With support, recent alums see success in arts

by Aimee Sung | 7/10/14 6:30pm

Michael Odokara-Okigbo ’12 was in the process of writing a song when he received a call informing him that he would play a role in the upcoming film “Pitch Perfect 2” (2015). He had just stepped into the patio, he said, when he picked up his phone.

Like Odokara-Okigbo, recent graduates Dan Susman ’10, whose Kickstarter campaign will help his documentary “Growing Cities” (2013) gain a wider audience and Divyanka Sharma ’13, who saw her prose published this spring in a journal focused on cultural diversity, have seen success in the arts. This week, The Dartmouth sat down with the three alumni to talk about their recent work, their undergraduate experiences at the College and their plans for the future.

Odokara-Okigbo, a former history major and member of the Dartmouth Aires, has launched a singing career under the name “Michael O” since graduation. Last fall, he released an EP entitled “In the Beginning,” which charted among the overall top 200 albums on iTunes and spent time in the top 10 on the narrower Rhythm and Blues and Soul charts, which feature albums only from those genres.

“It’s a small role, but it relates to my time at Dartmouth,” he said of his part in the upcoming “Pitch Perfect” (2012) sequel. Odokara-Okigbo noted that he could provide no details about the role, but did say that the casting process for the movie was “low-key.”

Odokara-Okigbo credits his a capella experience as a member of the Aires, and his participation in “The Sing-Off,” a group a capella contest that has appeared for four seasons on NBC, with helping him realize his passion for music. Currently, he is preparing music for his upcoming album, scheduled to be released next year, alongside his role in “Pitch Perfect 2.”

“I miss Dartmouth, and I can’t wait to go back and perform one day,” he said.

Susman, a filmmaker who has focused on urban farming through his documentary “Growing Cities,” recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to bring the film to PBS in the fall. The campaign raised its initial goal of $30,000 on July 8, but Susman and his collaborator Andrew Monbouquette have raised their target to $35,000. If the new goal is reached, they would be able to show the film on 95 percent of all PBS stations.

Susman said that both current students and alumni supported the campaign. He has also received past financial support from the film and media studies department’s Blair Watson Award, a Dartmouth General Fellowship and the environmental studies program.

“We feel really blessed to have Dartmouth behind us,” Susman said.

A former environmental studies and biology major, Susman developed the idea for the documentary during the fall-winter interim of his senior year, when he decided to collaborate with Monbouquette, a friend from his hometown in Nebraska. The film has taken them across the country, Susman said, including one unforgettable trip to Our School at Blair Grocery, a sustainability education center in New Orleans.

“The place was hit hard by Katrina — 90 percent of the houses were unoccupied, and gang violence was rampant,” Susman said. “It was really cool to see how urban farming was impacting the community. Kids who were carrying guns were now picking arugula.”

“Growing Cities” has already been selected or screened at 22 film festivals, including the Portland Film Festival and the Moscow International Environmental Film Festival. In addition to airing the documentary on PBS, Susman hopes to take “Growing Cities” to more community screenings and to make it available on Netflix and Hulu, he said.

In contrast to Susman and Odokara-Okigbo, Sharma has primarily pursued an opportunity outside of the arts following graduation, working as an analyst for Locus Analytics in New York City. However, the former English major with a concentration in creative writing has not forgotten her love of prose. This spring, her short work “To Benares” was published in the journal “Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity.”

Sharma said that she wrote “To Benares” in a creative writing course with the intention of including it in her senior thesis, though it was eventually not included.

Publication came as a surprise, she said, as she had never submitted the piece to the journal. Sharma said she has yet to find out who submitted her work. She expressed gratitude to her creative writing professors, including english professor Thomas O’Malley, who she said she suspects sent in “To Benares” on her behalf.

“I really gained a lot from Professor O’Malley and the other students in the class who helped me polish the piece,” she said. “Without that, I don’t think it would have been a piece worth publishing.”

With a full-time job as an analyst, Sharma said she often has to relegate her writing to weekends. However, her post-Dartmouth life helps her gain “a different perspective” on her work, she said.

“I don’t think my style has changed,” Sharma said. “But I do think the content is different just because you are exposed to the outside world and you can bring that into your work.”

Josh Koenig contributed reporting.