NY6 fellowship advocates arts education


By Song My Hoang

Mary Grace Wajda ’15, Ruwimbo Makoni ’15 and Yilun Zhang ’15 received a stipend of $500 to complete the Student Fellows Program, which provides them the opportunity to participate in the NY6 Think Tank. The program will span from Feb. 10, 2015, to May 1, 2015.

The New York 6 Liberal Arts Consortium consists of Colgate University, Hamilton College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Skidmore College, St. Lawrence University and Union.

Over time, there has been a shift from an education in the arts and humanities to a focus on an education in the science, technology, engineering and medical fields.

According to Hamilton College, “Humanities are the historic core of the liberal arts. They are the primary site within our academic structure for posing questions about meaning, value and ethics.”

Through a liberal arts education, students can develop the skills necessary for personal and professional success. An education in the arts and humanities, according to NY6, cultivates “critical judgment, empathy, discernment and ethical reasoning,” which are skills that become essential in all fields of study.

According to the NY6 website, NY6 Think Tank aims to “build a community comprised of professionals and students who wish to disrupt, rethink and rewrite public conversations on the state of the Arts and Humanities.”

The NY6 Think Tank was launched with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The main goal of the NY6 Think Tank is to incite national dialogue about the value of an arts and humanities education through “changing public opinion, listening and speaking to various audiences, applying ideas from other fields and using non-traditional outlets to express ideas.”

These social outlets may include newspapers, magazines, videos, blogs or other digital platforms.

The collaboration of six upstate New York liberal arts institutions emphasizes their common objective to advocate for the relevance and importance of an education in the arts and humanities. This cooperative venture intends to foster an environment that encourages “intellectual and creative exchange.”

Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies Christine Henseler, who is Union’s NY6 Think Tank Leader, supervises the Student Fellows Program.

For the Student Fellows Program, students are able to create and publish their own projects through multimedia outlets of their choice.

Student fellows can create content on various social media platforms, which may include producing blogs, short essays, interviews, videos, infographs, posters, stickers or other materials, Instagram feeds, video games, artworks, documentaries and other digital projects. The main goal of the Student Fellows Program is for students to “explore the surprising and often overlooked ways in which the Arts and Humanities play a part in the lives of today’s students.”

“Fellows therefore get to express how students are reshaping, remixing or reapplying the Arts and Humanities in new ways. They get to create projects that give shape to how students are using ideas, concepts, aspects derived from the Arts and Humanities to alter society, business, education, culture, politics or other realms.”

Yilun Zhang, who is a neuroscience major, is involved with the Pre-Health Society, Nu Rho Psi, the Student National Medical Association and Good Eats. Zhang shared that he applied to the program because he has always been interested in the intersection between the humanities and medicine.

“I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to actually engage with it, instead of just being aware of it,” he commented. His project was inspired by his travels during the summer when he went backpacking in Western Europe. Zhang explained, “I was told leading up to the summer that this would be a ‘transformative’ experience. On the train ride from Belgium to Berlin, I realized it had just seemed like a long commute.

It wasn’t until I started writing in my own notebook, and back home, that I realized just how absurd and incredible my experiences were.”

“Having ‘rediscovered’ writing for myself that summer, I began writing more when I was stressed. Putting my thoughts to paper really helped me keep my sanity and productivity,” continued Zhang. Therefore, his proposed project for the Student Fellows Program focuses on “the use of writing and narrative in health and medicine.”

He hopes to target stressed college students and encourage them to engage in an exercise in expressive writing and reflection. Zhang said that students are only prompted to reflect on their personal lives during application season or senior year. He wants to show students the immediate and practical benefits of writing on a daily basis. “I also plan to create a team of like-minded individuals that will help me stretch the reach of my mission, while giving the initiative longevity,” Zhang noted. He intends to collaborate with medical students, faculty members and medical practitioners.

He also wants to organize a symposium led by Dr. Rita Charon, who is a practicing physician and director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, as she is advocating for the medical humanities. Zhang affirmed, “I’ll be honest, I painted a very nice picture of myself, but I encourage people to write more when they are stressed! “I typically have to compel myself to write as well, but I have found that the easiest way is to remove your inhibitions, keep a paper and pen around and let the words fall from the impregnated mind to the inviting blank paper.”

Mary Grace Wajda is a double major in classics and philosophy. She shared that the fellowship appealed to her for several reasons. Wajda has always been an advocate for the study of the arts and humanities for their inherent value. However, when she underwent the job application process as a senior, she became aware of the importance of articulating the merits of a liberal arts education when communicating with others who do not share a similar background.

Wajda just accepted a job offer for after graduation with a software company in Boston, Mass., and she believes that her double major was one of her strongest selling points during her interviews. She said, “Studying the arts and humanities teaches you to think critically and to communicate your ideas, two traits employers will always value. In fact, there are articles in the news all the time these days about the value of a philosophy major — not merely pointing out the rigor of this course of study and what it can do for you personally, but how it can benefit you professionally.”

“The message (of this fellowship) is that you don’t have to choose between studying what you love and what you think or what someone else tells you is more practical. Having passion and being pragmatic does not have to be mutually exclusive when it comes to what you major in, minor in or pursue as a career,” Wajda continued. Wajda’s inspiration comes from many sources. Before becoming a lawyer for General Electric, her grandfather was a classics professor at Union. Her grandmother instilled in her an appreciation for arts and literature when she was a child. Her father studied journalism in college and her mother graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an English degree.

She also completed an internship in Saratoga Springs, babysat and tutored last term and worked in a law firm. She believed that the combination of these influences led her to develop her current perspective. Her project title is, “A Most Perfect Union: Passion, Pragmatism and the Link Between a Liberal Arts Education and Corporate Success.” She will interview students, successful business professionals who studied the arts and humanities in college and professors. “By the end of my fellowship, I hope to have created a campaign that contributes to the conversation about the value of studying the arts and humanities,” Wajda noted. Students can follow her blog and Instagram posts.

Makoni is a psychology major who has always enjoyed learning about the arts, languages and different cultures. For her Student Fellows project, she plans to create and photograph a campaign entitled, “The ABCs of a Being Student,” which will capture a real-life application of the arts and humanities in students’ daily lives.

She shared, “I hope to discover the activities that students would not automatically think to be associated with the arts and humanities. Additionally, this campaign will explore culture and language.”

Students can follow Makoni’s project on her blog and Instagram. “This campaign is not only for professors, teachers and students but for anyone with a knack for creativity and learning,” Makoni added.


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