Letter to the Editor: The cost of SCA’s culture of competition

I can’t focus on schoolwork because my classmates are dying. When I was accepted into the No.1 film school in the nation, not once did it cross my mind that I would lose classmates along the way. And yet, three students in my grade at the School of Cinematic Arts have died — one due to suicide, two to undisclosed causes. 

How does this happen? No one can say for certain, but the pressure-cooker environment where imposter syndrome runs rampant and mental health resources are lacking could be a contributor.

At SCA, you don’t begin making films until your second semester. In the introductory course titled “Lateral Thinking for Filmmaking Practice,” you make films independently every week, highlighting the disparity of technical skill in the class. For students like me, who lacked technical skill in comparison to the cinematography virtuosos, this class was terrible. 

I felt nauseous every time the class watched and critiqued my work — especially after watching so many objectively better films. I constantly questioned if I had been accepted to this school by clerical error. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that we had an open discussion as a class where we all admitted feeling that same sense of dread every time we showed our work to each other. We’re all close friends and collaborators, but the program is inherently competitive, and the comparison aspect only gets worse as you enter upper-division classes. 

The junior thesis class called “Intermediate Production” — commonly known to us as “310” from its course code — is a rite of passage within SCA. Everyone is divided into trios in this class, and each member of the trio has five weeks to write and direct their own film. As soon as this project is completed, trio members rotate roles, assisting the next member as they direct their own film. Each trio ultimately produces three films in 15 weeks. 

The class is everyone’s last guaranteed opportunity to direct at school before the process becomes more competitive and selective in our senior year. And since it’s everyone’s last guaranteed opportunity to direct at school, we place a lot of importance on these films. Your 310 film is forever associated with your name. Some go on to film festivals, and others are merely forgotten. Either way, the process is grueling. 

It was during 310 that my classmate dropped out for mental health reasons. When he returned a year later, he joined the cohort one year below us. A month ago, he passed away midway during the second project. According to one of his classmates, he showed all the signs that he was in distress and at risk of hurting either himself or someone else. He was dealing with severe personal issues, but the rigid schedule of the class does not allow for anyone to step back for even a moment. Being tied to a trio prevents many from prioritizing their own mental health for fear of negatively affecting the film.

The screenwriting program at USC is just as intensely rigorous as production, with a course plan so rigid that it’s not possible to even transfer into the major — one still must complete four years in the program. The senior cohort of screenwriters has recently experienced immense loss with the deaths of two of their classmates. One over a year and a half ago, and one mere weeks ago. 

Just last November, John Lynch, then a junior in the screenwriting program, had organized a comedy show to raise money for suicide awareness in honor of his close friend Mckenna Martin. Now he’s gone, too. 

And with the emptiness left in their wake, we are all struggling as a community to focus on our scripts and films, not to mention homework beyond SCA. I find myself missing classes to console crying friends and mourn together. My classmates have made a point of reminding each other how much we love and value each other. The sense of community is much needed right now, but this should not be a normal part of college. No one should have to mourn their friends at such a young age. But more importantly, no one should be dying at this age.

Reaching out for help is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when you’re surrounded by high-achieving peers who appear to be handling the same workload with grace. My personal journey to accepting help and starting therapy was a long one. When I broke down a couple weeks into my own 310 semester, my mom heavily encouraged me to seek counseling. 

My entire family goes to counseling and is very pro-therapy, but I could not bring myself to call the health center number. I kept making excuses about not having time. I couldn’t work fewer hours because then I couldn’t afford rent, and slacking on my 310 duties was not an option. 

I think part of it was simply fear of confirming that I was not OK. Everyone else was losing sleep and dedicating all their free time to 310, so I felt like I needed to tough it out and do the same. I told a close friend that I would reach out to the Engemann Student Health Center, but it took me almost an entire year to finally do it. The next semester I worked 30 hours a week on top of school and lost most weekends to film shoots, so I genuinely could not find time to see a therapist. But that’s when I needed help the most. 

Unfortunately, the “no time for therapy” mentality is common among my peers at SCA. 

Many of us are struggling with anxiety and depression, but the intense nature of our major keeps us from prioritizing our own mental health. We stack internships (mostly unpaid) on top of passion projects beyond our course loads, all for the sake of keeping up with our successful classmates and guaranteeing post-grad prospects. 

We cry privately and succeed publicly. We maintain these unsustainable schedules and don’t find time to fit in therapy when we so desperately need it. 

At this point, it’s up to the school to step in.

It’s clear that the Engemann can’t accommodate the volume of struggling students in SCA, but a change in the school’s competitive culture is long overdue. When students feel like they have to accept an internship and they have to work on as many projects as possible, they prioritize that over getting help. 

Perhaps introducing us to this school by telling us it’s the “first day of your career” and that the people sitting next to you will be “the ones who hire and fire you” doesn’t perpetuate the most healthy environment. 

It’s a competition from day one, and there’s no room for mistakes when we believe our careers are on the line. I know it’s not easy out in the real world, but SCA is a training facility. It’s meant to be a place to learn from mistakes, but that can’t happen when rigid deadlines and unhealthy dependency of teammates don’t allow for a margin of error. We can’t claim to be a “process over product” institution when we are all working intensely toward a product and gaining nothing from mistakes in the process phase.

I will be graduating at the end of this semester, and my only regret is not speaking up about this sooner. I would love to leave knowing that SCA is a safer environment for future generations of overworked film students. 

We may be hurting right now, but this is an opportunity to make meaningful changes to a program that has lost too many students. Cultivating a more supportive culture where students are able to make mistakes and able to step back when necessary is what so many students not only want, but need — and we need it right now.

Alyssa Callahan

School of Cinematic Arts

Class of 2020

This article was updated Jan. 31 at 8:10 p.m. A student’s name was removed after the Daily Trojan determined the mention did not align with the paper’s editorial practices.