The University of Utah’s hidden gem: community-based art education

Story and photo by MICHAEL OMAN

Amidst a struggling economy and proposed budget cuts, two things remain clear: education remains an attractive job market and the University of Utah holds a vital key for students seeking to become art educators.

It’s a key few realize exist. Not only is it beneficial to students but also to communities in general.

A group of University of Utah students discuss how to get the word out about their art in the community class.

The magic number: 7.6 percent. Utah’s unemployment rate hovered around this figure for the past several months, according to an online report Utah’s Department of Workforce Service (DWS) published January 2011. The national rate remains at 9 percent.

Mark Knold, DWS’ senior economist, said the reason Utah’s unemployment rate is below the national average is because of its younger demographics. Younger people are more likely able to afford going back to school, “hang out in Mom’s basement, whatever it takes to ride this thing out,” he said in an online podcast.

Those returning to school or those already there should consider this: Despite proposed budget cuts to higher education and public education, one area that maintains strong employment is education — particularly higher education.

According to DWS’ online report, higher education employment projections from 2008 to 2018 should see substantial growth, even though the number of annual job openings might be slim.

In addition, the need for art educators remains a constant.

In an email exchange, Dr. Beth Krensky, associate professor of art at the University of Utah, explained the reason behind that need. “Art education is federally-mandated to be taught in public schools, which may explain the need for faculty members in higher ed,” she said.

That high demand is one reason future educators should start thinking about how to stand out to potential employers now.

College students studying art education, for example, should strongly consider adding service-learning courses to their curriculum. Fine arts advisor at the University of Utah, Liz Abbott explained “some students will do the minimum requirement and they will sometimes wonder why they can’t get a job after school.”

She said students looking to attract future employers must take full advantage of their academic career and find ways of using what they learn outside the classroom.

“I worked in career services and there were lots of students who would show up and say ‘Ok, I’ve graduated, now what do I do to start my job search?’” Abbott said. “They were not going to be as successful in a job search as someone who had already gotten some experience through an internship or something like that.”

Several courses at the university’s College of Fine Arts offer students that ability.

For several years now Krensky has reached out to underserved communities through her class, “Art in the Community.” It does so by harnessing the community-based art education model (CBAE) to provide youth with a stimulating art education.

Trevor Wright participated last year in the service-learning class Krensky offers. It’s “a great way to get started into the art education program, I think,” he said.

“She’s taking two needs and meeting them with one class,” Wright said. “She is actually taking students that are studying art here at the U and trying to put them into the community.”

He noted that communities the class serves are generally underfunded or may even lack interest in the arts.

“It’s their [the youth’s] first time experience with some of the arts,” Wright continued, “but there’s some art forms such as photography — maybe they’ve taken pictures before — but maybe not in the way that was presented to them.”

Another former student of Krensky, Heidi Justice, is now a 2012 master candidate of public service at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas. She speaks fondly of her experience in the class.

During her time in the class Justice noticed the impact CBAE has on kids. It provides opportunities where kids can unleash their natural talents. “One day we had students that spent most of [the] time working on digging up the garden,” she said.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from the CBAE model the class employs.  “I really enjoyed it!” Justice exclaimed.

She said it provides a valuable set of skills that not only helps in the classroom but also makes finding employment a greater possibility. “[With a big project] there’s a really big necessity to take the time to plan,” she said. It’s something she feels is heavily stressed when designing art lessons for the youth, which is a core essential of the “Art in the Community” class. Taking that experience to future employers is “very important,” Justice explained.

“I think it’s important and it makes you more marketable,” Abbott confirmed.

Krensky previously said she constantly receives such praise from former students. “I’ve certainly heard from my students as they finish up their time at the University of Utah about the impact the class has had on them — in a positive way,” she said.

Wright is among that group of former students who praise the class.

“It’s helped me to develop a personal statement [and] it’s helped me understand why I want to educate,” he said.

Wright believes many at the University of Utah don’t realize the class exists. He notes that students are required to take art courses but many don’t consider “[the] ‘Art in the Community’ class as a class they could take.” Students who do take the course, however, shine like beacons in the sea of future employees.