Becoming The Student: Jacob Luis Gonzales

“Right now I have a Left Ventricular Assistive Device (LVAD) helping my heart function. When the doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital originally put this device in my body they said I had a 50% chance of living with it until July 2016, and I recently heard this a couple of weeks ago. This forced me to think about what I want people to remember about me if I do pass away. ” – Jacob Luis Gonzales, January 2016


Above: Conversations With Jake. Digital drawing, created in Procreate on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil. October 2016.

I’ve been wanting to work up a portrait of Jake for a while. The last year + of his life has been extremely hard. He went through 13 major (life-saving) surgeries over the summer of 2015, was resuscitated over 75 times, experienced fevers as high as 108 degrees, and has had to relearn how to do essentially everything. 

But I don’t want to just make some inspiration porn. Jake doesn’t need that. No one does.

I want to encourage you to hear his own voice, his own story in his own words. First, go read through some of that narrative at his blog. Second, consider donating to his on-going care. He needs help, from more complex stuff to just the basics. Go to his Go Fund Me page to directly donate. If you’d rather help out in a different way, I’m selling some artworks to help Jake and Ali: go here to see Situation and Circumstance Overcome – if you like it, order it, and I’ll give 100% of the sale to the Gonzaleses. Here’s what it looks like:


Lastly, if you are local and a friend, consider making time to go hang out with Jake and Ali. The time I spent drawing Jake was full of laughter, real talk, sharp wit, intense remembrances, and some solid sports and movie talk. They’re awesome people. 

Thanks for being a part of project, Jake (and Ali’s feet!).

Becoming the Student #29: Aarik Emerging

SMALLbecomingstudent-aarikAarik Emerging. Oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 84 inches. 2014-2016. Click the image above for a large version.

My friend Aarik Danielsen is a writer, a preacher, a father, a reader, a thinker, a worker, a lover of his wife and of his life and of the small joys that can pass between people who strive to connect. He’s a willing participant in art and music and making of all kinds. He wants to tell the truth about time and meaning and God. He wants to be thoughtful and honest in all that he does. He is a gentle, genuine soul.

aarik-lipdetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Two years ago I began a project to bring Aarik into my Becoming the Student project. He was willing to go along with my strange request to turn off all the lights in my studio and press my ancient flatbed scanner against his head… for 30 minutes. These scans became the basis for the painting that you see here.

Above: A shot of Aarik from the studio when I was making the scans…

aarik-plaiddetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

aarik-detailhairAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Usually I have an interview to go along with these posts. The thing is that it seems to me that an interview – short, minor, without range – would minimize who Aarik tries to be. This observation isn’t meant to degrade my other Becoming the Student posts. I know they are limited. But I guess with Aarik’s what I wanted to do was focus on his emergence as a father. This painting is a celebration of his transformation – a chosen transformation – into a father. All that being a dad entails is strange and hard. None of us who are dads really know how to do it. And we all deal with issues we never thought we’d have to. So this image of a man appearing out of thick darkness, his characteristics manifesting in tenuous and tenebrist ways, is symbolic of every father’s attempt to become what he believes he ought. The multiplicity of it; each situation bringing about change and instantaneous adaptations… It’s where I find myself and where I imagine Aarik finds himself. It’s a holy discombobulation, fatherhood. One in which we fail moment by moment. By grace we try again.

Thank you for doing that, Aarik – trying and trying again. By grace.

Becoming the Student #27: STAY GOLD (Greta Myers)

More than two years ago, as Greta Myers (website, Instagram) was finishing her MFA at the University of Missouri, I decided to include her in my Becoming the Student series. I’ve included a number of my grads before, but always because I felt some strong kinship with what they were making. With Greta it was a little different.

Greta is a strange, compelling person, and she has a bearing of nonchalant opposition. She’s got a strong personality – exhibiting many unique facets and diverse motivations – that’s so different from mine. In spite of this I think we were able to have an understanding while she was in grad school. As a part of her graduate thesis committee, I was always evaluating the work she made and trying to engage with it critically and as an advocate for it. As an artist and teacher, I’m consistently interested by work that throws me off balance or forces me to think outside of my categories. Greta always did this. I was forever being turned off by some aspect of the work, yet invariably interested in her approach and attitude.

Anyway, I began work on a portrait of her in April of 2014. I worked on the piece infrequently, eventually thinking it was done in August of 2015. Around this time I began to be seriously involved in a non-representational body of work and so left off with all of my in-the-works Becoming the Student pieces. A month ago I decided to get back to Greta’s piece in earnest and, after painting the entire piece over again, it’s finally complete… though it no longer accurately represents Greta’s arms and hands; she’s added a few more tattoos in the interim. Click below to see it large – the file is 9.25 by 30 inches.

IMG_0353

STAY GOLD (Greta Myers), oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 42 inches, 2014-2016.

 And now, here are a few of the thoughts Greta had when I interviewed her:

On Grad School

“It’s been the hardest three years for me in a while – in terms of stress level it’s like getting divorced or having a parent die – but it was good. I feel like I made the program enough of my own and make it work for me. I did it the only way I knew how. I definitely don’t think it was a mistake. If I had quit after undergrad I would probably just be sitting in some stupid busy work job and have never learned the work that it takes the be an active, practicing artist.”

On Being an Artist

“If you’re really an artist, I think you have to be an artist. You don’t have the choice to not be one, and those people who don’t follow that path become miserable and they just don’t function to their full potential.”

On Leaving the Academic Setting

“I’m a little worried about getting along with others. Outside of academic art, life is very different; it’s a completely different world. And I’ve been in school for the last seven years. I’m a little worried about getting along with others, like, just communicating. I mean, you go into a group setting with people who are artists or aren’t in academia and it’s like, what do you talk about? So just getting back into real life is going to be an adjustment. Learning how to build a community – not family, not friends – who get what you’re doing and who share the same passion, that’s important. You have to build it. It doesn’t just happen.

(Interview Date: April 30, 2014)

Untitled-1 2

Detail of STAY GOLD (Greta Myers), oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 42 inches, 2014-2016.

NORBZ

Eric Norby is awesome. He was such a strange contrast to Marcus, and we made a quirky trinity of awkward jokes, weird beer, and enigmatic glances together. Norby came to Mizzou at a time when I didn’t think I’d be able to forge good friendships with new grads. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I guess I figured I was getting old and more distant from the newer grads coming into the program.

thumb_IMG_1385_1024“Goddammit, Greta!” Digital Drawing, 2014.

Thankfully, Norby proved me wrong and became a good friend.

Sometimes irascible, almost never empathetic, always intelligent, Norbz has a very particular personality that stood out from the other grads in our program. He had a strong work ethic, clear sense of the value of his time and work, and a love for the experience of music and beer that made for some of the best times I’ve had in recent memory.

IMG_1191“Janus Head Norbz (Two Faced Portrait of Eric Norby),” Instagram Photo, 2013

We began making beer together – those were some amazing nights. Sometimes they resulted in shenanigans like this:

Oh Jesus from matthewballou on Vimeo.

Norby would have thrived in any graduate program. His ability to adapt and his smarts would have made him stand out anywhere. But I’m glad he spent some time watching The Big Lebowski with me, discoursing on the qualities of Ween and Radiohead, singing some Lee Hazlewood, and exploring the meaning of the western vista.

Thanks a lot, Norbz.

thumb_IMG_5373_1024“It’s a Graying Out. (Portrait of Norbz),” Graphite on tracing paper, 8.5 by 3 inches, 2013.

“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” – The Stranger.

The Teacher (Ms Sharyn Hyatt-Wade)

Photo Mar 18, 8 11 39 AMThe Teacher (Ms Sharyn Hyatt-Wade), Pastel on Black Paper, 30 by 22 inches, 2014.

Sharyn Hyatt-Wade is synonymous with engaged, passionate teaching here in Mid Missouri. If you ask any of her former students, you’ll hear no end of what this woman has brought to her classrooms over the years. Though she recently retired from teaching high school art after many years, she’s currently a part of the faculty at the University of Missouri. Now she’s working with our Art Ed graduate students to help shape them into the sorts of educators who make real impacts on kids’ lives. Too often public education is about the bottom line: teaching to the test to obtain granular data for the administrative types who allocate funds. Teachers like Sharyn live far beyond that simple concept; they aim to change lives, validate individual experiences, and advocate for student-based successes.

Sharyn’s power and exuberance are kinetic and contagious. She has an uncanny ability to get other people around her on board with her almost instantaneously. She’s a true leader and lover of people. I’m so thankful she’s in our community and is still giving of herself to bring better educational opportunities to everyone. What an amazing career she’s had. What a huge impact. Thanks, Sharyn.

~

If you’re a former student of Sharyn – at any level, in any capacity – I’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them in the comments below if you want to!

Norleen On The Cusp

IMG_0268-1Norleen (On the Cusp). Graphite on paper, 16 by 16 inches. 2014.

~

Norleen Nosri is an incredible person: Daughter, Artist, Mom, Malaysian, Muslim, Wife, Teacher, Lover of the World, Speaker of Truths, Embracer of Difference, Celebrant of Joy, Preparer of Meals, Peacemaker, Calmer of Hearts, Tea Drinker, and so much more. While each graduate student I have worked with has unique aspects which make them special and necessary to my experience as an educator, Norleen shares a special spot with Natalie Shelly; being with them is like spending time with God. Norleen’s gentleness, care for people, and passion for work are just humbling to witness.

In my portrait of her I got something we almost never see: a completely still and silent Norleen. Usually she’s a flurry of activity, all smiles and happy exclamations. Here I saw her in a moment of pensive awareness. She’s not unhappy, just leaning into life with resolve; she’s receiving some of that grace she so easily gives to others. That open face and intense look in her eyes speak volumes.

When I drew her she was on the cusp of a huge life change – moving into a new space and new opportunities in St Louis, MO. And now she’s about to undertake her greatest challenge yet: a tea ceremony installation work serving thousands of people (read more about her current work as Artist-in-Residence at the Craft Alliance in STL here). I’ve written a bit about Norleen before, so I’ll let her have the last word. Below are just a few of her thoughts from the conversation we had last year.

On graduate programs:

“I gotta do this. That’s the only mentality. My mind at first was like, what is the MFA? But I never took it lightly. It’s supposed to be intense. It’s gotta be intense. It’s going to squeeze all the crappy parts out and just leave the pure… so it’s going to be painful. I knew from many of my ceramics friends – with Bede (Clarke, head of Ceramics at Mizzou), just be prepared to cry a lot. But the best of what happens is reciprocal, between you and (your faculty). It’s not so much about discipline. The discipline is what got you in. The relationships get you through.”

On art:

“How I see the world – in terms if what part of life I’m imitating in my work – seems like a moral obligation to me. The way I interact with people, the way I hope for people; I have that embedded within my material and whatever I’m working on. It’s so specific. But the dialogue around art is often different. Critique in art can be such obsession with intense reason and cost/effect, blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah, concept, aesthetic… I hate that kind of conversation. I use art as my arena of letting go.”

~

If you can spend some time with Norleen, do it. See her work. You’ll see there’s a bit of divinity hanging in the air.

 

Whale of a Tattoo!

2015-01-05 10.44.31Whale of a Tattoo (Jesse’s Arm), Pastel on paper, 13 by 22 inches. 2014.

I made this drawing of my friend Jesse Slade just a couple weeks before he got married last year. Jesse is a gentle man, always ready with a quick laugh and bright smile. That bushy beard he’s got is iconic. He’s got a talent for making seemingly simple statements that have – when you think back on them – striking depth. Such a good dude.

~

On being a big fish in a small pond:

“That idea is totally wrong; you’re always a small fish in a big pond.”

On hard experiences:

“It’s all growth, man. Every day, every second of every day. Just growth. And it’s growth that may look like it’s decay for a while… it’ll definitely rekindle.”

On the whale tattoo:

“Did I ever tell you the reason I got the whale? Jonah. The whale in this story is a beautiful sort of temporary savior, obviously speaking of Christ. Jonah only had the whale for that time, and then it was gone. Christ stays. I got the whale as a reminder of that love. I’m excited to get a moon next.”

On single-digit temperatures:

“It is days like this I am especially grateful I have a beard. #AllDayScarf”

On his favorite band:

Trampled by Turtles.” Here’s one of their songs: “Are you behind the shining star?

~

Thanks for letting me draw your tattoo, Jesse!

Becoming the Student, #20: Graham Higgs

imageProfessor Graham Higgs Gloriously Lit. Digital painting, dimensions variable, 2014. Click to view LARGE.

In this post, I want Professor Higgs to speak for himself. If you have a few minutes, please read the story below. If you give the narrative time to work, I’m certain that you will sense both the great truths and the gentle spirit that animate Graham’s life.

~

The Cry of the Spirit Leaving

By Graham Higgs. Posted here by permission of the author.

It was one of those blazing hot, dry days at noon in a small village in Southern Africa, where I lived as a child. Not a soul was stirring. The sky shimmered with heat, and the only sound was the empty shush of a dry breeze against the screen on the porch, where I lay on my back, shirtless against the cool concrete floor.

I watched a fly circling in slow motion and finally settling on the floor a few feet from my head. My cheek felt cool against the floor as I watched the fly brushing its wing with one of its six legs.

Suddenly, from a distance in the back yard, I heard a man’s cry, “Nyoka! Nyoka!”

This was truly startling. “Nyoka! Nyoka!” the cry rang out.

In the Swahili language, the word “Nyoka” means snake, but not just any snake. It means dangerous snake. The odd thing about this was that snakes were very rarely seen in the heat of mid-day. I heard the cry again, and I heard the back screen door slam as my father left the house. I jumped up and left the porch at the front of the house and ran around back to see what was going on. When I reached the back yard I could see my dad crossing the field behind the house toward the garden. In the middle of the field, a tall, barefooted man wearing only khaki shorts and carrying a long stick was standing and pointing in the direction of the garden.

My father reached him and stopped. They slowly advanced, and then I saw the big old king cobra that they were watching. It was slowly moving toward the garden. They followed it, and it became aware of them, suddenly rising up high off the ground and displaying its broad, golden neck with two hypnotic dark eye-shaped spots.

My father and the garden man froze. The snake dropped back to the ground and began to move more quickly toward a large pile of brush near the end of the field. Several other men arrived and all began to pursue the snake, which continued toward the brush pile and then disappeared inside. The men surrounded the huge pile of brush. With long sticks they poked into the pile, jumping back, afraid the reptile would attack. King cobras are known to be aggressive when provoked.

While all this commotion was going on, many of the villagers began to come to see what was going on and stood in the shade of the tall eucalyptus trees that lined the field. Women and girls stood and watched while curious boys ran with sticks and threw stones at the pile. Mothers called out at them and tried to get them to be careful. The men stood and watched and pondered what to do next. The day was very hot and dry, and some of the men receded to the shade of the trees. A sentry of 4 or 5 men stood guard around the brush pile watching for any sign of the snake. The crowd of onlookers swelled to include just about everyone in the village. Some of the boys kicked a soccer ball around in the dust, and a dry breeze lifted the fine dust into swirls around their ankles. Sweat ran down the cheeks of the men watching the huge pile of brush.

One of the men walked over to my father, who was standing with me in the shade. I heard him say, “Baba, we could set the brush on fire. That would surely drive the Nyoka out so we can kill it.” No sooner had he suggested this than a man came running from the village fire with a burning stick, and the brush pile was soon a blaze of heat and crackling light. Visible waves of heat radiated away from and above the fire in visible auroras. The intensity drove almost everyone away and back toward the trees and the shade. Even in the shade you could feel the heat of the fire across the field. The fire cracked and popped, but no snake appeared. An hour went by, and no snake had come from the now smoldering fire. People began to mumble, and some began to return to their huts in the village. Women took their children and said they had food to prepare.

About this time, a quiet whistling sound began to be heard coming from the pile of ash. The whistling became louder, and everyone in the near vicinity could hear it. It became louder still and began to sound like a woman crying in a high-pitched tone. Now the sound could be heard throughout the village, and it became an ear-splitting scream. People looked at each other, terrified. The Nyoka was crying! What could this mean?

One wise, elderly woman said that she believed that the men had tried to kill an ancestor spirit. “What Nyoka ever comes out into the heat of the day?” she asked. “It is a sign” she said, “a sign that we did not heed. In our rush to kill this Nyoka, we may have tried to kill an ancestor who was trying to talk with us. See, she does not come from the fire. She waits, and she will certainly take her anger out on us. Just you wait and see.”

This prediction filled the hearts of the villagers with foreboding and fear, and those who had returned to the fire to see what the commotion was fled from the scene, taking their children and mumbling in low, fearful tones. After a few minutes the crying became quieter and slowly died away. A few men stayed with my father and watched the last of the smoldering coals. Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, the Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, they found the king cobra coiled in a circle. Its mouth was open and the fangs exposed. It had been cooked by the fire, roasted under the corrugated roofing. I recall my father thinking for a few minutes after this discovery and then saying to the two men, “It is now clear to me what has happened here. As the snake cooked, it began to boil, and the moisture in the snake steamed out of its mouth and past the fangs, which created a whistling and crying sound, much like a penny whistle does.” The men looked puzzled.

One of the men was horrified. “Oh, no, Baba, this is not the case. This sound was the cry of the ancestor spirit leaving the snake. We have certainly offended one of our ancestors, and this is a very grave thing to have happened.”

He quickly left the field and returned to his family. That night as the village gathered to eat together and drink beer and tell stories around the communal fire, the talk was about whether to consult the Nganga (witch doctor) to see how they could make reparations to the ancestor. They believed that they had ignored a natural sign. They believed they had violated an ancestor, and they would be punished. My father tried to explain that this might not be the case, but the villagers would have nothing of it. They had their animistic beliefs that kept them in balance with nature. It was an evening of low talking and fearful discussion. Many retired to their huts earlier than usual. Only a few of the older men, including my father, sat and talked late into the night.

Early the next morning a 3-week-old infant died mysteriously while she slept. It was then the people knew that they had indeed angered an ancestor. The Nganga and a spirit medium and herbalist would need to be called to perform a ceremony to placate the ancestor. Women were asked to prepare extra beer, and the herbalist retreated to his hut on the outskirts of the village and pulled out his stock of hallucinogenic herbs and tinctures. Men sat around the village fire and talked while the women served beer and food and in their own groups ate and sang and danced. A couple of drummers and mbira (thumb-piano) players worked themselves into a chanting rhythm and flow that began to persuade those who participated to sway and bob with the beat. The Nganga mixed a tincture and filled a pipe that he lit and passed around the group of men, and the tincture was swallowed by the spirit medium, a man who normally was a very odd fellow, said to possess special powers of vision and the ability to talk with the ancestors.

The spirit medium fell into a trance and passed out on the ground under the watchful eye of the Nganga, who bathed his face with cool water. The chanting and singing became more communal, and some men began to get up and dance. The women, including my mother, joined in the chanting and clapping of hands, and pretty soon, everyone was singing mournful and yet energetic songs of placation. Late into the night, the spirit medium began to speak, and the Nganga called for silence.

The spirit medium spoke in a language that no one but the Nganga understood. After listening to the strange sounds coming from the spirit medium, the Nganga conferred with the village chief, who called for a moment of reflection. Then he spoke about what the ancestor had advised. He said that tomorrow we must kill a goat and 7 chickens and prepare a feast in honor of the ancestor. In addition, we must begin to respect each other and to watch out for the children of others as well as we watch out for our own children.

We must work more regularly in the peanut fields, as the crops are almost ready, and we must always treat strangers with caution but respect. After a list of these sorts of things, some directed specifically at a few members of the community, the ancestor related that life would return to normal. Within a few days, the community had come together with a new commitment to work productively and live in peace as the ancestors intended.

~

I broke some of my rules while working on Graham’s portrait. I really wanted it to live up to the power of his story and the quality of his deep, quiet mind… so I spent a lot more than 2 or 4 or 6 hours on it. While drawing him in his office at Columbia College, I had the advantage of seeing him silhouetted against a bright spring scene, the intense near-white greens illuminating his head as if with a halo. I worked this portrait back and fourth in Sketchbook Pro and Art Rage v3, with some editing and shifting in Afterlight, for several months. I used both the Adonit Jot Touch 4 and the fiftythree Pencil to do the work. I’m thankful for the conversations I’ve had with Graham and I hope to have more in the future.

VINCENT

Andrew Vincent was one of my favorite students. He has a quiet presence, a quirky sense of humor, and the uniqueness that comes from arriving in middle America from somewhere else. In his case, it was South Africa. His father, a scientist and professor at Mizzou, brought his family to the US in time for Andrew to start 3rd grade. In many ways he retains a beneficial sort of otherness in spite of having lived much of his life here in Missouri.

Andrew made some amazing work for me in my Color Drawing classes, work that I have shown to several semesters of students. Here are a few of his pieces:

DSC07844Andrew Vincent, Spilled Milk, Oil Pastel on Paper, 15 by 30 inches. Drawn from an image created in Autodesk 3Ds Max. 2011.

DSC07025Andrew Vincent, Study After Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Oil pastel on paper. 30 by 22 inches. 2011.

VincentA-Grid1-S11Andrew Vincent, Grid Study #1, Chalk Pastel on paper. 24 by 18 inches. 2011.

Also a gifted digital artist, Andrew has worked with Autodesk’s 3Ds Max for a while. Here is a render he created for a recent project:

10677326_10152670991425049_971583360_oAndrew Vincent, Naivety. Autodesk 3Ds Max. 1920 x 1080 PPI. Output dimensions variable. 2013.

~

Andrew has taken the opportunity to move to Auburn, AL to work at the Jule Collins Smith Museum as a preparator. He’s aiming to enroll at Auburn sometime in the near future. The guy is on his way to an awesome future. I’m thankful I got to know him in my classes and in the time after he graduated… and I’m certainly looking forward to witnessing what he gets up to in his ongoing education and career. Here’s a portrait I created of him when he visited my office/studio before he left town:

VincentVINCENT, digital drawing created in ArtRage and Sketchbook Pro on an iPad. 2048 x 1536 PPI. Output dimensions variable, 2014.

I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with Andrew, and they have always been far-ranging. We have discussed, faith, meaning, culture, humor, analog and digital drawing/painting tools and concepts, and so much more. I have the feeling we’ll have the chance for more conversation and mutual encouragement going forward.

One of the best parts of my job as an educator is getting to see my students go on to become colleagues and truly function as fellow artists. Keep going forward, Vincent!

Becoming The Student, #18: The PhD (Dr. Aja Holmes at Wakonse)

I was blessed to be able to attend the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching earlier this year (thanks, Deborah!) and while there I got to meet so many amazing people. One of them was Aja Holmes. As part of the cohort I was in, she set a tone of inclusion, concern, and thoughtfulness. She was welcoming, passionate, always engaging, and always ready with an encouraging word. It makes perfect sense that she’s found her niche as a Residence Life director working with Undergraduates. While at Wakonse, we got to share in the joy of her being appointed to a position at California State University-Sacramento. I’ve held onto this portrait of her since May, but since today is her birthday, it’s time to post it! Read below to find out more about this awesome individual!

photoThe PhD (Aja Holmes at Wakonse), gouache on paper, 10 by 16 inches. 2014.

 ~

You just earned your PhD. What drew you do your field and what was your educational trajectory?

“As a kid I always loved school. I would play school with my little brother – my first student. He would complain and ask our mom, ‘Why does Aja always want to play school? Didn’t she just come home from school?’ But he would go along with it if I promised to let him try wrestling moves on me (learning to compromise – HAHA!).

I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but when I saw blood for the first time it did not agree with me. I knew that I would have to take another route to becoming a doctor. While being involved as an undergraduate student leader someone told me about the work of Student Affairs and that I could live out the rest of my life on a college campus; I said SIGN ME UP! I loved everything about being on a college campus. So after undergrad I stayed on at Illinois State University for my Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel.

Back then I did not know for sure if I was going to get my PhD, but I knew that after my Master’s Degree I should get some significant work experience before going back for a doctorate. I did just that: worked at two universities in the area of ResLife. In 2009, I applied to doctoral programs in Higher Education Leadership and was accepted into Iowa State University. I had heard of Iowa State and I knew that if I wanted to finish I needed to be close to my family. Luckily Dad was a six-hour drive to Chicago and Mom was a three-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. To be in the middle of my family really strengthened my support system.

People often ask ‘what is your ultimate goal in life?’ They ask even more since I earned my PhD. Ultimately, I would like to become a university president. I also want to teach in a higher education program that prepares student affairs professionals.”

You have such a warm and engaging personality. How you do maintain your passionate, hopeful, and excited outlook? 

“I am often asked why am I so happy all the time. I have had to really think about it and truly understand what makes me happy. I decided a while back to take control of my happiness. To rely on others to make you happy relinquishes control on your outlook in life. So I make sure that I have a say in what makes me happy, and things that do not – I rid my life of them. My passion stems from experiences that have occurred in my life that had some effect on my life. Being a multiracial woman oftentimes lends me to have different experiences than most. Whether it’s issues such as the Voting Rights Act being challenged, unarmed African Americans being killed by the police, the DREAM Act, or other situations that involve people of underrepresented groups, I have a passion to act. I take to heart quotes and sayings such as, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ and, ‘service is what we pay for living’.”

When we spoke at Wakonse, you told me about the important impact your Dad made on your life. Can you name a couple key lessons he provided?

“I was raised in a single parent household. Unlike the norm, it was my father who raised me. He has been one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. Since I was in the 3rd grade, my father cared for for my brother and I. He has taught me so much in life, from how to mingle and get to know people you just met, to how to be a woman of Color in a white-male-dominated society, to how to use humor to break the ice. He told me to keep pushing and don’t let what other people think get in the way of my hopes and dreams. I saw his struggles of being a parent while trying to own a business, and of being a parent to a teenage daughter coming of age. He sought out advice from his sisters and other lady friends in his life. But my father had to step up when needed. I will forever be in awe of what he did.”

 10287004_10152438914589534_3993202260772184824_oMe working on Aja’s portrait while we chatted together.

You’re now at California State University-Sacramento working as the Senior Director for Housing and Residential Life. What inspired you to focus your career toward working with students in ResLife situations?

“I love everything about living in the residence halls! I lived in the halls all four of my undergraduate years. Working in ResLife has allowed me to get to know that part of the university from the inside and out. I get to interact with the students in a way that no other Student Affairs person does: while they are in their PJs at home. I get to see them grow into young citizens. Since my research is on supervision, and a large part of Residence Life is supervision, I am able to see how my research can evolve and help prepare student affairs professionals to be the best they can be in this area.”

What do you think is one of the most important issues university students are tackling in 2014?

“One of the most important issues facing students today is the appreciation of differences. I use the word difference in the total meaning of the word: everything that is different. Students are too desensitized to even recognize when something is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc. Students on our campuses have a unique makeup. They have been using computers their whole life and technology is their way of life; that is all that they know. Interacting with people who are different from them is hindered because of the technology. Technology made the world smaller but actually talking to another human being is a hurdle for them… hence their lack of the appreciation of differences.”

I think you’re into tabletop gaming – at least you were running the show at Wakonse! What’s your favorite board game?

“My favorite board game is really any one that my nieces and nephew are playing. Every holiday season we play board games and I am able to see them learn the process of waiting their turn, reading directions, compromising among each other, and displaying good sportpersonship. It is much more interactive than video games. They are such a joy to be around and I love everything there is to being an Aunt. I will play board games with them for hours and hours!”

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Thanks for sitting for me, Aja! Your portrait will be on the way soon!