DANVILLE, CA — Tomi Tunrarebi of Danville boasts an impressive resume, a cheery demeanor and a big smile.
The 23-year-old Monte Vista High School graduate and aspiring screenwriter recently completed her studies in cinema, media and screenwriting at the University of Southern California. She’s got a prestigious Television Academy Foundation fellowship under her belt and has learned from some of Hollywood’s greats.
For Tunrarebi, TV isn’t just entertainment — it’s a way to feel less alone in the world. TV is healing. It’s how she’s kept up her spirits despite experiencing tremendous loss at a young age.
“Without [TV] … I don’t know how that story plays out,” she said.
Tunrarebi, a Las Vegas native, lost her dad to cancer at the age of four, then lost her mom at age 15 after she suffered an aneurism spurred by high blood pressure while on vacation.
She then moved in with extended family in Danville, where she said she had to start as a freshman at Monte Vista High. Tunrarebi, a sickle cell anemia patient, had taken the previous year off of school to focus on her health.
The big move kickstarted the grieving process over the loss of her mother, Tunrarebi said. There was no time for denial.
“In a two-week span, my whole life was completely unrecognizable to me,” she said.
When she lost her mom, she stopped listening to music and writing — a longtime hobby of hers. But as Tunrarebi settled into her new reality, she realized she missed writing; she missed having an outlet.
She fell in love with movies and TV shows such as “Parks and Recreation,” “How To Get Away With Murder” and “Scandal.” The strangers on those shows are people Tunrarebi said she’ll probably never meet, but poured so much into her life.
“That’s when [writing] became a lot more personal,” she said. “It came from this really vulnerable and genuine aspects of me … It completely changed how I wrote.”
Her writing significantly improved. She ventured into writing in the third-person instead of writing about herself. Tunrarebi said she was reminded of how deeply she loved this part of herself that she had let lie dormant as she coped with the loss of her mother.
A terrible thing happened in her life, but it led her to a calling, Tunrarebi said.
Though Tunrarebi had been writing stories since she was a kid, she had always planned on becoming a doctor. As the daughter of Nigerian-born parents who immigrated into America, she said she was raised to place a high premium on attaining an education and finding stable jobs.
“I wasn’t necessarily meant to be a doctor, but whatever I was meant to do, it was supposed to be with words,” she said. “This pure love of words and writing and language.”
When writing teacher Kimberley Gilles suggested to Tunrarebi that she might try to make a career out of film, Tunrarebi starting taking the prospect seriously.
So why not go for the best of the best? She was accepted into USC, her reach school. She said she had fallen in love with the school’s sports and acclaimed film programs.
There, Tunrarebi said she decided she wanted to focus on TV screenwriting, where she could have more control over the narrative.
In her final year at USC, she was one of 50 students accepted into the Television Academy Foundation’s summer fellowship. Tunrarebi, a drama fellow, would normally have had the opportunity to sit in writers’ rooms, but spent her days focusing on virtual professional development, with seminars from experts and networking opportunities due to the pandemic.
Tunrarebi said she experienced incredible growth in those two months.
As she looks to her immediate future, Tunrarebi said she plans to spend the coming months putting finishing touches on a pilot show script, brainstorming new ideas and developing strong material that will help her secure representation.
But some day, she dreams of creating her own show, where she can tell stories that are important to her — stories that can enact positive social change and put faces to real issues, she said.
It’s a way “to reach all those people who may be like me when I was 15, and need something to connect to when real life is very hard.”