THREE REASONS ART SCHOOL ISN’T TOTALLY USELESS

You go to art school because you love something to death. You love something enough to risk financial stability, your standing in society, even the approval of your family. Being an artist is crazy brave, and maybe crazy stupid. Making the choice to invest in an education in the arts? That’s terrifying. But you do it because you’re that passionate. What you make—it just brings you that much joy or meaning. I knew all this when I started at Uversity. I knew that writing and music and dance were my passions. But I didn’t know that I’d come away with a new one. In fact, I came away with a whole new career path I hadn’t considered before.

I just finished producing an episode of the podcast Imaginary Worlds. It was a lot of work and I lost a couple of weekends in the process but I got paid and my literal voice is going to be out on the internet radio ether now. This is all fairly surprising when you consider that a little over a year ago, I couldn’t tell you what a podcast was. Radio? So 1930s. This American Life? Is that a magazine? That was me. Now I have headphones in and Fresh Air queued up on my phone pretty much every day. I brought a recording device on my last trip to Berlin and recorded the whole trip.

It’s fine if none of that make any sense to you. The point is I went from total ignorance to doing professional work in an arts field within my short time in Ireland. And I think that only could have happened at Uversity. Here’s three reasons why:

PEOPLE ARE PASSIONATE AND PASSION IS CONTAGIOUS

From the start I knew I’d love being in a group of people with vastly different interests, methods, and personalities. I’ve always been a believer in strength through diversity and that strength really came through in a big way for me this year. I know that’s kind of a cliché sentiment, but it’s true; being exposed to different perspectives expands your capabilities. Take the cohort and its diversity seriously, because each person you meet is a library of knowledge and experience. Each member of the cohort is a potential instructor for an in depth course in something totally unexpected. My cohort was two film makers, two thespians, two writers, a musician, and a radio guy. Ironically, I was least interested in radio at the start, but then I met Elliot.

Elliot isn’t the most outwardly enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. He’s pretty quiet in group settings and can seem a bit bashful or shy, so I didn’t really know what to make of him. But then he showed us his work. When I first heard it, something sparked in my brain right there and I knew Elliot and I would get along. I remember thinking, “I’ve never heard anything like this before.” I remember there was narration and there was a flock of pigeons and a chanting crowd. I think he was talking about how much he loved the way things sounded, that there was something magical about it. I thought so too.

Elliot isn’t shy when it comes to one-on-one conversations, I soon realized. Especially if you’re talking about radio with him. He, like all of us nerds, is always just barely containing his undying excitement for the things he loves. So all you have to do is bring it up and he springs to life. We talked about why he loved radio and how he got into it (he heard the droning, sleepy voices of public radio and though ‘I can do that,’) We discussed exactly what kind of radio he loves and what he doesn’t (he hates overly chipper classical music station hosts). Within the first couple weeks in Ireland he sent me a giant email of podcast recommendations. I started with This American Life (the gateway podcast) and slipped into Radiolab. Pretty soon I was full on NPR and bingeing improv specials. I knew my evolution was complete when I ended every conversation by recommending a related podcast. The obvious next step was to make my own.

SERENDIPITY COMES FROM CHAOS

Lucky for me, I was actively encouraged to play with new mediums in my actively bananas class, Writing and Experiment (emphasis on Experiment). This was a writing class that took place in a dance studio, led by writer/performer/broadcaster Dr. Jools Gilson, who started every day by having us stand in a circle and copy her fish/bird/alien sounds and movements. We did a lot of random stuff in that class, like collaborate with an architect, and rub our butts in spirals against the walls, but those are stories for another time. The grand finale was a multi-media project that explored the intersection between our own selves and something bigger. It had to be writing plus something else—in most cases, video and sound.

So I took my phone and found someone I wanted to interview and hit record. I asked Elliot to recommend a sound editing software, cut up the interview, added narration, music, some clips, and boom, I’d made a radio essay.
It might seem like a happy coincidence that I was given the chance to make radio at the exact time I was starting to listen to podcasts for the first time, and in some ways it was. But in other ways this coincidence was totally engineered into the chaos of a self-designed program. My program was made of all these moving parts, a lot of which didn’t make sense together, but when it all came together, a couple key ingredients collided, stuck together, and formed something beautiful. I knew I loved writing and I loved music, especially the music of language. I’d done a lot of spoken word poetry in college, but I needed something different. Because I also loved long form storytelling and deep conversations with strangers. I wanted to make things that felt more substantial and multimedia than just words on a page.

I think my best decision I made here was to be open to accepting all the different parts of me, to just chase things that felt exciting, even when they felt unrelated to my core medium, and happily it all added up to something. The next semester, a writing for Radio class was offered, and I just had to stay in Cork and focus on this new thing I’d discovered. And it felt really good, to just play things by ear and have the improv turn into music.

IT’S ABOUT WHAT YOU LOVE

So how did I get from thinking about podcasts to being on the air? Well, somehow I had the guts to message the creator of a podcast I listen to, without any prompting, or any real experience, and ask if I could produce an episode for him. This was a while ago, too, before I even took the Writing for Radio module, when I’d just started listening to podcasts.

There wasn’t really a plan going into it. I just felt like I had to say something. It just seemed right. The show was about world-building (another passion of mine) and I had something I really wanted to say about one of my favorite shows, Avatar: the Last Airbender. So I pitched an idea and a year later, my own name and voice pops up in the podcast feed next to career reporters and people interviewing Meryl Streep.

Now, I don’t even know if I want to make radio a serious career path of mine, and I know if I do, this is all just a first step. But it’s a solid first step. It’s a win. And I really need these wins. Because being an artist is rough, and if I’m totally honest, getting an arts degree is rough, too. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in school, and not always in a dramatic, romantic way, either. Most of it is very un-glamorous, and often lonely.

That’s the kind of brutal thing about Uversity: you’re really on your own. That’s what happens when you’re totally able to choose your own path. It’s hard to find people to guide you because no one is actually doing exactly what you’re doing. And since you’re coming in and out of all these different cities and programs and cohorts, it’s easy to slip through cracks, and wonder where you fit. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. The flip side is, when you don’t belong anywhere, no one can tell you what to do. Your north star is your own love and passion for what you do. You learn to guard and cultivate that love, understand it and test it. And like any kind of love, it makes you brave. It gives you direction.

I think this is where that courage and instinct came from, to contact Imaginary Worlds and pitch my idea. It’s also why, despite the daunting world I’m now entering, I’m not really afraid for my future. I understand more than ever what drives me, what moves me, and how to trust myself. And I know none of those things are hard skills that translate directly into dolla dolla bills, but I think they’re better. I think people spend their whole lives looking for the kind of confidence I gained this year, so altogether—I’d say time well spent.

 

Sam Lai, Uversity Student Ambassador