Catching up with Keith Karnish, class of 2008

This Penn State York English alumnus is screenwriting in Los Angeles — how did he get there?
Black and white photo of a person wearing glasses.

Keith Karnish graduated from Penn State York in 2008 with an English degree, which he now uses in his work as a freelance screenwriter in Los Angeles.

Credit: Courtesy of Keith Karnish

YORK, Pa. — The path to a rewarding career isn’t always clear. In the case of Keith Karnish, class of 2008, finding a mentor in Noel Sloboda, associate professor of English at Penn State York, turned out to be what Karnish needed to set him on the right track. He now applies his lessons from his Penn State York degree in English to his role as a full-time freelance screenwriter for television and feature films, based out of Los Angeles.

Karnish began his time at Penn State York under a provisional status. Now called conditional status, some undergraduate students who do not meet the typical minimum requirements for admission may be accepted with conditions until they demonstrate that they can succeed in a college environment. As part of the land-grant mission of the University, this conditional status gives students who might not otherwise be able to attend college the chance to prove themselves. When Karnish began to feel engaged in the coursework and campus community, he said he thrived academically.

“Noel Sloboda was the first person I met at Penn State York, and he was just very supportive right from the start. So, I excelled in college,” Karnish said. “I worked hard and really cared about it. As somebody who has gone through a lot of schooling now, I know that mentorship is really important. You want somebody to have your back and to support you.”

Tapping the professional network

Establishing a strong rapport with program faculty as an undergraduate student can open new opportunities for the future, according to Karnish. When Karnish eventually decided to pursue a career in screenwriting, the letters of recommendation he received from English faculty at Penn State York were an important component of his application to a reputable master’s program.

“When I started at Penn State York, I never pictured myself being a screenwriter, but I always loved the movies,” said Karnish.

Growing up, movies were always a part of Karnish’s life. He was in his late 20s when he started screenwriting and did it on his own for several years. Finally, he said, he decided he wanted to do something with this. That’s when he applied to the American Film Institute (AFI).

“I needed two letters of recommendation, and I hadn’t shared my work with a lot of people who would have been able to write one, so I went back to Noel and Mike Jarret, who retired from Penn State York in 2017," Karnish said. "They wrote recommendations based on the work I had done with them. Now I work at AFI on their admissions, and I see the kind of weight that carries. That personal recommendation — I don’t know what you would do without it.”

Karnish described AFI as a “trial-by-fire” program where students write dozens of scripts at a fast pace.

“It was a lot of hard work, but now I’m in the industry and I’m writing as a career,” he said.

Inspiring students to grow beyond school can be an important goal for many teachers. According to Sloboda, Karnish was a great example of this.

“Keith was an exemplary student in English classrooms at Penn State York,” Sloboda said. “However, what's been most rewarding about working with him has happened in the years since he graduated. Keith has continued to grow intellectually, creatively and professionally. He has done so in diverse ways that clearly build on his time with us yet would have been impossible to predict back when he was a student. As a Penn State York alumnus, Keith models the kind of transformative, lifelong learning we hope to inspire in students.”

Karnish has advice he would give to today’s English students.

“Don’t hide what you dream of doing because if you never tell anybody what you want to do, you’ll never have a chance to do it," he said. "People will want to help you if they like you and they see you’re serious.”

What’s next for Karnish?

Karnish’s dream for the future is to keep writing full time, build his network and reputation around Los Angeles, and potentially step into producing films as well.

“It’s very exciting, at the end of the day, to see your words translated into something that people watch,” he said. “It’s very fun to be in a theater and watch people react to something that you wrote — whether they laugh or cry, it’s interesting.”

For more information about the English program at Penn State York, contact Noel Sloboda at [email protected] or 717-771-4082 or visit the website.