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Finding Direction

Success for her means seeing the big picture

Shanalyna Palmer ’94 never planned on a life of movie-making. 

“In high school, I went to science and engineering camps,” she laughs. “I chose a degree in theater studies so that I would be more well-rounded for corporate America.”

Despite that—or maybe because of it—the Georgia resident has found success as an assistant director in television and movies. Miss Winn’s Garden, a short film she directed and produced in 2016, won multiple honors, including the California Film Award in 2016; it’s been selected for Network Notes at the Independent Television Festival in Vermont this October. The film’s story about foster families is an important one that she hopes will lead to support for similarly themed projects.

“Time away from Swarthmore led me to the conclusion that if I want to step up and become a better leader, I have to create projects of my own,” says Palmer, “projects that promote the values instilled at Swarthmore and lean toward social awareness and social justice.”

Palmer is an assistant director on The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr. She has also worked on The Walking Dead, The Sopranos, and Queen Latifah’s newest show, Star, which begins its second season this fall. 

“The most fun I’ve had on set was on Star,” she says. “Lee Daniels has a bigger-than-life personality. He is very exacting in what he wants, but his joie de vivre is contagious. If the director and cast have a sense of humor, we all get to experience the fun.”

As a producer, director, and assistant director, Palmer may spend her day deciding what to film, whom to cast, and what crew to hire, or simply when to have the vans arrive on set to take the cast and crew to lunch. It’s a little like conducting, she’s found.

“On an average day, more than 100 people are working to fulfill the vision of one director,” she says. “It can take a bit of diplomacy to convince people not to stray from what the director wants—especially when we’re all creative types.”

Listening to her instincts, even in challenging situations, has shaped her life ever since Swarthmore. “Professor Bill Marshall has been my greatest influence,” she says. “I was definitely not the best student in his class. But deciding to chuck an Air Force ROTC scholarship in economics to study theater instead was a crisis moment for me. Bill didn’t give me any answers, but he did help me to put things into perspective. He was the first to teach me how to listen to my inner voice and not be afraid to allow intuition to be my guide. This continues to be a mainstay in my leadership tool kit.”

For this lesson, she remains forever grateful ... and inspired.

“Swarthmore broadened my worldview and expanded my critical thinking,” Palmer says. “It taught me to consider the impact of my decisions on individuals as well as on the community as a whole.”