By Mimmi Montgomery
It is now official who will represent the class of 2014 at the commencement ceremony on May 9. Film major Petter Holmsen was awarded this year’s Valedictorian, and Maria Simone Emdal Otterlei became this year’s Salutatorian. Holmsen and Otterlei are both International students from Norway and also represent the School of Visual and Performing Arts.
Beth Wilkow, associate dean of Enrollment Services and University registrar, who was on the Valedictorian interviewing committee, explained how two candidates with similar backgrounds were chosen: “The process doesn’t look at the similarities or differences amongst candidates; the high GPA is the criteria that identifies the students,” she said. “Additionally, the jury looks at personal essays, letters of recommendation from faculty members, and campus involvement and community service.”
Among the six candidates that were nominated for this year’s honor, all of which were Scandinavians, one student stood out from
the rest. Petter Holmsen, a 22-year-old from Oslo, Norway, became a Film major and Honors student at LIU Post during the Fall 2011 semester. At that point, he already ran his own film production company together with two friends, and had participated in several international film festivals. In 2012, he won the Scandinavian short film contest VideoMarathon, receiving a $20,000 prize.
Susan Zeig, LIU Post professor and director of Film, believes that the university made a “superb selection” for this year’s valedictorian. “Speaking on behalf of our whole Film faculty, it has been a special pleasure to have Petter in our program,” she said. “He has pushed himself and his fellow students to always strive for high quality work,” she added. “Although only 22, you often feel him to be a more mature person. The quality of his imagination, intellect, and humor has enriched my classes and my teaching.”
It surprised Holmsen to be selected for the honor, after doing what he calls a “very unconventional” valedictorian interview.
“I was running really late and came straight from Ceramics class, in clay-stained pants,” Holmsen said. He was also exhausted from little sleep during the pre-production of a feature film. “I probably hadn’t slept more than two hours a night for a week, and started making a lot of jokes during the interview,” he added. “I felt like ‘they won’t pick me anyway’ so I might as well try to have a good conversation.”
But the jury, which consists of one faculty member from each of Post’s colleges/schools, along with the Dean of Students and the Associate Dean of Enrollment Services, chose Holmsen. On Tuesday, March 25, the film student received an email saying he would be this year’s commencement speaker.
Holmsen is currently working on his speech, but struggles after having made a bet. “I told some friends that I was nominated
for Valedictorian and we made a joke that if I won, I would recite the speech from ‘Braveheart,’” he said. “I never thought that I would become Valedictorian, so we shook hands on it, too,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not sure I’ll entirely keep the promise, but I want to do something different.”
When asked why he believes he represents the Class of 2014, Holmsen referred to how he has already experienced many setbacks that students will face when leaving school and starting their careers. One setback occurred when the VideoMarathon short film contest required him to use the prize-money for a new short film, and he was assigned a Danish producer, who turned out to be a fraud. “Part of the prize-money enabled me to shoot my dream project, which is also my thesis at Post, about two brothers who meet for the first time in Iceland, confronting their relationship over their father’s death,” Holmsen said. “But the producer was a hoax, and I still haven’t seen any of that money. It was one of the worst things that has happened to me.”
The past fall was tough for Holmsen, who started preparing to face the faux-producer in court while keeping up with schoolwork and other film productions. But the 22-year-old says that he grew from the experience, and bouncing back is something he hopes can inspire in his fellow graduates.
Commitment is also important. “I watched ‘Braveheart’ at age 12 and since then I’ve known that I wanted to do film,” he said. “I’ve had my mind set on going to school in the U.S. since then, and realized early that if you want to make it, you have got to give it your all.”
Even though his time in America has had its ups and downs, he is grateful that he chose LIU Post. “I’ve had great professors and have been able to expand my knowledge by taking Ceramics and Theater classes, two skills that I can definitely incorporate into my filmmaking,” he said.
This summer, he will expand his skillset further, having accepted a position at a funeral home in Norway. “The job is partly about earning some money, but mostly about doing research on a fascinating profession for upcoming projects,” he said. “But I’ll hopefully be back in the U.S. this fall, most likely in Los Angeles, to continue making film.”
This year’s Salutatorian, Maria Simone Emdal Otterlei, on the contrary to Holmsen, grew up in Alesund, a Norwegian city with just 45,000 citizens. She always had big dreams, and moved to New York to pursue a career in broadcasting. In LIU Post’s Broadcasting program, she has been involved with Post’s television station (PTV) and the school’s radio station (WCWP). She is the graphic designer of the Vikings Club, and an intern at NBC Universal.
The Broadcasting faculty is very satisfied with Otterlei’s contributions to the program. “The qualities that make Maria a good salutatorian are hard work, a good attitude, and the ability to focus on what is most important in her education,” said Jean Carlomusto, Media Arts professor and director of LIU Post’s Television Center. “She has maintained an excellent GPA while creating a successful internship in the professional world,” she added.
Barbara Fowles, chair of the Media Arts department and Professor in Electronic Media, explained that it is something of a triumph when a student majoring in the arts receives honors. “It shows that the university community recognizes that accomplishment in the arts has equal value to accomplishment in the Liberal Arts, Science, Business, and the like,” she said.
Maria was surprised to find out she had been selected as the spring’s Salutatorian. “I’m not in the Honors program, and it’s easy to feel invisible sometimes when just working and working in the editing lab, so I am really glad that they’ve recognized my potential,” she said.
During the committee interview, Otterlei brought up social injustice issues, and shared personal experiences that might inspire her fellow graduates. “My first time in the U.S. was filled with taking in all the new impressions, and I got too influenced by what new friends, the media, and school told me,” she said. “I felt an incredible pressure to work harder, eat less, and exercise more and it got to the point where I was on the brink of developing an eating disorder,” she added. “But with friends, school, and my internship, I got more confident and brought myself out of the vicious circle, and today I feel like I really know myself.”
Dedication is another strength that Otterlei hopes can inspire fellow graduates. “I have not just prioritized school work, but have also been involved in a club, worked for the school’s TV and radio stations, and had my internship at NBC,” she said. “It takes more than just doing one thing.”
Her final internship date is approaching but she hopes to get a job in the U.S., and would prefer working for a big network. “My future dream is to become a foreign correspondent, but I know there is a long road to get there so I’ll just try to get as much experience as possible on my way.”