O Pioneer!

How did communications major Jill Van Lokeren- Kuenstler '90 snag her dream job as a senior supervising producer for Oprah? It all started about 20 years ago, when an exchange program landed her at San Diego State her junior year.

A: While I was in San Diego, I went to Los Angeles quite often. Walking the streets of LA, you can get free tickets to shows. I saw "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. I saw "The Pat Sajak Show." I saw all these people running around, the lights, cameras, producers. I remember feeling, "That's what I want to do." I went back to UNH and got an internship at Sean Tracey Associates in Portsmouth. We made television commercials for things like Easy-Off oven cleaner and the New Hampshire Lottery. I loved it. When I was about to graduate, a sorority sister had gotten an internship at Sally Jessy Raphael. I was like, "I want to do that, too." The day after I graduated, my little brother dropped me off in New York City. I ended up living there for six years and made my way up the ladder at Sally Jessy Raphael, then Maury Povich.

Q: Was there one class at UNH that turned out to be particularly useful?

A: Candy Cole-Paris '83G taught sociology, and I remember she shared her life story with us. She had a lot of medical problems, marriage problems. By the time she told us her story, she'd worked through it. She was teaching and all that. But in a way her life was like a talk show. She was an amazing teacher, really open and personable. Her story definitely had an impact on me. And I wonder if that was the beginning of me wanting to tell people's stories.

Q: What do you do for Oprah?

A: I supervise three different producers and their teams--selecting the topic, approving the scripts. It's very creative, trying to figure out who would be the best guest, what is their story, why should we tell it, who would benefit, how would they benefit. Is it going to make a difference in the world? My favorite stories are the ones where somebody watches and says, "I never thought of it that way," or learns about someone they might not come across in everyday life and maybe appreciates them, gains respect for them. I love people who make a difference--the mom from the Midwest who ends up in Africa rescuing child slaves.

Q: How do you get ahead in this business?

A: I always say, before I was married, that I was a great first date. Because I can interview anybody. I love hearing people's stories. I have a natural curiosity, which certainly helps. I have a mother who told me I could do anything. I always believed her. People think it's so intimidating, like, how can you get a job at "The Oprah Winfrey Show," it's so hard. I've worked my way up. I've worked really hard. You would never know if you could get a job here if you didn't try. A lot of people are afraid to try, be it working for Oprah or Merrill Lynch or whatever. A lot of people feel like it's out of reach, but it's really not. Oprah has to have employees. Why can't it be me?

Rebecca Rule '76, '79G is an author, storyteller, story gatherer and humorist.