Diversity and Democracy

Learning to Ask: College Experiences and the Public Work of Arts and Humanities Alumni

Elizabeth Jarrett is a curator, artist, designer, and Kennesaw State University (KSU) alumna committed to listening to community needs and collaborating to create positive change. Based in Atlanta, she has cofounded a local theater company and is now executive director of Deer Bear Wolf, a nonprofit organization that supports Atlanta artists.

Jarrett was already a go-getter when she enrolled at KSU in Kennesaw, Georgia. But KSU and the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies helped her expand her vision and talents, increase her network, and hone her presentation and collaboration skills. To Jarrett, college was a creative opportunity. “You’re on a campus with all of these people who have such different ideas and such different concentrations. . . . It’s like an incubator,” she said. “You never know if you go in a coffee shop and you sit down next to somebody, they could be working in a completely different sector than you, like food sustainability or something. But if you spark a conversation . . . you might find, well, hey, we can work together on this.”

Jarrett was one of eighteen publicly minded KSU arts and humanities alumni we interviewed as part of a “listening project” between 2012 and 2015. Their stories help reveal what alumni value about their college experiences and what led to their success after graduation. In listening closely to our civic professionals, we better understand the university’s role in promoting civic dispositions and democratic practices, and how, collectively, we can better realize higher education’s public mission.

A Focus on Arts and Humanities

The listening project’s focus on arts and humanities grew, in part, from KSU’s membership in Imagining America (IA). A consortium of colleges and universities advocating for the role of arts, humanities, and design in public life, IA works to revitalize the democratic mission of higher education. As a member of both IA and Citizen Alum, KSU was inspired by both networks’ goals as we sought to learn about how arts and humanities graduates have realized their role as civic agents, how they use their education in their public work, and how the university could continue to partner with alumni to improve civic life.

Conversations with KSU’s arts and humanities alumni confirmed that KSU faculty and students are doing remarkable work addressing public issues, often in collaboration with outside agencies. Students are developing skills to cross disciplinary boundaries, apply theory to practical issues, build teams, and use democratic practices. As artists and humanists, they think creatively and are open to new ideas and the unexpected. Through exposure to different experiences and active membership in a growing network of relationships, many arts and humanities students have developed an ability to see community needs and opportunities.

The listening project was a partnership among the American Studies Program, the Department of Alumni Affairs, and the Department of Museums, Archives, and Rare Books. The KSU Archives and the Digital Public Libraries of America will facilitate access to the alumni project interviews.

Critical Thinking and New Ideas

Despite popular notions that the university is not the “real world,” many alumni we spoke with experienced higher education as a microcosm of public life after graduation. To English and American studies alumna Janie Mardis, critical analysis of texts exposed power relations that she now confronts as a social worker and counselor at Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “I never felt like at any time I was just reading the trusty old classics . . . with absolutely no reflection on what they were as objects of power in the culture,” she explained. “They were living works, and they were works to be complicated and problematized.”

In addition to fostering critical thinking skills, KSU provided students space to innovate and make their own opportunities, according to English education and American studies alumnus Yen Rodriguez. Modern language alumna and American studies graduate student Nikkeshia Wilson invited Rodriguez, then an undergraduate student, to collaborate on a forum titled “Black and Brown: Divided We Fall.” The forum convened university students, faculty, and staff and local community leaders of color to build bridges between marginalized communities. Rodriguez said that the project “opened an entirely new door for me.” Now as KSU’s assistant director of multicultural student affairs for race, culture, and ethnicity programs, Rodriguez incorporates the skills he acquired through that project into his daily responsibilities.

Alumna Jessica Duvall also remarked on KSU’s openness to student ideas. She began a conversation with the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies about bringing The Coming Out Monologues to campus, which eventually resulted in a chance for her to codirect the production. “KSU has worked to create a space for students to feel empowered to ask,” she stated. Now Duvall is assistant director of multicultural affairs for gender and sexuality programs in LGBTQ Student Programs at KSU, an office she pushed for the university to create when she was a student. Duvall uses the lessons she learned in organizing for social change at KSU to encourage today’s students to challenge boundaries and to push back if necessary. “This office wouldn’t be here—I wouldn’t be here—if I just hadn’t asked a question,” Duvall said. “They said we couldn’t do that [create the office]. And I said, ‘Why not?’” For Duvall and other alumni, learning to ask and being open to collaborations translated well from campus to professional contexts.

Practical Experiences

For all the university’s commitment to providing students with leadership opportunities and creative space, the infrastructure supporting students interested in doing public work was uneven across campus. “I had to reach out on my own,” one Interdisciplinary Studies Department graduate said about her desire to pursue an internship with a nonprofit organization. At the time, the department had yet to develop an internship program for her recently formed major.

In other departments, community relationships that encourage public-mindedness are robust. For example, under the leadership of Department of Dance chair Ivan Pulinkala in 2008, KSU’s Dance program began collaborating with the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre to promote arts education. In 2014, the center’s arts and education arm, ArtsBridge, strengthened its formal partnership with the university’s College of the Arts. KSU faculty teach master classes and support the partnership between ArtsBridge and the local Boys and Girls Club. In addition, ArtsBridge provides internship opportunities for KSU students. KSU alumna Natalie Barrow spent three years as the foundation’s director of arts education and community outreach, where she supported a reciprocal relationship between the center and KSU’s faculty and students. “I wanted to work in my community to make a difference,” Barrow explained.

Active Involvement

KSU alumna Annie Moye pointed out that democratic practices of involvement—in decision making, implementation, and the day-to-day work of getting projects done—increases participants’ commitment to public resources. She discovered this as she participated in a university partnership (fostered by Visual Arts professor Diana McClintock) to document and preserve Paradise Garden, created by folk artist and minister Howard Finster. Moye, who remains involved in historic preservation efforts in Georgia, observed,

When you’ve got a group of people who were just, like, “Hey Paradise Garden is kind of cool,” once . . . they are studying it and they’re hands-on—they’re pulling out the weeds and they’re doing the oral histories—all of a sudden everybody has got a sense of ownership, and they care about it . . . on a much more deep level.

Moye’s analysis might prove useful in designing future university relationships with publicly engaged alumni from the arts and humanities. Fostering productive, reciprocal relationships between our alumni and the university may not only directly benefit students and other participants but may also strengthen the university’s long-term commitment to its civic mission.

We have already taken steps in this direction, creating an Office of Community Engagement in 2013 to deepen the ways KSU stakeholders, including alumni, connect with the community. In 2015, the Carnegie Foundation recognized KSU with its prestigious Community Engagement Classification.

As KSU alumni remind us, successful collaborations and public engagement often begin by sparking a conversation.

The authors wish to thank Annie Moye for her suggestions on earlier versions of this article.

LeeAnn Lands is Associate Professor of History at Kennesaw State University; Kristen Walker has a BA in Theatre and Performance Studies (2002) and an MA in American Studies (2017) from Kennesaw State University; and Christine DeBord has a BS in Communications (2011) and an MA in American Studies (2015) from Kennesaw State University.


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