Tonia Magras has cultivated a remarkable career as a filmmaker, creating award-winning documentaries that illustrate the human condition and give voice to those whose stories may not otherwise have been told.
She is passionate about this work, and looked to Fitchburg State as she thought about continuing her journey to the next level. She just finished her first year as a film/video student in the Communications Media Department.
“So many of my professors will say to me, ‘Why are you in this class?’” Magras recalled, seated before a shelf gleaming with accolades including several Emmy awards. “The short answer is, my goal is to be a professor, to teach film and video and journalism, everything I’ve excelled at in my field.”
Magras began her collegiate journey after graduating high school in the 1980s. She speaks candidly about being sexually assaulted while a student in Florida and then moving back to Massachusetts. “My mom was an accomplished TV producer, and there was an opening for a receptionist at (PBS station) WGBH,” she said. “It was something for me to do to keep my mind from exploding.”
It worked, and her career flourished. Soon Magras was creating her own work at WGBH, including award-winning films like Silent Screams: The Plight of Love, Abuse and Being Black, and In Our Own Words… about issues facing teenagers. Her podcasting work has also won plaudits.
There really is a space for us here. Just having the experience of life on campus with those who are just starting out their lives, that’s a huge value, and I’m glad the school puts us all together.
Still, completing her college degree loomed large in her mind. “Fitchburg State said, ‘Come aboard, we’d love to have you,’” Magras said. “It just seemed the right time and the right place.”
But just days before her classes were to begin, Magras’ brother died by suicide. She wondered if she had the capacity to move ahead with her studies. “I really thought about not doing it,” she said. “I’m not sure how I mustered up the strength; my husband was supportive with whatever decision I was going to make. My pastors came and counseled me. I knew my brother would have been really, really proud of me. One of the things my husband said to me was, ‘We’ve gone through this and we’ve made it through this.’ I kept going.”
And she hasn’t looked back. Though she has achieved a lot in her career, Magras said she does not approach her classes as an expert. “It’s probably the hardest I’ve worked in a really long time,” she said. “Even if the work may seem to come a little easier for me, I still work really hard at it. I’m also learning just being part of the experience and the whole teacher-student dynamic. It’s all-encompassing.”
Magras said she has found a welcoming and supportive environment on campus, from the faculty to her fellow students.
“I'm very aware of what experience I’m bringing into each classroom, and it’s important that the faculty don’t feel intimidated by that,” she said. “We all have something to learn here. Whereas I may know how A connects to Z, I may not know all the other factors that go in between that. I never want to have a professor feel like they can’t teach me something. I make that clear to all my professors.”
She said she’s always felt welcome as a non-traditional student. “There really is a space for us here,” she said. “Just having the experience of life on campus with those who are just starting out their lives, that’s a huge value, and I’m glad the school puts us all together.”
That welcoming environment extends to her classmates.
“I didn’t know how anyone was going to perceive me,” she said. “I figured I’d be the student that hangs out with the professor, because I’m much closer in age to them than the student population. But I’ve actually enjoyed the relationships I’ve built with students. They think of me as ‘the aunt’ or ‘the other mom,’ and that’s fine. They also respect me enough not to belittle the experience for me. It’s incredibly humbling.”
Magras also believes in the talents of her fellow students, several of whom she has invited to join her as paid collaborators on her professional projects. These include More than our Skin, a documentary she is preparing on women living with the pigment-altering autoimmune disorder vitiligo. The film profiles five women as they navigate life with the condition that can have profound effects on how they see themselves, as well as how others perceive them.
“These five women have taken the journey they’re on and turned it into an opportunity to help other people with autoimmune diseases,” she said. “What’s been extraordinary about watching these women maneuver through life is how they took back their power. You think about what it must feel like for your features to be all of a sudden taken from you, pixel by pixel if you will, to take control back and say, ‘I look different, but this is what I’m going to do now.’ That’s a strength and a power for which I really give these women so much respect.”
Magras - who has hired students to help deal with a variety of post-production duties on the film - hopes to have the documentary ready for the film festival circuit this fall.