Be who you are: SMC duo to document their cross-country trip to spread positive message

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Two best friends, one a current student at Temple’s School of Media and Communication and the other a young alumnus, are in a better place nowadays.

It’s the result, they say, of self-discovery; of finally being comfortable in their own skin.

As a teenager, Levi Schenk, a senior media studies and production major, worked hard to be able to afford going out with people he thought he wanted as friends. Overweight and uncertain of his place in the social confusion of high school, he tried hard to be someone he wasn’t.

Now 120 pounds lighter, and much more comfortable in his own skin (even though there’s less of it), Schenk exudes an aura of confidence.

Jon Ristaino, JOUR ’12, too, tried to be someone else. A gay man, he exclusively dated women through college and nearly married one.

“I had been lying about who I was my entire life,” Ristaino said. “I could do so much more once I let that go. I’m a lighter person. The way I walked, the way I talked, the way I moved—everything was calculated so as not to come off a certain way.”

And now, they’re taking their message across the country and back again during the semester break, creating a documentary of their personal journey and other Americans who have decided to be who they truly are.

Road trip!
In recent weeks, they have planned out their timeline to be able to make it to Los Angeles and back in just 26 days (Schenk has to be back in Philly for the start of the spring semester). They’ve searched newspapers, have reached out to community organizations and have hit Craigslist looking for people who have overcome a major life obstacle.

Schenk and Ristaino hope their efforts can result in more than a documentary; they think it can be a movement.

“We want to remind people that the little things you can do for one another make the most impact. I was on campus and somebody gave me a balloon that said ‘I would hire you.’ It’s dorky, but it put a smile on my face and put me in a good mood for the rest of the day,” Schenk said.

On Dec. 5, they spread their message of “Be Who You Are” with flowers. They recruited some friends and passed out flowers in Center City tagged with their mantra and their website’s URL. They gave each person two, so that they could pass on the joy to someone else. Schenk called it “a flash mob random act of kindness.”

The documentary, which will be filmed by journalism major Aaron Stevens, begins on Christmas night. They shove off the next morning from their hometown in Chester County.

Schenk says this documentary is just the beginning.

“Once we’re done with this, what else will we not be afraid to go after? Each time you learn things and then you continue to go for bigger things. Most people live in fear of it.”

To follow their journey, visit To support their efforts, click here.

Media Contact:
Jeff Cronin