Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 3, 2016

Humanities alumni apply skills to new careers

When most current undergraduates look to the future, they are facing uncertainty. In an unstable economy where a bachelor’s degree is even less of a guarantee of employment than it was 20 years ago, the impulse to pursue a major in a supposedly “safe” field is tempting. But many Knox alumni who graduated out of humanities programs are glad they went with their passions in Anthropology and Sociology, Dance or Studio Art now that they’re being asked to apply their liberal arts education to the professional world.

For alumnus Juan Irizarry ‘15, a typical week includes no fewer than four distinct time commitments: since graduation, the Anthropology and Sociology major and Dance Studies minor has been cast in two dance companies in addition to holding down a teaching job and a work study position.

Despite having a nontraditional career trajectory at present, he feels his degree in the humanities will continue to prove useful as he pursues his eventual goal of becoming a collegiate dance professor.

Irizarry moved in with his sister on the north side of Chicago after graduating from Knox last spring. His first job out of college was working as a dance instructor at a high school’s summer school program, but when that ended, he began to search on for positions in and around the city. What he found was Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

“I am a dance instructor for grades three to five and I do private lessons, so last semester I taught hip-hop,” he said. “This semester I’m teaching a private coaching lesson in hip-hop, a private coaching lesson in ballet with an autistic child, and then I’m teaching modern/contemporary.”

Irizarry then found Innervation Dance Cooperative, again through an search. He auditioned for and became part of first their daytime company, IDC SPEAKS, and then their nighttime company.

“The day company, we perform for middle schools and elementary schools. It’s really cool actually, so we put on productions, like we’re doing a steampunk ‘Hamlet,’ we’re doing ‘Twelfth Night,’” he said. “And then the night company, which I’m also in, performs for more of adult venues. I got cast in three pieces. In two of them I got lead roles and then in one of them I got an ensemble role, and it’s so much fun.”

One of his fellow company members recommended to him a work study position at Visceral Dance, also of Chicago, where he now spends one day a week cleaning studios and managing the front desk in return for free classes, helping him to hone his movement training. Irizarry concedes that his current life is hectic, not to mention the added stress of searching for a graduate program, which he is in the process of doing.

“I’m looking at graduate schools currently. I plan to take my degree in anthropology and sociology and apply that through dance theory and provide it for my future students,” he said.

In spite of his professional experiences not applying directly to what he studied at Knox, he feels thankful that he studied what he did, where he did it, because it makes him stand out.

“When people look at my resume, regardless if I’m applying for just a regular job as a dance instructor or auditioning to be a performer, I think it’s just an interesting dynamic,” he said. “Because some people, you see on their resume that they majored in dance or dance performance, and having an Anthropology and Sociology degree with a Dance Studies minor, it’s like, ‘oh, that’s interesting, he’s kind of different.’”

Indeed, it’s the skills that come along with that surprise factor that alumna Julia Ricciardi ‘09 considers undervalued but crucial in the professional world.

A double major in Studio Art and Elementary Education, Ricciardi now works as the Program Manager for Highest Awards at the Girl Scouts of America Seattle office. Her duties include volunteer recruitment and management, curricular development for in-person and online learning opportunities, and working with girls in sixth through 12th grade on their culminating projects as Girl Scouts to create solutions to community problems.

As a Knox student, Ricciardi learned what she calls “the value of what you learn when you’re making things with your hands.” After her First Year Preceptorial with Associate Professor of Art Mark Holmes, Ricciardi began taking sculpture classes alongside her Educational Studies ones. What she discovered was a desire to incorporate the creative process of an artist into the teaching process. But after getting her teacher certification, she chose not to become an elementary school teacher, as she had originally planned.

“I think teaching in a classroom, particularly in public schools is so fraught with regulations. It’s just so wrapped up in the political climate as far as how pay is determined and our teaching system is really racially inequitable,” she said. “I guess I didn’t really know how to sort through all of that or didn’t want to.”

Since her time as a student Ricciardi has worked in the Office of Admissions, she became an Admissions Counselor immediately upon graduating, a career that suited her desire to interact closely with young people and help them pursue their passions.

Along with fellow counselor Maria Fillipone ‘03 and then-student, now-counselor Sarah Colangelo ‘10, Ricciardi started and maintained a Girl Scout troop in Galesburg, which met at Knox. She wound up getting a job working for Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois, and eventually moved to the Seattle office.

“It really is an opportunity to take my background in education and educational psychology and my interest in social justice, creative thinking and that informal mode of learning and building relationships and bring all of that together,” she said.

Her degree at Knox has been instrumental to her success in her professional life.

“I always find myself thinking about or actually remembering specific conversations from art classes when I’m in staff meetings and in the business world or the nonprofit world,” she said. “To students that are not sure they want to go directly into whatever the most typical profession based on their degree is, I would encourage people to think about what types of activities they want to be doing in their day-to-day life. If you inquire in that direction, you’re likely to figure out that the degree that you’ve been earning for three or four years will apply. You find a way to fit it all together.”

The path may not be direct for a humanities major, but now, less than a year after graduation, Irizarry’s strategy is to relax and remember that the resources he had in college have provided him the necessary foundation to get him where he wants to go.

Almost seven years after graduation, Ricciardi has always known her Knox education would help her succeed.

“I still have those questions, like ‘where am I going to be in two years?’” she said. “But my experience at Knox in total, so what I learned from working in admissions and what I learned in my classes and from my professors and the relationships I developed with my classmates, I was pretty clear about all of that, there’d be some pathway to success.”

Carly Taylor, Staff Writer

Tags:  alumni anthropology arts girl scouts humanities sociology

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