara Walters, but I was offered a two-month contract in Los Angeles and my curiosity was piqued, so I sublet my apartment in the East Village and never looked back. I have also left several successful shows to pursue other new, untested shows and have never regretted any of those decisions.

Looking back, however, what stands out is a risk that I really feel enabled everything else. When I was a freshman at Cornell, I auditioned for a brand new sketch comedy group, the Skits-O-Phrenics. Back then I was a very shy biology major, and I wasn’t crazy about my major or a potential future in science. When we saw an ad in the paper for the Skits-O-Phrenics, my friends encouraged me to audition because I did funny voices. I had never auditioned for anything before and didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly took me right out of my comfort zone—and I loved that.

I went to the audition and became one of the original members of the group, which is now 23 years old. Working with the Skits-O-Phrenics really opened up so much for me. I found that I loved performing, writing and directing, so I left biology behind and started to pursue a more creative career. So while a single audition seemed like a small risk at the time, it was really impactful.

Mary Celenza is an executive producer on the Syfy Channel’s Face Off.

Aaron Jackson ‘88

Aaron JacksonRight after I graduated from Cornell, I got job in sales where I was promoted too quickly for my age and maturity. I was not ready to lead a sales group, and I was working constantly but not smart. A couple of years in, I was fired from that position. It was painful, and I was filled with self-doubt. I felt I had not worked hard enough in college, I regretted not studying a foreign language, and I needed to regain my belief in myself. 

I wasn’t sure what I could do that would be of value, but I knew I could write in English well and was a natural teacher. So I bought a one-way ticket to Japan with borrowed money and headed off with a few suits and the grammar book The Careful Writer. I immediately found a job teaching English at a school where my students and employers valued my work. I developed a taste for travel and ended up teaching in Asia for four years. To do this, I had to be creative, smart and flexible. After the oppressive situation from which I was fired, I felt a sense of liberation. I learned in Japan and Indonesia that I work well with people, and that was really valuable.

It showed me that I could parachute into a culture that I knew very little about, and I could make it work. If I could do that, I could do anything. I don’t think I would’ve recovered as quickly without taking that risk. 

Aaron Jackson is the photo desk manager at the Associated Press headquarters in New York City.

Rob Marciano ’91

Rob MarcianoThe biggest professional risk I’ve taken was definitely to take the job as co-host of Entertainment Tonight after nearly 20 years in meteorology and reporting the weather. I had doubts that I would retain my credibility as a scientist and a journalist. I worried what friends and family would think—I’m not sure my father ever got over it! But in the end, it was a risk that I needed to take.

Entertainment Tonight is really an institution in entertainment news, and it was such a great chance to learn about the entertainment industry and get access very few people are afforded. The coolest part was getting behind the scenes of movies and TV. It was fascinating and eye-opening to get a glimpse of the deal making and other dynamics that go on behind the scenes in Hollywood. I don’t regret it. It was a measured risk and a great opportunity, and after two years I was able to fall back into meteorology, which is my true passion. I love going to work every day.

Forecasting is always a joyful challenge. Faster computer models have made us more accurate, but as my old Cornell prof recently reminded me: You can’t rely too much on the computers; there is still an art within the science of forecasting weather. And that is especially true chasing storms, which requires you to read the atmosphere that surrounds you. In the field, there are risks in reporting weather. We’ve had a few scary moments in hurricanes and tornadoes, but we aren’t cavalier. I’m responsible for keeping the crew safe, and the last thing I’d want my epitaph to read is “Meteorologist who died of stupidity in a storm.”

Rob Marciano is ABC’s senior meteorologist and provides forecasts on World News Tonight and weekend editions of Good Morning America.

Mickey Rapkin ’00

Mickey RapkinSometimes I think I haven’t taken enough risks. I mean, I’m the kind of guy who wanted to roll his bar mitzvah money into a retirement account. But I’m into calculated risks. Like when I was working at GQ and I got a phone call from a book agent who liked my writing enough to ask if I’d thought about writing a book. “What kind of book?” I asked. It could be anything, he said, as long as the idea had mass appeal and I was truly passionate about the topic. I told him the only thing I wanted to write a book about was college a cappella groups.

He corrected himself: It couldn’t be anything.

I pressed on. Yes, I said, this would be a story about kids getting drunk and singing Justin Timberlake songs without instruments. But really it was a story about coming to college and being afraid and finding a family in an unlikely place. I’m not sure he was convinced, but to his credit, he agreed to work on a proposal with me. The book would be called Pitch Perfect, and on the day it was published, the actress Elizabeth Banks and her producing partner-husband, Max Handelman, sold the idea to Universal. Against all odds that book has now inspired a trilogy, with Pitch Perfect 3 scheduled for release in August 2017.

I should mention that I sang in an a cappella group at Cornell called Cayuga’s Waiters. I actually auditioned for the group three times before its members finally took pity on me and let me sing baritone. I guess that’s the other risk I took. I was willing to put myself out there and audition again (and again and again) because those guys looked like they were having more fun than anyone else and I desperately wanted to be up on stage with them. I had no idea I’d still be talking about it 16 years later. But I guess that’s the thing about risks; you never know where they’ll lead.

Mickey Rapkin is a journalist, screenwriter and the author of two books, Pitch Perfect and Theater Geek.