Colum Alum Spotlight: Alumnae Recommendations

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked three alumnae to share their success stories and recommend artistic projects created by women.  

Mercedes Cooper MFA ’08


During her graduate thesis film project at Columbia College Chicago, Mercedes Cooper made an important discovery: she was more excited to create movie posters and press kits than to edit her actual film. “That was a good teaching moment for me,” she says. “That was my jumping point into film marketing.”

Cooper found a way to spin her love of film into the world of marketing. Today, she’s marketing director for filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s film distribution, ARRAY.

Array spotlights independent films by women and people of color. As marketing director, Cooper has promoted films like Middle of Nowhere (winner of Sundance’s 2012 Best Director award), which tells the story of a woman separating from her incarcerated husband. In her role, she does “a little bit of everything”: running the website, designing posters and promo graphics, managing social media, and coordinating membership and volunteers. “We try to find those small gems that wouldn’t otherwise have theatrical distribution or even make it to Netflix,” she says. “We find those gems and we try to give them a platform through our supporters and our indie film lovers.”

Cooper recommends Namour by Heidi Saman, a film about a post-grad valet driver struggling with life in LA that ARRAY released via Netflix on March 15. 

“It follows an era of a family struggling with their role in society as immigrants, but also as Americans. How they’re seen, how they move through the world. With everything going on in politics right now, it’s definitely relevant, and it’s also entertaining.”


Maria Layus ’02


In her role as Senior Writer and Producer at Cartoon Network Latin America, Maria Layus creates on-air promotions and digital content for the station’s Brazilian, Mexican and Latin American feeds—working within Cartoon Network’s global brand while also personalizing content to feel more local. She says the Cartoon Network brand is about having fun. “We’re not teachers, we’re not babysitters,” she says. “It’s about being kids.” 

Layus studied Animation for a year at Columbia before switching to Film + Video. As an international student who grew up in Belgium and spent time in Brazil, Layus felt welcomed by Columbia’s artistic community. The collaboration skills she picked up working on short films carry over to her job today. “In the corporate world, being able to relate to everyone, listen to different points of view and sustain positive relationships with people is so important,” she says.

Some of her favorite Cartoon Network shows are Adventure Time and Steven Universe—both fantasy shows that tackle delicate themes about friendship and family.

Layus recommends Persepolis by Marjane Sartrapi, a graphic memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

“A lot of people talk about what happened in Iran, but not everybody knows how it used to be and all the changes that it went through. Persepolis gives you that point of view in a really artistic and accessible way. She just tells the story with such authenticity and sincerity and honesty.”


Cheryl Wilson Batts ’82


“From 1863 until the 1960s, the Hot Springs African American community was the place to go,” says Cheryl Wilson-Batts of her Arkansas hometown, a thriving black community where she grew up surrounded by black doctors, dentists and lawyers. Her family moved when she was 11, and she didn’t return to Hot Springs until she was an adult. By then, the town had changed. 

Through her grassroots organization, People Helping Others Excel by Example (P.H.O.E.B.E.), Wilson-Batts began to preserve Hot Springs’ local history on film and in photographs. The program trains middle school youth to interview local senior citizens, collecting firsthand accounts from people who remember the town at its height.

Wilson-Batts says her Columbia training in media management, theatre and theatre production gave her the tools and confidence to capture Hot Springs through oral histories and film clips. “The [Columbia] instructors helped me discover a stronger “me” who was willing to move outside the boxes so often prescribed for women, ethnic minorities, and yes, even for southerners,” she says.

P.H.O.E.B.E.’s current fundraising efforts aim to transform the historic John Lee Webb home into a photo gallery, Museum of Historic Archives and Clearinghouse, and Organizational headquarters.

Wilson-Batts recommends Cotton Field of Dreams by Janis F. Kearney, a memoir tracing the author’s life from the cotton fields of Lincoln County, Arkansas to Washington D.C. and her job as the diarist for President Bill Clinton.

“Janis came from a family with over 17 other siblings. Her parents were sharecroppers, and they encouraged education. All of her siblings received a college education. That, to me, is telling our youth that they can do something. They can be somebody.”


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