The power in a 25-pound bag of Clay

Maria found her 25-pound bag of clay but getting to it was not a straight line. It was a journey that taught me much about the kind of support she needs to find her way at the University of Utah.

On the second day of classes this semester I asked Maria how her classes were going. To my total shock she said: “I don’t like my Art Class.”

Art forms the center of Maria’s identity. She spent her high school years volunteering with the youth group of the Episcopal Church on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah, finding projects that little kids would like to do. Due to her years of devotion to this community service, the Church awarded her a scholarship that is making all the difference in her ability to attend the university. When I needed a condolence card for a university administrator who had lost his father, it was Maria who drew a card with a simple, stunning dream catcher and feather on the inside to convey her condolences.

Maria displaying the new Logo she designed with the young students in the “Art Empowers” program at the Episcopal Church on the reservation

“You don’t like it?” I responded sadly.

“No. It is all on the computer.”

I asked those predictable follow up questions like: “Have you ever taken a digital art class?” As I inquired she began shutting down. He eyes focused straight on me over her mask and a piercing look of despair overcame her. “Okay, let’s email the professor and see what he suggests.”

She did. And he responded quickly. He told her that because this was a video class, perhaps it was not the best one to start with. He suggested she try 2D art, so we took a look at that. She found and class and enrolled. She jumped on Canvas and get started with the first assignment. Maria and I watched the 5-minute video the professor had created to explain the first assignment. Each student was to copy 20 digital illustrations in Adobe Illustrator. In the video he used the terms “scope”, “range” and “scale” with no explanation. When the video finished I looked at Maria and she was frozen.

“Don’t worry, I could not watch that and do the assignment either,” I told her. This was mostly true, but a bit of an exaggeration. I recognized the fact he used terms that she had never heard. I knew them. I was just trying to quickly find a way of telling her, “there are way too many assumptions being made here.” I began to presume that the other students in the course had taken a digital art course in high school, perhaps many times over. She had only ever put pen to paper. Sitting side by side on the couch in her apartment we hunted for another art class. Through the process I realized that there are eight fundamental courses for art majors. None were labeled: “Painting 101” or “Fundamentals of Drawing.” They all have clever names like: “Studio Art Foundation: Matrix,” “Studio Art Foundation: illusion” and “Studio Art Mapping”. Translated, these courses are 2D Digital Art, Painting, and Drawing, respectfully.

Because we could not tell from the titles what the courses were exactly about, we clicked on every course description and read through each one. As luck would have it the last one – Studio Art Fundamentals: Touch – was the jackpot!. It’s ceramics. Its clay!

“Have you ever taken a ceramics class before?” I asked.


Trying to stay calm, I asked her to click on the class and see if it had any “seats” left. It did so she quickly dropped the “Matrix” course and grabbed the seat in the “Touch” course. Success!

Well…sort of. She emailed the professor who got right back and welcomed her to the class. She said that Maria needed to buy a bag of clay and explained how to do it. I then bid Maria farewell for the weekend.

Introductory Art classes at the U are structured in 3 hours blocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At this point Maria had missed a week of class-six hours total. This is equivalent to two weeks of an average college course.

The following Tuesday afternoon I asked Maria: “How was art?”

“Oh…I didn’t go.” she replied. “I overslept.”

Silence. Disappointment. Tinges of anger engulfed me, but I stuffed it all somewhere. “How about we meet tomorrow on campus and figure out how to buy your clay?” I replied.

We did just that. We met the next day found the building housing the cashier who took her $20 and gave her a receipt. We walked across campus to the Art building and wandered the exposed concrete hallways looking for the clay. We ended up in the Dean’s office where a welcoming person escorted us to the messy, fun studio wing where we spotted a person who looked like a professor. His class was scurrying around, about to begin. I stepped forward, a bit worried I was going to overstep my role, but unable resist throwing my middle-aged, white privilege at this problem. I introduced Maria and asked if he could help her acquire her clay. Perking right up and focusing on her, he took her to a cage filled with blocks of clay, marked the receipt she had in her hand, and directed her to grab some clay.

Eventhough we interrupted his class this professor stopped and helped Maria. Sometimes the patience and grace of one educator can be a crucial stepping stone to a student persisting.

Maria and I then walked to my truck and put the clay in the back. We then walked across campus using a timer on my iphone to see how long it would take her to get from the bus stop to the art building. On the walk back we calculated which bus she would need to take in order to get to class on time.

During the ride home Maria piped up: “If I take the earlier bus I could maybe talk to the professor before the class.”

I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I batted them away. . She was back in the game! She was now ready for her first college art class.

When she “slept in” the day before I knew that that is sort of, but not really what had happened. Emotionally, she was miles away from being able to attend that class! But now, after a dry run, after having acquired the clay, after having walked the hallways and been greeted warmly by everyone she met, she was ready.

Or so I hoped. I texted her the next day an hour after the completion of the class and asked her: “On a scale of one to ten, how was art?”

“Ten” she replied, “It was good.”

The smile of a college kid on the hunt for her academic home.

The First Few Weeks of College

Like with most things about this program is constantly evolving. We don’t set out to “start a new initiative” but instead find ourselves answering to the need of a Ute Indian student or two, and from there, the work grows. I just got back from St. George where I visited with all the Ute Indian Student that we have enrolled at Dixie State University. Pictured below is the crew! Following up with students during their first year or so there is a new idea, and one that so far feels like a very good idea.

Supporting the students during their 13th year seems kind of imperative and a good investment in time and treasure. As the Dixie State folks said to a packed auditorium at orientation in August: “We are going to really focus on the first 3 weeks. Because if we can keep you for the first three weeks, we think we have a good chance of keeping you here. And we want you to be here.”

Of the students picture above all but one worked with me while in high school to fill out their FAFSA’s and applications to Dixie. They are all living within a block of one another and we even have some veterans within the group that can help mentor some of the first year kids. Part of the theory of how to retain first generation college kids is to support them early and, we at the Office of Engagement at the “U” are adding, have them go with each other instead of dispersing them far and wide across the state. So, we are encouraging Ute Indian students who can to apply to the “U”. And we encourage them to apply to Weber State, Dixie State and UVU because they have off campus housing that is close and student oriented, loads of support for first generation students in the form of small classes, instruction in time management and study skills, and easily accessible academic advising.

We all had dinner together. They showed each other job apps like “Handshake” and shared times when open basketball is a thing. When I dropped each back at their respective apartments (after I made them take the group pictures) I got a warm: “Thank You” from each and everyone.

I motioned to each of them with my hands stretched out in front of me and my thumbs wiggling in the air, that I am only a text away. In a few weeks I will go back down and hopefully find them even more settled and happy in their new college gig.

Teenagers and Libraries: How the two shall meet!

How do you pull teenagers into a library?  It is a question facing every community that cares about its kids and its library.  So this spring when Cheryl Lonebear, the librarian for the Ute Indian Tribe mused about this problem within earshot of TJ Ferrill, the University of Utah’s Assistant Head of Creative Spaces at the Marriott Library, he quickly replied: “Oh I have the stuff that brings kids into libraries!”    

On Wednesday, September 12th after months of emails and travel back and forth by both TJ and Cheryl, TJ loaded up a University of Utah fleet car with a 3D printer, his virtual reality suitcase and backpacks full of other high tech gaming apparatus, and we drove 150 miles east on US 40 to Fort Duchesne.   Not 5 minutes after arriving TJ’s 14 year old pals Kenyan and Blixx, who attended the Ute Youth Storytelling Camp the past summer at the “U”, leaped to his aid, helping set up the monitors and machines. (I suspect the boys also know that those that help get first dibs at the VR!)

BlixxBlixx, a sophomore at Uintah River High School, helps TJ set up the Virtual Reality equipment.  

For the next 5 hours high school students, millennials, elders and youth played with TJ’s stuff.  What stuck me, a non-gamer from way back, was how collaborative and social VR and gaming is. I kept glancing over at the gaming stations and finding 2-4 people, often multiple generations, playing, laughing, pointing and conversing as their thumbs pounded away at the remotes.

IMG_4501   A young attendee ready to sport some VR goggles.

Even VR, which requires someone to sport a funny looking pair of bulky goggles, would cause the formation of a group of smiling faces to gather around the monitor and marvel or scorn at the performance of the goggle wielding player.   By the end of the evening dozens of people young and old came out to play. Dozens came to the library event.

IMG_4447Onlookers cheer on their classmate at Uintah River High School as he slays the VR game he is playing!

Although the night started out with the lure of high tech toys, it ended up being, not surprisingly, about people, connections and community. Not only did the event succeed in terms of the connections made, but it marked a vibrant collaboration between a colossal library serving the flagship University of the state and a small, community library serving a rural indian community.   TJ and Cheryl took their working relationship forged over many months of travel between the University and the reservation, and built a collaboration that bridged the gap. We are all motivated to create more nights like this one going forward. It worked.


Special Thanks to Aaron’s Sales and Leasing of Vernal for providing screens and consoles galore!