Your decision to come to Georgetown probably had something to do with its location in Washington DC. Whether compelled by the capital’s bustling political culture, its robust academic community, the richness of its two and a half century history, or even by its steadily growing arts community, this town’s energy defines all who inhabit it.
The Georgetown community is not separate from the District’s dynamic personality. The University nurtures the same degree of passion and focus as the city, and mirrors the District’s incredible diversity of fields.
Like many Washingtonians, however, Georgetown students’ individual interests often align with professional goals that come to define their Georgetown experience. This career-driven atmosphere, which runs across all four undergraduate schools, is deeply ingrained in Georgetown’s undergraduate culture and leads people to make calculated choices to arrive at their career objectives.
“The academic environment is a very pre-professional environment, so its easy for people to say, ‘Okay this is point A, and this is point B, and this is how I’m going to get there,’” said Shweta Wahal (SFS ‘16), the Chair of the GUSA Senate Intellectual Life Committee. “Sometimes that doesn’t leave much of room for things that they enjoy doing, or things outside of their primary area of interest.”
Because of the inherent need to prioritize in the pre-professional culture, creative expression is not given the attention that Georgetown’s Jesuit mission to educate the whole person implies. Arts communities remain separate from mainstream culture, and in the rigid, career orientation of the the University, expression becomes both a struggle and a sacrifice.
Once these obstacles have been overcome, students in the arts support one another and pursue mutually beneficial outlets. The incorporation of the arts can, when these obstacles are surpassed, complement all aspects of students’ lives.
“A lot of the people here are in this very professional mindset,” said Connor Rohan (COL ‘16), a member of the GU Improv Association and a student musician. “Professionalism is not fun. You need it for progress. You need it to keep society running and to keep the joints oiled. It’s very important and I commend everyone for that … but it is dulling out creativity, and that’s an issue.”
Nicholas Giberti (COL ‘14) is majoring in Classics. He came to Georgetown planning on staying in academia and eventually becoming a Classics professor. He didn’t, however, plan on falling in love with photography and discovering a pursuit of the arts in his post-college life.
“When I picked up photography, I kind of was reluctant to get into it in an academic sense,” Giberti said. “I’m not sure I wanted to admit to myself that that’s where my life was heading.”
Giberti found it difficult to let go of the view, firmly held by many Hoyas, that intellectual life in college should be reserved for professional ambitions. Giberti, though intending to build his career around photography in some capacity, has only taken two photography classes to date because he felt compelled to stay devoted to Classics even after he discovered his new passion.
“At Georgetown it’s easy to get caught up in the mentality that there’s only one kind of success, that success looks like having a consulting job or having a business career,” Giberti said. “There’s definitely a sense that if you’re deviating from that path that’s somehow wrong.”
Giberti has been lucky to have supportive people around him, who have helped him come to pursue photography as his primary passion and relinquish anxieties that the Georgetown community perpetuates about making arts a primary objective. Success, Giberti has come to realize, is possible in the arts and he can be happy doing photography after college.
When creative expression conflicts with the Georgetown community’s professional career ambitions, not only are individuals’ artistic and creative ambitions limited, but the valuable potential for intellectual growth and the ability to develop valuable cross-disciplinary skills is compromised.
“The arts are a great way of freeing the imagination and seeing patterns that aren’t immediately obvious,” said Dr. Robynn Stilwell, an associate professor in the Department of Performing Arts and a member of Performing Arts Advisory Council. “Creativity is a skill transferable to every other field.”
The division that exists between the arts communities on campus and more academic pursuit inhibits the growing and learning opportunities that come with the incorporation of the arts into a college education.
“It is a real shame that creativity and intellectual life are divorced on this campus,” said Chase Meacham (COL ‘14) a member of PAAC, the associate producer of Mask & Bauble and former Georgetown University Student Association Secretary for the Arts. “They ought to be linked. They are, or should be, understood as two different reflections of the same concept.”
The integration of arts more universally into a Georgetown education, would allow Hoyas to cross-fertilize their diverse interests and passions. Applying a creative approach to academic pursuits gives students the ability to approach academic interests through an imaginative lens that reveals patterns and complex relationships as well as fosters an innovative thought process.
“It’s like one of those conversations at a party where everyone is talking over one another, not to interrupt, but to add more and extend the line of thought,” said Dr. Stilwell. This extended line of thought enriches education in all concentrations, and develops skills that carry on to students’ professional careers regardless of their field.
Katie Mitchell (COL ‘15) began her Georgetown career in the School of Foreign Service. She was immersed in economics and government requirements but she hadn’t found anything that particularly motivated her. [Disclosure: Mitchell is a former contributor to the Voice.]
That changed when she discovered the Lannan Poetry Seminar, run through Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Her experience with this course prompted her to return to her passion of creative writing. After her freshman year she switched to the College and is now an English and Philosophy double major.
“I think it’s kind of telling that I needed something that had the ‘and social practice’ to justify me switching,” Mitchell said. “It didn’t feel initially like I was just an English major.”
The pressure and rigidity of an intense curriculum, like that of the School of Foreign Service, limits the time that students can devote to creative pursuits. “Before I switched, I had a little bit of time to write but I had to carve it out for myself,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell switched out of the SFS in order to devote as much time as she wanted to her writing, and to less rigid, career-driven interests, but she felt as though she needed to justify this move because it cut across the grain of Georgetown’s pre-professional character.
“It’s … frustrating because when you are so moved by something like writing, when you believe in it so much,” Mitchell said. “It’s … hard when the people close to you are kind of thinking of it as a novelty, like, ‘Oh! That’s cute, Katie does poetry.’”
While each of the four schools share the same general education requirements, the SFS, McDonough School of Business, and Nursing and Health Studies School have supplementary requirements. These requirements create rigid degree structures that occupy a large portion of students schedules, especially in the first two years of college.
Despite these requirements, arts courses are open to students in any school and many students take advantage of the opportunity for studying creative interests outside of their degree requirements.
“We have nearly thirty percent of our students minor in a discipline in the College,” said Dean Norean Sharpe, senior associate dean of the MSB and director of the undergraduate program. “Anything from government to political science to art to Italian.”
The NHS offers the same option to take courses and achieve minors in other schools. “Students are certainly able and are encouraged by their academic dean to pursue minors in Georgetown College that the student has expressed a desire for,” said Senior Assistant Dean Douglas in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. “If their desire is to pursue a social science or expressive arts focus, we will assist them in doing so.”
SFS students are able to take courses in other schools and many do, however, students are unable to minor across schools. “We don’t have any minors, so that’s a topic for the curriculum committee,” said Dean James Reardon-Anderson, acting dean of the School of Foreign Service.
“A student who simply wanted to do a major in the SFS would have enough free electives to do something in the arts if that was their priority,” said Dean Reardon-Anderson. “I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about students who are going into the arts.”
Even though students often feel as though their work in arts departments is fruitless when not recognized by a certificate or a major or a minor, this does not diminish the possibility of academic involvement with the arts.
“Although some of the degree programs make a recognition of creative work difficult, for instance, the recognition of a minor in music or theatre,” Stilwell said, “the opportunity is there.”
Celeste Chen (COL ‘14) has been drawing and painting since she was six years old. She is a visual arts and neurobiology double major and she came to Georgetown because she knew that she would have the chance to balance her passion for art with her aspirations to a career in medicine.
“Coming into Georgetown I said, ‘No matter what I study I want to also major in art because I want to give it justice,’” Chen said. “But it has been … a dance to fit in both majors.”
The numerous requirements of these two majors have been demanding, and the price has been her inability to take any electives until this semester, the spring semester of her senior year. The visual arts department allows for students to undertake their own, independent projects.
“Even though there aren’t many classes offered by the art department,” Chen said, “they allow you to do individual projects on your own time and on your own schedule.”
One obstacle that Chen has faced in her involvement with the arts is the lack of a community surrounding her work. The department is small, and there is no space to congregate and hang out with other majors.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a community just because it’s 10 or fewer majors per year in each concentration,” Chen said. “We don’t have couches or like a lounge area in Walsh the way that other departments have, so there’s no central place to chill.”
There also lacks a proper venue for students to display their work, which diminishes the visibility of the already marginalized community on campus.
“You have Midnight Mug,” Chen said, “but that’s also home to the finals wall and the photos that people take when they go to Africa. It’s not just student art.”
The visual arts’ disparate community is not representative of other arts communities on campus. The music community, for example, though small, offers an incredible amount of cross-promotion and support for other student musicians.
“Because the music scene is so small, the resources that are available go all to me and a couple of other bands,” said Mary Ellen Funke (COL ‘15), a member of The Saxatones, and lead singer of a student band, Mellen. “There are around 10 of us who are utilizing something that if we were at an arts school would be in very high demand.”
The small community not only allows those involved to have access to the necessary resources, but students who are involved get to know each other and encourage each other and often even collaborate on projects.
“I think that a huge part of promoting yourself as an artist is promoting other people, said Colin O’Connor (COL ‘13), bassist for the once on-campus band, Betsy and the Bicycles. “The worst mistake you can make as an artist is not to promote your peers also.”
GU Jam Sesh, an initiative started by Gianfranco Nuschese (COL ‘14), works with student bands to increase visibility on campus and cross-promote with one another. Though bands struggle to manage the neighborhood’s strict noise ordinance policy, and to find venues which will attract greater student turn out, initiatives like this one have demonstrated the supportive and nurturing nature of the Georgetown music community.
“I expected us to have a lot of roadblocks on the way and paved the way for kids to do it next year,” Nuschese said. “I did it for the kids in front of me, just because I love musicians.”
Even more beneficial than the support from student members of arts communities is the support from arts faculty, in every department, who support their students on a personal level. This support is apparent in every department, and professors seek to develop personal relationships and help guide their students in their pursuit of the arts.
“The theater program is intimate. The professors know our names — all our names,” said Meacham. “There’s a kind of intimacy that comes from working so closely together, and the result is both an intellectual and artistic magic.”
While the state of the creative culture at Georgetown may seem frail and lacking the robust attention that many of the other communities on campus have, student artists say the situation is improving.
“It’s so much better than it was when I was a freshman,” said O’Connor. “It’s like Leo’s. Everyone complains about Leo’s but it is so much better than it was when I was a freshman.”
The departments are growing, students are getting more involved, and communities are developing in all aspects of creative culture at Georgetown. Student government is working to increase awareness and support for the arts from students, faculty and administrators alike.
“I’m working on doing a certificate program in the arts with hopes that it would you know be a way to formalize SFS students’ engagement in the arts,” said Dr. Maya Roth, Chair of the Department of Performing Arts.. “My goal with this certificate is that it won’t just be theatre but it will be theatre, [musical] theatre, and visual arts.”
The administration is also very much on board with the increased emphasis on the arts and growth of the creative culture at Georgetown.
“Our new provost really believes in cross school pollination, in cross fertilization,” said Roth. “It seems to me that if there was going to be that kind of move, its a good moment for it.”