Skip to main content

Student volunteers get front-row and behind-the-scenes access to SXSW

IUPUI students in front of a SXSW 2023 sign after picking up their badges.
Credit: Photo provided by Erica Shonkwiler

The South by Southwest Festival is one of the largest festivals in the world, and IUPUI students had front-row seats and even backstage passes to some of the best films, music and technology, as well as access to the people who make it all happen.

As part of a class led by Erica Shonkwiler, a professor with the School of Health and Human Sciences, 11 students took a trip to Austin, Texas, over spring break to volunteer at SXSW.

“They got to pick the team they got to work on,” Shonkwiler said. “We had students that chose the music stage crew. We had one student that was in a very special group of engineers; she’s a sound engineering student at IUPUI, and she actually ran the sound boards.”

No matter which group students were working in, they were right there with some of the biggest names in music and Hollywood. Including Kerry Washington, Matt Damon, and Michael J. Fox, the stars were there along with more than 150,000 attendees.

It was a huge opportunity not only for celebrity sightings, but for students to see what it really takes to put together an event of this magnitude. Students were working in registration, managing customer service, setting up stage equipment and more to make all the conference sessions and performances happen.

It also offered many opportunities to network. Those connections opened up even more doors for students like Jojo Hankerson, a Tourism, Conventions, and Event Management major in the School of Health and Human Sciences, who was working in the music portion of the festival. 

“Even on my first session shift I was meeting people, and it just felt like a rush,” Hankerson said. “All the stars would meet me. They were asking me questions and, being in charge of the green room, I had direct access to the guest speakers, and that’s how I got my internship with Indy 500.”

Each student was able to tailor their experience to their interests and career goals. Laura Ryle, a senior majoring in communication studies at the School of Liberal Arts, worked in the conferences, managing the technology for speakers during the sessions.

“My favorite part of SXSW was getting to network with individuals from prominent companies, such as Meta, Pinterest and CNN, and hear their insight on what it is like working for a well-respected company, as well as get advice on what industries to pursue jobs in,” Ryle said.

When they weren’t working their busy schedules, there was time for them to explore Austin and enjoy the festival. As volunteers, they received the top-level platinum badges that gave them priority entry to speeches, concerts and film screenings. Many of them got to see the debut of “Air,” a biopic about the origin of Michael Jordan’s basketball sneakers, and a Q&A with actors Viola Davis, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Tucker.

“We really wanted them to get the 360 experience of working the event but also as the attendee, so that they could really see the event from all angles,” Shonkwiler said.

“I think to fully develop our students and make them ready to be successful upon graduation, we have to get them out in it. They have to go work at events and get their hands dirty, because there’s problem-solving during the chaos that happens at an actual event that we can prepare them for to some degree in the classroom, but seeing it and being there and being resourceful in the moment is best taught in the field.”

Because of this year’s success, Shonkwiler said the trip will be available for students again next year, and the sky’s the limit. The course, a high-level elective called Special Topics in Tourism, is open to all majors, and she hopes more students will be able to attend and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s just magical, honestly,” Hankerson said. “You’re this close to people in the industry and like you’re almost there; you just have to keep going. I’m just so grateful to experience that, and I’m never going to take this for granted.”

Credit: Photo provided by Erica Shonkwiler

Explore more JagNews