Penn State alumna reflects on how geography influences her filmmaking

Angela M. Rogers
October 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you have viewed short documentary films about the 19th amendment on The New York Times website or national monuments on The Washington Post website this year, you have seen the work of Penn State alumna Megan Ruffe, a Schreyer Scholar who graduated in 2013, earning degrees in film production and geography.

Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Ruffe is a co-producer at Florentine Films, Ken Burns’ documentary company.

“I am currently working on an upcoming five-part series on the American Revolution,” Ruffe said. “I also produce and edit a web series for Florentine called 'UNUM Shorts.' We use scenes from Florentine's archive to provide historical context to current events. We released the first installment on The New York Times in January and the most recent was published on The Washington Post in June.”

Ruffe’s degrees have complemented one another.

“At Penn State, I studied human geography and film production with the hopes of someday combining the two,” Ruffe said. “I am absolutely using the skills I learned in my human geography classes. In my opinion, our lives are inherently spatial; it’s hard to tell a story that doesn’t somehow involve geography.”

Ruffe said that for the latest short she produced for the UNUM web series about the role of monuments in our society, “I was recalling Dr. Dowler's classes where we’d discuss how we infuse our landscapes with meaning and who has — and has not — historically been afforded that opportunity.”

For the Vietnam War series, Ruffe oversaw the production of 50 animated maps. She said the physical geography and larger geopolitical context were important to understanding that conflict.

“My side project, the short film I am directing and producing on my own, is entirely about ideas I learned in my human geography classes,” Ruffe said. “It's about a town that was built by a steel mill for its employees, and when the mill left in the 1980s, the town was left without its main economic driver. It’s a story about community, economics and place.”

In addition to what she studied at Penn State, Ruffe said she continues to learn on the job.

“A key lesson is being resourceful,” Ruffe said. “As a student, I thought I had to master certain technical skills in order to get a job, but I’ve realized that being able to look things up or learn something from a YouTube video will get you surprisingly far.”

During her senior year, Ruffe said she felt overwhelmed thinking about life after college.

“I remember having a hard time identifying my ‘dream job.’ I was passionate about so many things, and it felt impossible to pick just one. One of my film professors told me to try picking just one for the exercise of having a clear goal, while knowing it didn’t need to be the one and only thing I did in my life. And, that was really helpful.”

When she really started mapping it out, Ruffe found that she did have an order to the things she was interested in.

“I wanted to try documentary editing first, and when I graduated, that’s what I told people I wanted to do,” Ruffe said. “It helped me make connections because when I met people, they knew how they could help, which is ultimately how I got my internship. Someone knew someone who worked for Florentine, and they connected me.”

Ruffe started an internship at Florentine the fall after she graduated from Penn State.

“They had just started editing a 10-part series on the Vietnam War and were looking for an apprentice editor to join them. It was very good timing,” she said.

“I remember listening to successful alumni who’d recap their careers, and it would be so linear and make so much sense,” said Ruffe. “I’ve realized now that a lot of that is hindsight. When they look back and try to tell the story, it makes it seem like it was all very clear, but in reality, there was a lot of uncertainty along the way."

Ruffe said based on her experience, networking is important for career development.

“Start reaching out to people, and when you do, have a reason why you’re interested in hearing from them. Most people want to help when they can, so they’ll think of who they can connect you with.”

“I’m really grateful for Penn State’s Department of Geography  and the people I met there,” Ruffe said, adding that the short film she is directing and producing now “feels like an extension of my geography degree and almost like a second thesis. I’m eager to share it when it’s finished.”

Ruffe's work can be viewed at www.meganruffe.com/.

  • Megan Ruffe

    Megan Ruffe, a Schreyer Scholar who graduated in 2013, earned degrees in film production and geography.

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    IMAGE: Megan Ruffe

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Last Updated November 11, 2020