Interview with Trence Gillem '22 Performing and Media Arts major

" really gave me a sense of understanding of...who I am and the person that I could possibly become." - Trence Wilson-Gillem '22

In this video, Trence Wilson-Gillem '22 shares his Cornell journey, from entering the university as a member of the Cornell wrestling team to considering dropping out after two years of exploring classes and finally graduating as a Performing and Media Arts major.


My name is Trence Gillem. I'm from San Diego, California. In high school, I was a wrestler, I actually became the first wrestling state champion in my high school's history. 

I was actually committed to go to a different school. I was going to go to Grand Canyon University. 

I committed there my junior year, but after I won the state title my senior year, they canceled their wrestling program the next day. 

And Cornell was one of the first schools who reached out to me. And you know they took me out on a visit, and I came to the campus, and I loved it. 

And I loved the team and everything. And you know, I just figured that Cornell was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like me. 

So I just couldn't pass it up. So I absolutely decided that I had to come here. I came out during the summer, and you know, I spent some time training with my teammates and working and stuff like that. And I enjoyed it. 

But you know, once the school year started around, I found myself having a hard time with classes and everything. 

And trying to balance wrestling and doing my classes, and I kind of started falling behind, and you know I was having a hard time at Cornell, honestly. 

My first, you know, year and two years actually battling depression and anxiety and just being in a completely new environment, like alone away from my family, it was kind of hard. 

So I was taking a bunch of classes that, you know, I came in thinking I was going to be a computer science major with no computer science background at all. 

And once I got into python, I was like, yeah, this is not for me. And so, over those two years, I was just taking a bunch of random classes that didn't really seem like I was leading. 

Kind of trying to figure things out. But I was felt like I was making wrong decision after wrong decision, and you know, I just had to end up taking a break there. 

And I just bought a plane ticket and just went home in the middle of the semester, um didn't really tell any of my friends and any of my teammates or anything like that. 

I definitely regret doing it that way um, but as soon as I had touched down in San Diego, I realized how big of a mistake that I'd made. You know, I'm like, I'm back here where I started. Like, what am I doing now? 

My good friend Malik he, you know, I told him about my plans because the last time he was one of my close friends that I mentioned earlier. 

He's like one of my best friends that I met here. He sat me down; he's like, look man, you know you've had all these issues, you've had all these problems, but you haven't been working as hard as you know you could.

And you know, it just kind of shocked me because no one had really told me that before and it was definitely something that I needed to hear. 

And I'm super thankful that he did that because, you know, it just kind of gave me another bit of motivation to, you know, keep on pushing and keep going forward. 

And so we, he sat me down, he said, "Look, okay, you don't like econ, you don't like computer science," whatever, so we just went on the arts and sciences website and just scrolled through the majors and everything. 

And then I saw Performing Media Arts. And I was like, wait a minute, like this is a major at Cornell? 

And it was something I never had heard about before. And you know, growing up, I had always wanted to be an actor. 

My family, we spent a lot of time when we did our family bonding on like Sundays and everything. We'd always watch a movie, and we had a huge DVD collection. 

It was a great way for my dad and I to connect, and you know, my mom she was also really big into movies and everything. And so I'd always wanted to be an actor, but I just never thought it was possible. 

Just because you know it's a hard industry to get into, and I just figured, you know, someone like me wasn't going to be able to do that, but I figured when I saw the major on the website, I'm like you know what, Cornell is a great place, and I feel like I can make it happen. 

And so I decided to declare Performing Media Arts. And you know I never looked back from there. 

My first classes that I took in PMA were Global Cinema and American Cinema. And that was really interesting to see because, you know, coming from an outside and just being able to jump in and see the history of filmmaking, and how things were, and how film has evolved. 

And when I took Film and Video Production I with Professor Jeffrey Palmer, he was just absolutely amazing, he's one of my favorite professors that I've had at Cornell. 

Unfortunately, that was during COVID, so you know we did a lot of our classes on zoom. And you know we had to kind of learn just by watching and not really by doing. 

But like we were able to go out and they gave us the equipment. And we were able to shoot our own short films, and that was, that experience in itself was just, you know, very eye-opening for me.

That semester I also took my first acting class also on zoom, but it was still such an amazing experience. I was with Professor Beth Milles, and she's just absolutely incredible acting teacher, and you know she brought a lot of enthusiasm and joy to the class. 

We were studying the play Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau. And I was able to really connect with the character Omari. And you know, doing scene work in that class, and then Beth told us that we're doing an actual production of it the next semester. 

And I'm like I have to play Omari, like that's just the role that I feel like, you know, I would really be able to connect to and bring some good life into the character. 

So I reached out to her about doing that. I was taking Acting II in the Spring with Carolyn Goelzer, just awesome, Carolyn's also amazing teacher. 

Every professor that I've met at Cornell has just been super awesome, and you know, they bring a lot of energy and a lot of joy to the classes. And I feel like that's something that's absolutely needed in a performing arts space.

So I just kind of fell in love with acting after that. I also did a couple more plays that semester. 

Just with wrestling, I always, you know, would hype myself up in my head and I kind of find myself doing the same thing, you know, like telling myself, you got this like you're going to do great. 

And so, having that confidence to go into a performance it parallels any sport that you have because you can't go in with a losing mindset. You can't go in like, oh you know like I don't know if I know my lines that well or I don't know if I can do this movement, I don't know like what if my cast mate messes up or something like that. 

No, you have to go with the absolute most positivity, and you know just the confidence and belief in yourself and trust in your cast mates and trust in your rehearsal process um that you guys have put in the work. 

And you know, going out to a wrestling match, I would always tell myself, you know, I remember all the hard hours that I put into practice. I remember all the time I spent training or not eating or anything like that. 

You know it's like you did what you needed to do to get to this moment, and this is it; all you got to do is perform it. So the same way with theater really gave me a sense of understanding of like who I am and the person that I could possibly become. 

You know, it's just it felt great to be able to finally understand, like okay, this is who I am. And to be comfortable in your own skin and be comfortable like hey, you know unapologetically this is me, you know. 

And I'm going to be a silly goofy person whatever you know, and like there's been just such an amazing outlet for me to just be able to express that. 

And like I feel confident going into, you know, going into the world and doing auditions. And you know, trying to just be a professional actor, I feel that you know PMA has given me a lot of tools to succeed in whatever mode. 

I really appreciate PMA just giving us the complete experience of what it's like to produce a film, what it's like to, you know, put on a live theater show. 

And just, you know, every aspect that goes into it, whether that's lighting, sound and actual performance of it, so and you know in the future for me I plan on auditioning for more theaters in the area, maybe Syracuse but, I also, you know, ultimately want to end up in New York city. 

For anyone in the future, future generations that are coming to Cornell and coming into PMA specifically, the possibilities are endless. 

The classes that you can take are, you know, vast. You can do dance, you can do theater, you can do acting, you can do filmmaking, you can do sound design, you can do lighting. 

And so, like PMA and Cornell will give you a lot of opportunities to do whatever it is that you want to do in your heart. 

And so I think if you're coming in, understand that and, you know, don't be afraid to reach out, and you know, ask for opportunities, because a lot of the best opportunities you're going to get are going to be from you. 

Whether it's through PMA or not, Cornell is going to give you a lot of opportunities and a lot of tools. And there's a lot of help that you can have to get to wherever it is that you want to go. 

So if you have a dream that's big, don't be afraid to chase it because Cornell is absolutely the place that you can get there you.

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Photo of Trence Gilllem '22 sitting in the Kiplinger Theatre