Want professionals with the endurance to tackle a mammoth project and focus on the solution with unrelenting effort? Prepare them by placing them in six-hour classes. Need leaders who are prepared to take risks? Give them a tough challenge and then accent it with tough criticism from the most well-regarded instructors and visiting artists. Looking for people who can create synergies from seemingly unrelated interests? Provide them with a staggering array of courses in more than a dozen media. Then, encourage them to design a customized curriculum for themselves that arms them with a diverse set of skills and abilities to create art and design solutions many would consider inconceivable.
During the 2011-12 academic year, MICA saw an unprecedented convergence of training, technology, tools, and resources focused on producing a graduate prepared to tackle the toughest challenges. Imagine the curriculum of an accounting major, a pre-medicine major, even an engineering major. Their undergraduate matriculation is characterized primarily by theory—by memorizing the information provided by a professor and then recounting it back to them under pressure. Even steps toward application are often simply expansions of theoretical exercises. Like a traditional undergraduate, MICA undergraduates are taught how to think critically and analyze, but that is where the parallels stop. Ultimately, MICA students are expected to go beyond mere application and produce something new and unprecedented, a task in academia normally relegated to PhD candidates.
To even get the opportunity to study at MICA, graduate study applicants must have already proven themselves, and high school students must have stood out not only artistically, but also in their ability to excel academically and engage in their communities. For example, the 2011-12 entering freshman class, the largest ever, had an average SAT score more than 150 points above the U.S. national average, and came from 54 countries around the world. For Vice President of Admission Theresa Bedoya, the concept of a “smart artist” is a recruiting keystone. “Making art isn’t just about using the tools, computers, and skills to create a product; you have to come up with ideas,” explains Bedoya. “You are constantly being pushed to be creative and original. Ideas come from lots of different places, and the more you are engaged with thinking, talking, discussing, and reading, the more it stimulates your mind so that you can develop those conceptual skills along with your artmaking skills. So you have the hand and the brain—thinking and creating together.” According to Bedoya, that intellectual ability also increases a student’s value to other students on campus, who push each other to generate new ideas for unique projects. That’s why the work the students produce is as well-regarded not only for its technical merit, but also for the thought put into it. And that gives them a competitive advantage.
MICA’s artistic preparation is one of the toughest academic regimens at any college in the world. Excellence is demanded, and the extraordinary is recommended. At the same time, however, the most exacting instructor may simultaneously be the most accommodating mentor, and students are supported by an administration and staff who delight in their achievement. That unique system of personal and professional development yields graduates who are driven to establish themselves as creative leaders.
Sincere support from faculty and staff is critical for a young student who, in a very short time, will be expected to spend countless hours creating something that may ultimately be sharply evaluated by faculty, visiting artists, and critics considered to be among the world’s foremost experts. Students must develop the ability to remain focused during long nights of hard work and to eschew distractions that most college students have the liberty to indulge in. And though the MICA regimen will test them intensely, they are set up for success as soon as they hit campus.
Our students are incredibly creative problem solvers. They do not have tunnel vision. They see the big picture. You can put them into almost any problem-solving circumstance and they will add to that team. They are not beholden to any one way to solve the problem. It’s a much broader solution.” DENNIS FARBER, Foundation Division Associate Dean
MICA has spent years perfecting its Foundation program, which shows the newest students the path through the maze of challenges to come. In the Foundation program, students spend their first year developing the character necessary to succeed in the MICA way. Much of the coursework is specifically designed to instill discipline, patience, and a work ethic and to grow time management skills. Students are pushed by their faculty and peers to stretch the expectations they have of themselves and their work past their previous level of satisfaction to a place where “good enough” is not the goal. “That’s the thing that’s going to separate them when they get out of school,” said Foundation faculty member Carolyn Case. The college is still relentlessly refining the effort. For the first time, during the 2011-12 academic year, the College organized an entire academic division, led by an associate dean, to administer Foundation programming.
Most colleges claim to prepare students for success. Unique at MICA, however, is an effort to prepare students to remain disciplined even if they do not initially achieve the success they envisioned. Because it is inherent in MICA’s culture of risk-taking and pushing boundaries that students may not completely reach their goals on the first try, it is critical that they develop the self-confidence to pursue their potential to its limit.
“They develop a tolerance for discomfort,” said Foundation Division Associate Dean Dennis Farber. “The thing I think people need more than anything else is the ability to adapt. So we put them in situations where they have to learn that ability.” Only then, Farber says, can they learn how to deal with the obstacles they may encounter as they develop their own artistic voice on their journey to ultimate success.
Foundation students learn how to establish and lead teams through projects that require them to work with others from diverse backgrounds to solve problems. In critiques, they are held as accountable for explaining the process they used in creating their work as they are for the quality of the work itself, a technique that not only focuses them on problem-solving, but also helps them develop their critical thinking, oratorical, and communication skills, and helps them transcend any inherent timidity. Students gradually build up their capacity for sustained concentration and self-motivation through assignments that offer structure but not rigidity, and they explore the history and basics of not just one media, but virtually all artmaking forms taught at MICA. The result is a student who can understand the “continuity between precedent and innovation.”
Just as powerful are the life lessons the program is built around, designed to help students navigate the work-life balance necessary for a successful creative professional. Not only do they learn to build their skill capacity; they also build their mental and physical capacity, developing holistic habits around nutrition, rest, and physical fitness; guarding against substance abuse and depression; and understanding the possibilities (and pitfalls) of romantic relationships. They also learn to embrace the fact that, while they may have stood out in their local high school, they are now peers with the most talented young artists in the world.
In April 2012, the Board of Trustees green-lighted an enhancement to the foundation experience— the construction of a new residence hall. Facing North Avenue on one side and McMechen Street on the other, the 88,000-square-foot addition to the Commons complex will provide a living and learning experience especially necessary for new students, including 240 beds, a tiered lecture hall, studios, and a black box performance space. The new complex follows a model that allows younger students to live close to one another and build relationships so they can develop a support structure as they share experiences.
Students leave their Foundation year able to engage in a discourse about creative ideas, both on the conceptual and technical levels. They understand the importance of infusing research into a discovery process that is integrated into their artmaking. Whether students want to be entrepreneurs or work within an existing organization, they develop the self-assuredness to know that they can accomplish great things— with a great amount of effort.
You have the hand and the brain— thinking and creating together.” THERESA BEDOYA Vice President of Admission
Foundation year is so named because it is the cornerstone that begins growth as a creative professional while at MICA, but it by no means ends there. Sophomore year starts with a push to help students start to begin laying out a career course, structured to accommodate the sometimes divergent, sometimes parallel paths of fine artists and designers. They learn to professionalize their portfolios, document their work, and develop their resumes, biographies, artist statements, and web presence. They are taught to use campus resources to search for internships and connect with employers. And they begin to put definition around the body of work that will soon differentiate them. As their career goals come into greater focus during their final years, students develop presentation skills, begin to compete for residencies, grants, publication and exhibitions, learn how to network extensively to connect with industry catalysts, and prepare for life as an entrepreneur or a member of an organizational team.
The professional development process at MICA has two equally important arms. While the faculty mentors students, helping them choose or refine a career path and plugging them into their extensive networks, the Joseph E. Meyerhoff Center for Career Development takes a more prescribed approach to career planning.
Over the past year, the Meyerhoff Center has worked to increase its capacity to link students with employers and launch their careers while still in school. The year saw a 46% increase in the number of student sessions with career counselors, who specialize in fine arts or design and media, and who have also been certified to administer the Myers-Briggs personality test to help students determine what they really want to get out of a career. Students can also work directly with fellow students who have successfully gained work experience and have offered themselves as peer career advisors. In addition, they can work with a staff member who specializes in Fulbright and Jack Kent Cooke program application submission preparation.
Students can earn academic credit for internships, a crucial part of the career development process, and the Center works to connect students with opportunities and prepare the students to seize them. The MICA Network portal is a free online database listing opportunities from employers across the US and allowing those employers to search for MICA students who fit them. April 2012’s “Connect” career fair was attended by 463 students and alumni, up 54% from 2011, and recruiters from companies including Nickelodeon Animation, Discovery Communications, Weber Shadwick, and Urban Outfitters. The Career Center staff also works with faculty to host mock interviews, bring alumni back to share career perspectives, and deliver dozens of in-class workshops each year. From the center’s webpage, Students and alumni can access “how-to” videos on everything from documenting work, developing a portfolio website, and job searching, to dressing for an interview, researching grant opportunities, and pursuing a graduate education. The College also spent much of the past academic year developing a customized version of the Behance website, through which students can create an online portfolio to showcase their work. Also during the past year, MICA became one of the first colleges in the country to launch a website through Kickstarter, an online tool that helps individuals present and secure funding for projects. Tens of thousands of dollars have been invested in the more than 30 projects by MICA students, faculty, and alumni that have been successfully funded.
The internships open their eyes. If you want to understand what your options are when you graduate, you need to go out there and test out this world of work, to make contacts, to find mentors, to expose yourself to different things.” - MEGAN MILLER Director of the MICA Career Center
MICA graduates are natural leaders because they are taught that, to bring their artistic vision to reality, they must often marshal people to inform their work or as collaborators, and gather the resources to create the work itself. Involvement in student organizations on campus is an important part of growth as a creative leader’s and often blends a student’s creative passion with their intense desire to make an impact in their community. “Yes, studying art or design involves technical skills, but it also causes you to learn to think differently,” said Michael Patterson, Associate Dean of Student Life & Judicial Affairs. “MICA students can bring to the table the ability to approach problems and solve them in a way fundamentally different than anyone else. We work with students to help them understand how they can apply what they know inherently in a way that is much broader.”
Student resident advisors, peer counselors, and program managers are taught how to use their creative problem-solving ability to, for example, maximize a budget, get the supplies needed, secure desired talent, or develop financing for a project by working with various constituencies. “I would argue that involvement is as important as academics,” says Karol Martinez, Director of Student Activities. “As a result of participating in campus activities, students say that they have improved their communication skills, teamwork skills, and ability to manage projects. Later we hear alumni talk about how they are leveraging their previous experience as a program manager now in their current jobs. Students learn how to think creatively about how to make their passions happen by thinking out of the box.” Patterson adds that working as a student organizer helps students build the presentation and agenda-setting skills they will need throughout their careers. According to Patterson, when meeting with students majoring in engineering, business, liberal arts, or other areas from other schools, MICA students are often not initially recognized as the natural leader. Soon, however, they become the most popular person in the room because of their different approach to problem solving.
Just as students are encouraged to make a difference on campus, they actually compete for the opportunity to make a difference in the greater Baltimore community. Grants awarded by the offices of Community Engagement, Student Affairs, and Community Arts Partnership provide $500- $2,500 to students who have proposed in great detail a project that will have a positive community impact. As part of their grant application, students must explain how their project will empower others, identify the resources they will need, and show how they will manage its implementation. During the 2011-2012 academic year, more than $50,000 was awarded to students engaged in work with children, families, nonprofit organizations, and other community-based groups. “It gives students the opportunity to apply their talent and work in a real-world situation in its broadest and most exciting sense, and on a more nuts-and-bolts level, prompts them to articulate a vision, develop a proposal, and create and manage a budget,” says Director of the Office of Community Engagement, Karen Stults. “It’s one slice of what it means to be an artist, a business person, or an entrepreneur because you have to know how to pitch an idea and how to ask for support if you want to succeed.”
Graduate students need another kind of support. Many have already established themselves, while others seek to pivot away from the career path they are on and follow their passions along a creative trajectory. And just as it demands of its students, the College’s faculty has responded to gaps in art and design graduate education— creating one-of-a-kind programs that embrace community and social engagement at their core. Programs such as the MA in Social Design program push designers to work with numerous constituencies and use design (online, print, or environmental) to solve problems, while the MFA in Curatorial Practice program turns engagement into an artform, enabling students to curate their own site-specific exhibition based on the unique goals and outcome requirements of a location partner.
MICA moved last year to ensure that its graduate students have the type of environment their aggressive workload requires, and began the $20 million-plus renovation of the Graduate Studio Center on North Avenue and the adjoining building at 1801 Falls Road. The North Avenue building adds 25,000 square feet of academic space and upgrades an additional 95,000 square feet— almost three thousand of which is devoted to publicly accessible gallery and exhibition space. The extra space could not have come at a more opportune time. The College spent much of last year recruiting and admitting a record number of graduate students, projected to grow 33% in fall 2012 compared to fall 2011.
The collaboration among the record number of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and administrators on MICA’s campuses— and online— creates a unique type of graduate who can visualize solutions to problems and mobilize people and resources to actualize artistic vision. More and more each day, that type of professional is what the world needs.
"Whoever is working with a MICA student has an asset that no one else has.” MICHAEL PATTERSON Associate Dean of Student Life & Judicial Affairs