Student Stories: From Artistic Pursuit To College Focus

May 13, 2018

Channel CCR occasionally features stories from the Counseling and Admissions communities that highlight student journeys, triumphs, and even failures as part of the rich tapestry of the college admissions process. If you have a story to share, please submit via this link.


Today's story comes from Anjali Maazel, counselor, and features her student, Tony.


Our futures are created one choice at a time, and some of these choices are required of students before they are old enough to drive a car or to vote. How can we support teenagers in making life-defining decisions before they have had a chance to test their theories about themselves in the professional arena? Apart from offering assessments which attempt to identify strengths and match skills to majors and to future careers (somewhat imperfectly), we need to pay more attention to the intangible and unquantifiable dimension of calling, vocation or passion. In my personal and professional experience, I can say without hesitation that it is on this intuitive bedrock that a life of purpose is built.



A recent experience with one of my students brought home to me how essential it is for us, as college counselors, to listen to young people, ask probing questions, and then empower them to explore in the direction of their inclinations. When resources are scarce, our work as counselors is more arduous, but we can pair students with amazing non-profits and free opportunities for mentorship and talent development. As parents and counselors, we want our students to be excited and inspired by their lives, and this is possible if they are given the opportunity to align with their values, their vision and their purpose. 


When I began working with Tony in 10th grade, he told me he was thinking of a career in engineering. The reason he gave was that math came easily to him. His grades certainly reflected the aptitude, but in that initial discussion I saw that his heart was not in it. He was following a well trodden path that his parents clearly supported. When I inquired about what he enjoyed doing outside of academics, he told me shyly that he created artwork. In the few photos he had, I saw the products of a singular talent and exuberant spirit exemplified by a fish made of painted newspaper and masking tape, whose head supported a light bulb. This fish-lamp reminded me of the angler fish I had seen on Blue Planet, but there was also something other-worldly about the color of the scales and the expression in the fish’s eyes, as well as the position of the bulb. It was clever, well executed and memorable. And it was his first 3D piece.


The following year, Tony worked with a local sculptor I found for him, as he needed to develop the technique for a life-sized human figure. I was thinking of a college admissions portfolio for him regardless of his major, and he was apprenticing with an accomplished artist, developing his craft, and learning about himself in the process. It was fascinating to see him solve the technical challenges that would ultimately lead him to create his vision. As the winter of his junior year came to a close, I asked him how he would feel about spending some time in the summer refining his skills. He was admitted by the Rhode Island School of Design and worked on textiles and 3D projects in addition to sketching. He was so busy and so engrossed in his work that I only spoke to him 6 weeks later.


The first words that I heard upon his return were: I have decided I want to be an architect. His work from the summer reflected his flair for texture and structure, and even his textile design had architectural elements. There were ladders, stairways and other geometric patterns embedded in the silk screen prints. He had transformed a self-portrait into a globe lamp, and his foam core experiment looked like a science fiction structure from an alien civilization on another planet. He had studies in color which even there included structural elements. All in all, he had more than enough work from which to choose the 10-20 pieces that would compose a cohesive and compelling portfolio. This combined with a strong STEM background, and authentic essays created a powerful application.

Samples from Tony's portfolio.

Apart from the certainty he felt about his choice, the major transformation I saw in Tony was mirrored in his expression—the excitement with which he told me about the work he had done. He was actually proud of a few of the pieces and had clearly had to overcome creative and material hurdles in order to complete them. The RISD program had been intense and tiring, but he had learned a tremendous amount beyond craft and technique. He had learned about himself as an artist. Was working endlessly on a piece rewarding? Rewarding enough to devote his professional life to? For Tony, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”


He created a sleek website that spoke volumes about his esthetic and technical skills. For each architecture program he applied to, he adapted the portfolio to fit the requirements and drafted an artist’s statement. I encouraged him to read statements by other artists he admired to understand the tone of these pieces, and he shortened it for the website.


Before submitting his applications, he attended National Portfolio Day in Austin, showed his portfolio to various school representatives, and was encouraged by the results. The Chicago Institute of Art gave him a perfect score and admitted him on the spot, Washington University St. Louis gave him a 9/10 and said he would in all likelihood receive a scholarship, and RISD gave him an 8.5 and told him to apply. Given his outstanding academic record and test results, as well as the quality of his work, he aimed high. He applied EA to Tulane and ED to Rice, in addition to a handful of other RD schools. Tulane offered him a  $96,000 scholarship, but he chose Rice in the end. He had identified professors he wanted to work with there and liked the professional dimension of their program.


The transformation Tony experienced in a short period of time and his ability to translate and passion through a high level of skill bode well for his future sense of personal fulfillment and success. At the very least, when he is at the next crossroads in his life, he will remember, one choice at a time, to ask probing questions, identify his calling, and realign with his purpose.

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