Through the Generations: ETC Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program

This article appears in the 2024 Spring issue of Protocol

It all started with a group of students who had a dream. Fred Foster, his brother Bill Foster, and two friends James Bradley, and Gary Bewick were students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when they invented their own lighting control console. Encouraged by their mentor, Lighting Design Professor Gilbert Hemsley, the group subsequently started their own company, ETC. That was 1975. Now nearing its 50th anniversary as a global leader in the manufacturing of lighting and rigging technology, there is no denying the company has come a long way.

On the long and winding road of Fred Foster’s career, he always recognized the significance of mentorship in any lighting professional’s career, including his own. Yet, he understood how challenging it is to establish connections with potential mentors. Seeking to use ETC’s resources to help build the next generation of lighting greats, Fred officially started the company’s student mentorship program in 1999. Now named in his memory, the Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program is just one way that Fred’s legacy lives on. While the program’s execution has evolved over the past 25 years, the mission remains the same.

The beginnings of the mentorship program can be traced back to the LDI tradeshow. Six selected students received an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas for the show. There, they would meet with willing mentors at an ETC-hosted reception to make introductions and network about their careers. Since then, the program has transformed. In addition to meeting at the one-time event, program organizers began to pair students with long-term mentors. Once matched, students are encouraged to remain in contact with their mentors for career advice, portfolio reviews, and even tech visits.


Paula Dinkel and Josh Allen, accomplished professionals in the lighting industry, have long played a critical role in the mentor matching process. Paula Dinkel is a Lighting Designer passionate about theme parks, with 30 years of experience at Walt Disney Imagineering. Josh Allen is the Global Director of Design for 3LR, with decades of experience in lighting. In addition to identifying mentors whose careers, interests, and personalities line up with the students, Paula and Josh have coached mentees on driving the mentorship relationship.

“Young people seeking a career in the arts and entertainment field will get a jump start by seeking a mentor. The professionals who volunteer to coach them are passing along their knowledge and best advice, knowing that they themselves were the beneficiaries of expertise and wisdom handed down. Fred Foster made the ETC mentoring project possible with his leadership and faith in the next generation. His memory is the heartbeat of the program.”
-Paula Dinkel

In every era of the program, ETC has encouraged students to think beyond the one-time meetings, and work on building relationships with all the mentors, and even fellow students they encounter. Fred Foster often shared this message with the metaphor of “reaching for the brass ring.” The concept refers to classic carousel rides, where riders had the opportunity to reach out and grab a brass ring for a prize as the carousel spun. The brass ring has remained a constant in the program to remind students to make the most of their mentorship, actively reaching out to mentors for advice, website reviews, or even just to talk over a cup of coffee.

“When mentors extend the open invite for students to contact them in the future—they mean it. But as we all know, designers lead busy lives. It’s up to the students to make the first, second, and third move to have meaningful conversations that build lasting connections,” says David Lincecum, ETC Vice President of Marketing and long-time sponsor of the program. “Our goal is to make the introductions and encourage students to proactively keep those relationships going.”


Connection has remained central to the program’s goals as it moved to a digital format. In 2020, as the global pandemic struck the industry, the Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program was hosted entirely online for the first time ever. Hosting events virtually gave ETC more flexibility in the reach and scope of the program. In place of the in-person reception, a large and lively Zoom event introduces the mentees to mentors in a series of breakout rooms. ETC also added numerous designer roundtables focused on specialized topics, such as theatre, television, themed environments, live events, and more. As program organizers begin to match students with their mentors, they also coordinate spotlight sessions in which students share their work with a small group of mentors to receive direct feedback on their portfolio.

In recent years, long-time mentor Don Holder has hosted light plot reviews, examining a few students’ drawings in detail and offering constructive criticism. Don shares many details that have been important to him in his own practice, such as dimensioning section drawings by adding the trim heights directly at the pipe rather than, or in addition to, a table, as well as drawing sidearms and other mounting details very realistically. Don puts an emphasis on the drawings as “working drawings” for electricians and making them as friendly and realistic as possible. Students consistently rate these sessions as very educational.

Students have also had the chance to hear from Lighting Designer Sooner Routhier about transitioning from a theatre education to working with live events and concert touring. Bob Barnhart, another long-time contributor to the program, teaches a master class on lighting for the camera and illustrates how to adjust lighting for the differences in the eye and the camera. Multiple key players in the industry have also contributed to sessions about working outside of design, in jobs such as project management, product management, and working for dealers and reps. Mentors like Ken Billington are always fast to invite students to visit them on their travels. And it’s not just an empty invitation, they actually expect students to follow through when the opportunity arises.


As for the application and selection process, ETC considers diversity of experience, depth of work, and perceived impact the program could have on the student’s career. The program has grown to accept roughly a dozen mentees each year, selected from a global pool of university candidates. Over the decades, the Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program has amassed an alumni group that now numbers in the hundreds. Past mentees have hailed from all corners of the globe, including the United States, China, France, Egypt, Ireland, Taiwan, Germany, Estonia, and more.

Along the way, many of these students have forged ahead to make incredible achievements in their careers. One such example is ETC’s very own Nick Gonsman, who is currently the Eos product manager and acts as a guide for the Student Program, helping match students with mentors. He is joined by ETC’s Wendy Luedtke and Steve Terry in acting as program guides.

For many other alumni, the path led back to university in the form of teaching. Hideaki Tsutsui was among some of the first students selected back in 2000. After graduating at FSU, he toured a lot, assisted Jules Fisher, and moved to Hawaii as VP of Operation at Eggshell Light Company. He currently teaches lighting design at UT El Paso and continues to work as a freelance designer. 

Justin Partier of the 2002 program is currently the Lighting Director at San Francisco Opera and has 15 years of experience as an Associate and Designer in NYC. Also from the 2002 program, Julie E. Ballard owns and operates a freelance production company called OverlapLighting Productions, LLC, touring nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, Chip Perry of the 2007 program has continued to light for television and concert productions across the world. While teaching at the University of Central Florida, he served as the Lighting Director for Wrestlemania 29 and 30. Chip is now a full-time employee with WWE as the Director, Lighting and Show Production. Chip has worked hundreds of live to television Pay Per Views, Premium Live Events, Monday Night Raws, and Smackdowns since the summer of 2014. Recently, he also started sharing the Production Designer responsibilities for the NXT show.

Porsche McGovern (2008 Program) and Ethan Steimel (2011 Program) are among the many alumni who have found success designing in New York. Just a handful of Porsche’s credits include Mothers (Playwrights Realm), Bureau of Missing Persons (Neighborhood Productions), and Ghetto Babylon (Dramatic Question Theatre). Ethan’s designs have been featured in The Goodbye Girl, The Baker's Wife (Theatre Row), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Tuacahn & La Mirada), The Cher Show (Gateway Playhouse), and Ian Manuel (Joe's Pub). Ethan also hosts a podcast called Artistic Finance, a weekly program sharing conversations with artists about money.

Even students from more recent years have reached out to ETC to share their latest success. Aria Sivick (2018 Program) and Jake Frizzelle (2020 Program) both became Show Lighting Designers for Walt Disney Imagineering. Aria shares, “I can say confidently that the mentorship experience was and is essential in my post-graduate life. I have made countless connections and have received generous help from my mentors in terms of portfolios, resumes, and career advice.”

Additionally, Omar Madkour (2019 Program) has since worked for The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Available Light, and is now a Part-Time Lighting Designer with Radiance Lightworks; as well as a freelance Lighting Designer and ALD in Theatre & Dance. Most recently he designed Inherit The Wind at Pasadena Playhouse starring Alfred Molina. Bill Rios (2020 Program) was the Lighting Designer for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts grand opening gala in May 2023. He recently started a full-time position at Clearwing Productions as the Event Design Engineer.


While ETC organizes Student Mentorship Program events, these efforts would be in vain without the generosity of the mentors who share their time and wisdom with the students.

"Over the years, I have connected with several wonderful early career lighting designers through the Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program. It is a great way to begin a conversation about the work and the industry, on a one-on-one basis. I have had designers from other disciplines – scenery, projection, sound – express the desire to have a similar mentorship program within their communities."
-Dawn Chiang, a Lighting Designer and key contributor to the program

When asked to reflect on the significance of mentorship in our industry, Don Holder shared, “I am enormously thankful for the mentors and teachers I encountered in my own life who inspired, taught, and challenged me, who believed in my potential and offered the encouragement I needed to keep growing and moving forward. I know that Fred Foster and I share a similar passion for raising up the next generation, and I’ve always been honored to participate in the Mentorship Program devoted to his memory. This endeavor has given a multitude of career development opportunities to many young artists and artisans, and it’s been a thrill to work with several of the program’s impressive alumni over the past few years. ETC’s commitment to education and training in our industry is bar-none, and I am happy to support their efforts in any way I can.”

For more information about the Fred Foster Student Mentorship Program and applying, visit


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Quinn Wirth
Quinn joined ETC in 2018 with a background in marketing for K-12 and higher education. Studying English in college and tutoring writing across the curriculum fostered her passion for words and weakness for puns. When she’s not writing, she’s likely watching horror movies with her husband or plugging away at her goal of reading 50 books each year. A Wisconsin local, she loves seeing ETC products at work in Madison-area venues she has frequented throughout her life.