Alex Boylan, Producer of The College Tour
Postcards Magazine I December 31, 2021
Ever wonder what college life is like at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville (or what it is like at any university, for that matter)? Now, anyone can experience a virtual college visit and hear about campus life directly from college students – including Sam Houston State University (SHSU) students.
Created by reality television contestant, TV show host and producer Alex Boylan, The College Tour is a streaming series designed to help prospective students with the daunting task of choosing the college or university that is right for them.
“Our mission is to tell real stories, through real students,” explained Boylan. “I knew from the get-go that I wanted a certain format and a diversified portfolio of schools from big universities to smaller state schools.”
In the season 2 episode, ten SHSU students share their college experience and show what life is like to be a Bearkat. This includes a glimpse into the academic life, research opportunities, student life, athletics and friendships of SHSU students.
The approximately 40-minute show highlights a variety of colleges located on the main campus in Huntsville, along with Conroe and The Woodlands. The James & Nancy Gaertner Performing Arts Center is described as a world class academic and performing center; the Criminal Justice Center is highlighted along with the Veterans Resource Center on campus; the Dan Rather Communications Building; and the College of Nursing in The Woodlands are all spotlighted with personal stories from students in each college. The students’ love, admiration and respect for SHSU and its faculty is evident in each segment.
Season 2 aired November 8th and can still be viewed on any of the available platforms. Season three will begin airing on Amazon in early 2022.
Well, let’s start with the most obvious question. How did you come up with this original idea?
Sometimes great TV shows come from simple places. Approximately two years ago, my niece was a junior in high school trying to figure out where she wanted to go to college. She is from a small town in Wisconsin, and my older sister granted her one college trip, so she decided to come see me in Venice, California. As the uncle guiding my niece on this journey, it was so fun! I took her to UCLA and all the schools around the Los Angeles area. During that trip, she said, ‘I also want to check out some schools in Texas, New York, Florida, and other places around the country.’
I could hear my older sister quickly say, ‘What do you think I’m made of money? She just got a trip to Los Angeles.’ Now, the average cost of a college trip outside of someone’s hometown is $2,500. So that wasn’t in the cards. Not long after that, COVID hit, and the country got shut down, so I started helping my niece navigate this process online. I quickly realized this was a huge challenge for me to try to find the right place for my niece. Every school has their own marketing approach, their own story, some have very high-end commercials – every school does their own thing. Being an outsider, trying to do this with my niece was very hard. That’s really where the lightbulb went off – higher education needs its own television series.
So, the journey began. The journey has led Boylan (and the approximately 50+ production team) to universities and colleges around the country, including the Lone Star State. Texas schools included thus far have been Baylor University, Texas Christian University, and the Piney Woods’ own SHSU in Huntsville (all Season 2). The University of North Texas will be featured in Season 3, and The University of Texas at Austin and St. Edwards University in Austin will be included in Season 4.
University life is about finding your passion, your people, and learning who you are and your place in the world. I want students to know there is always a way to make it to college.
How does the selection process work for the schools?
We have a partnership team, and we are constantly looking for great universities. For us, the biggest thing right now is making sure we have a diversified series for the audience. If you want to be an engineer and work in aerospace at NASA, Florida Tech might be a great fit for you. If you want to go to an awesome state university, Sam Houston State is an awesome opportunity, and you’re right outside of Houston. We really just want to go big, small, medium across the country.
What made you choose SHSU for a spotlight?
There are so many awesome things about Sam Houston University. The school is very historic, 140 years old, and there’s something about the motto. That motto penetrates throughout the university–through its student body, its faculty, and alumni. “The measure of a Life is its Service.” – I think that’s the easiest way to sum that up. It’s a great institution, great location, and it was a joy. The students were awesome!
There are some really unique aspects to that university.
What are some of those unique aspects that stood out to you while filming?
There are a lot of really amazing pieces in the forensic science program; it is top notch. That’s not something every university has. In the episode, forensic science doctoral student Ryan Gutierrez shares the cutting-edge research and technology he uses every day, which is getting national attention. I recall that Gutierrez said, ‘My research focuses on improving DNA recovery from challenging samples, particularly those that crime labs have trouble with. I’m able to make an impact on a field I’m passionate about.’
The College of Osteopathic Medicine was also rather impressive. The hands-on learning and hands-on experience inside their new facility is what university life is all about.
You walk in there and feel like you’re in an actual doctor’s office or a live hospital. It is real-life simulation every minute of every day. It was as if I was filming in a real hospital with how everyone was handling every situation. They take it very seriously, and I think that hands-on experience is going to translate into great doctors.
Another thing that stood out for me was the history connected to the university. Everywhere I went, I was asking questions, because there’s just so much history there. That was just a highlight for me and something really special.
Also, another highlight of the university is that being an hour north of Houston is a huge advantage. You get the isolated university experience, but you’re not far from a big city where there are internships and big opportunities.
What makes The College Tour different from just going online and looking at college websites or the high-end commercials you mentioned earlier?
I knew from the get-go that we wanted to create a series which had a format the audience recognized and knew what they were going to get. If you watch The College Tour, you know what the format is going to look like, and you get a real authentic look at the school, regardless of where it’s located. It has been so important to us to tell that authentic story through real current students, and that’s what we’re most proud of. You’re going to get to know the students, the campus, and hear real stories. Hopefully, it will help students find their vibe, their tribe, and what’s the right location for them. These are all variables that high school students and their parents are trying to figure out what’s best. We now have this great television series on many platforms, all for free, to help students and their parents find the right fit. We want them to see places of higher institution outside their hometown. Some kids are going to go far away for college, and some are going to go right next door, but we want to tell as many stories as possible about higher education across the country.
Why do you think it is important to have college students share their story and talk about the school?
What is really cool is that we are getting college students to talk to high school students. That doesn’t happen. High school students look up to college students; they want to be college students, but there’s a divide–and we’re finally bridging that gap. Instead of someone’s mom, some professor or guidance counselor, now it’s the student who is only three years ahead of them saying, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do here, and maybe it will be a good fit for you, too.’ How powerful is that?
I think the show helps tell students why they need to go to college, and there’s always a way to get to college. In college, you are going to grow, think about things, and be exposed to things you never knew about, have relationships that last a lifetime, and have resources you will never have in the real world. I say this a lot to high school students, ‘These four years you can never get back, and the moment you graduate college – or decide not to go to college – you’re in the real world with the rest of us and that’s a really tough place to be. So, take this time to find your passion, find your purpose, and find your people.’
So, how do you put this series together, and how long does it take to produce?
This really becomes a co-production with the university. We really become one team and work together as a family in order to make an episode.
There are two months of hard work done before we ever step foot on a campus. We work with the university team, and we start with the basic conversations of what are we going to talk about on the show, what makes the university tick, what are the highlights, and what does the world need to know about this school.
Then casting becomes key. We look for students who have genuine, authentic stories that co-align with the topics we’re going to talk about. Once we have the topics and students locked in, we focus on the student’s unique story. The first draft of their story is written by the student, not us. We need to know their story and what it is about the school’s program that has changed their life. So, when you’re listening to the students on the show, it’s not complicated; it’s just their story.
Then we shoot film on campus for a week, and we’re jamming. By the time we come on location to film, we are all seeing the same movie in our head. On location is the most fun for us and the university. We have very talented directors who have worked on the biggest shows in the world, so they know what to do. We keep a small crew and a small footprint in the field.
From there, we wrap the week, and there’s about two months of post-production to put the show together.
So, what ever happened to your niece? Did she use The College Tour to decide on a school?
That is a great question. She watched the episode we did on Arizona State University. On part of the episode, they talked about this Starbucks scholarship program at ASU. My niece was like ‘I work at Starbucks’ and checked into it. Then, boom–she had a full ride to ASU with this Starbucks scholarship she learned about from The College Tour.
That’s amazing. Do all the schools talk about scholarship or financial aid opportunities?
Not typically, but we do talk about programs, so it all depends on the school. That particular episode featured a student who wouldn’t have been going to ASU if it wasn’t for this Starbucks program and how it changed her life.
Where can a person find and view The College Tour?
We are on multiple platforms. The segments can be viewed online at www.collegetour.com, and the app may also be downloaded on IOS or Android phones. The show is also streamed on The College Tour Channel for free on television platforms around the world, including: Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Android TV, and on smart TVs from manufacturers such as LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Phillips, Sharp and other TCL Android-driven smart televisions. The series also airs on ImdbTV & Amazon Prime.
We also work with about 60,000 high school college counselors across the country, and every episode gets distributed to that group of people, which is then distributed to their students. Our goal is to tell the stories of these institutions to high school students around the world, for free.
Tell us a little about yourself? How did you get into television?
My first TV experience was being part of the winning team on The Amazing Race with my buddy Chris Luca, whom I have known since kindergarten. That is where my life changed. I saw the world of television production for the first time, and I was floored. I knew I was going to be a travel producer. I loved every second of it. Afterwards, I got an opportunity to work for a small production company in Florida and started hosting shows, then producing shows for them. Then I created and hosted Around the World for Free. It was the first online, interactive experience show that we did with the CBS network, and that turned into a little franchise. That catapulted my career, and I became known as this travel interactive specialist, which has definitely helped out with The College Tour. I learned to take a very small crew into the world and come back with a story.
Have you always liked to travel?
Before I was on The Amazing Race, I went to Jackson University in Jacksonville, Florida and was an International Business major. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the degree, but I liked to travel. I knew that whatever I did, I wanted to live with passion and purpose. My father was a pastor and lived with so much passion, and he instilled that in us at an early age. I believe you only live once, so might as well make it awesome. I want to be excited every day when I wake up, be passionate, be driven, have some purpose, and leave the planet better than when I had it.
For a blue-collar kid from the north shore of Boston, Massachusetts, you’ve had a pretty amazing life. Are there any experiences you feel helped shape who you are and your career?
It has been an awesome ride. I had great parents who exposed me to the world and definitely raised me in a way that I thought I could do anything.
In high school, I was on a semi-pro soccer team and spent a year living in Brazil during my junior year. Soccer was a big part of my life when I was young.
When I was a kid, my parents took my siblings and I on an amazing trip that has really helped me in life. It was the early 90s, and the last year all my siblings and I were going to be under one roof. I have two older siblings and a younger one. It was my freshman year of high school, and my parents pulled us out of school to spend three months together, backpacking across Europe as missionaries. We started in Ishmire, Turkey and backpacked through Turkey, Greece, down southern Europe, and ended up in Scotland. I’m talking about air B&B before it was a ‘thing,’ buses, trains, and couch surfing. I was at a really impressionable age, and the world was a lot bigger back then. My parents gave me experiences like this that shaped me into the human I am today. They didn’t have to, and they didn’t necessarily have the money to do so, but they found a way because they felt it was that important.
I tell my parents all the time, ‘Isn’t it interesting what I’ve gone on to do – tell stories from every corner of the world.’
Regardless of where his journey leads him, Boylan’s philosophy is simple:
We are all born with a different size backpack; it’s what we do with that backpack on that matters. When looking back, I believe time is our greatest asset. Time can’t be bought, time can’t be stopped, and time spent following your passion or your purpose is ‘time’ you will never get back. That, I believe, is the synopsis of how I try to live life. And a big reason why we work so hard on The College Tour. There is so much passion and purpose behind this TV series.
Hailing from the small West Texas town of Paducah, Kensley Grant was one of the students spotlighted on The College Tour episode featuring SHSU. A second-year osteopathic medical student, Grant was elated to share his experience as a Bearkat and SHSU’s new state of the art Osteopathic Medical School.
“The way the world is moving, we rely pretty heavily on technology for information. With people looking for more and more avenues of education, I think it’s a really nice way to express things about your school in which you’re passionate,” says Grant. “If it had been around when I was looking for schools – especially medical programs – I would have used it. It shows more than what a webpage and a page of text can.”
Located in Conroe, Texas SHSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is the university’s eighth college and only the third college of osteopathic medicine in Texas. According to SHSU, its mission is to develop osteopathic physicians, grounded in osteopathic principles, who will serve the healthcare needs of rural and underserved Texans. The facility serves as an all-inclusive campus complete with lecture halls, research and anatomy labs, library, full mock hospital suite with an emergency room and surgical suites, and a mock clinic with actors who have ailments which students diagnose and treat. Students are even provided simulated patient mannequins that have full mobility and allow faculty members to set up different scenarios for the students.
“Their eyes move, you can take a pulse, hear respiration, and they are even hooked up to telemetry machines,” explained Grant. “We are trained exactly the same way as an M.D. (medical doctor), have all the same basic and advanced science classes, except we’re also trained in manipulative medicine,” said Grant. “We practice hands-on patient care where we are manipulating different joints or bones to help muscular skeletal pain or what-have-you.”
Along with the basic body systems, Grant says they are trained in osteopathic medicine to look further into a patient’s health and consider their mind, body, and mental health. Factors such as nutrition and stress are even considered when looking at a patient through the osteopathic lens.
“We use a more multi-faceted approach with our patients,” said Grant.
After getting his undergraduate degree from The University of North Texas in Denton, Grant made his way to Huntsville and SHSU so he could train specifically to help the rural communities.
“My hometown taught me so much about life in general and made me want to focus on rural medicine. My wife and I grew up in that area and like the small-town vibe. We want to raise a family in a smaller rural setting,” said Grant. “Plus, I’ve seen how underserved that population is healthcare wise, and there is such a need for more healthcare workers, not just physicians.”
Grant says the school’s mission and focus on rural medicine is part of what brought him to SHSU, along with the school’s dedication to primary care practices, developing compassionate physicians with cultural diversity awareness, and providing the training needed for rural communities.
“To be in rural medicine, you must be well versed in multiple areas, because you might be the only doctor that patient sees and not have the option to refer them to a specialist,” explains Grant. “Even if you can, there’s no guarantee they will go see the specialist, if they are two or three hours away.”
Grant is active in political advocacy for rural healthcare and has served for the last two years as student body president for the College of Medicine Student Council.
Grant and other students from the college travel to the Salvation Army in Conroe once a month to give basic health care attention to anyone in need. They are accompanied by faculty members who are licensed physicians.
Life may have started in Northern California for this Bearkat, but her heart is in Texas. As a first-generation college student and an ag teacher hopeful, Courtney Herrera couldn’t wait to get to Texas after graduating high school. Herrera also shared her story on The College Tour, representing the College of Agriculture and her experience working on Gibbs Ranch. Deeded to SHSU in 1993, it is an 1800-acre working ranch with cattle and goats—and, for many ag students, it is a second home.
With a major in interdisciplinary agriculture and a minor in secondary education, Herrera hopes to share her agricultural knowledge and experiences with young minds someday.
“Agriculture has always been near and dear to my heart,” said Herrera. “My favorite memories as a young child are from helping out on the ranch back home. In high school, I was active in FFA, showed livestock, and earned the highest FFA degree possible – the American degree.”
In the future, she hopes her varied experience in agriculture can help find common ground between Texas and her home state of California.
“While political views between California and Texas may be different, they are very similar in the ag sector. My thought was that if I can thrive in my community back home, it would be great to experience another form of agriculture. Then if I do go home, I can bring that aspect to bridge the two sides,” said Herrera. “Even though the states have two different atmospheres, we are actually all together when it comes to the industry.”
Along with a basic love for agriculture, Herrera loves SHSU’s dedication to using new innovative technology to get young people more involved in the industry and the personal connection she has with students and faculty.
“Everyone here is so supportive–they won’t let you quit if you get discouraged, but rather tell you ‘keep going’,” said Herrera. “I gained a second family here at SHSU.”