When the time comes to decide on which college you’d like to attend (or in some cases, what you can afford to attend), we reach a critical point in deciding how, where, and who we will be with transitioning into adulthood.
For me, the decision felt a bit rushed, and in all honesty, I wasn’t fully settled on the school I chose. But, looking back, I think I made the best decision without even fully realizing it. I’ve graduated now, but I thought it would be helpful to walk through what made me choose The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for my undergraduate degree, and how I feel about the program now that I’m an alumni. I’ve received a lot of questions about this, especially after my panel discussion at last week’s SPE Conference. Quite honestly, there is too much to elaborate on, even on my designated blog page. I might consider recording a Youtube video later, but for now, I’ve condensed my reflections into this post.
To begin, I’d like to state that I was aware of MICA, long before I began applying to colleges. Being located in Baltimore prior to college, MICA was the closest host institution where I could attend National Portfolio Day. To be clear, I’d known that I wanted to attend an art school since I was in elementary school, and I knew I wanted to specifically study photography, since I was fourteen. Though at sixteen, I was set on moving out of Maryland and living out a (now laughable) early 2000s fantasy of being a struggling artist in New York or Chicago. HA! But I digress….
When I found myself confronted with deciding on a school, MICA was the only one I truly felt comfortable attending. At the time, I was a bit homesick for the Mid-Atlantic/East Coast, as I finished my senior year of high school in Napa, CA. I missed the architecture of the East, the close proximity to Baltimore, DC, Philly, and New York, and I missed the familiarity of Baltimore. But there were a few other factors that contributed to me choosing MICA, that have also been cited by other students, when I’ve discussed with them why they chose MICA.
I had thankfully already acquired college credit from my time at MICA’s Pre-College Program. If I chose MICA, that credit was already applicable for my Foundation year and Sophomore year schedules. I’d also taken quite a few AP courses in high school, including but not limited to, AP Art 3 & 4 and AP Photography Thesis. So I had acquired a good bit of college credit and wanted a school that would allow it to be applied. Art schools are notoriously tricky for not accepting credits from other schools, so I was also considering this when realizing that I might have wanted to transfer at some point, pending my experience during my freshman year. (Clearly, I didn’t end up transferring, but I seriously considered it, which I will detail in another post.)
I received a pretty generous scholarship and financial aid packet, which was important as the daughter of a single mother. Out of all the schools I applied to, I actually received the most money from SAIC, but I had never visited the campus and was relatively unsure of how I felt about the school, so I decided on MICA>
Although I didn’t like to admit it at the time, having my mother live only 15 minutes away from campus meant that I had a certain level of security. Winter and spring breaks were also less stressful because my home wasn’t far. I will admit, I was nervous about my momma living so close to school, but it actually ended up being great, and she didn’t hover.
(This is the most important reason in my opinion) Out of all the schools I applied to (MICA, SCAD, SAIC, SVA, UArts, and RISD and two others I can’t recall), MICA was the only school to admit me with a handwritten letter by my admissions counselor. Not only was the letter handwritten, but it also cited a specific piece of work from my application, which made me feel like I was truly valued and wanted by the school.
Sooooo. Fast forward, May 2019, will mark one full year since I’ve graduated. So I’ll share a bit of my thoughts on MICA now that I’ve experienced the full run of undergrad. Overall, I think MICA is a great school, with great faculty, generous resources, and a talented student body. But moving forward, I'll speak specifically about just a few of, what I consider, to be the strengths and weaknesses of MICA.
I’ll begin with the strengths:
I believe that MICA has great faculty and staff, who are truly dedicated to the mission of the school. I remember one of my foundation year professors telling me, that she has never seen faculty who care as much about their students, as the faculty at MICA. Now, this professor was an adjunct, and was and is one of the most outspoken people I’ve ever met. So I genuinely valued her opinions and I believed that she would say otherwise if she didn’t truly feel that way, she is not someone who has a problem speaking her truth. I’ve also witnessed this personally, through the dedication and passion of my professors. Some of the most inspirational people I’ve encountered have been my professors at MICA (and I am speaking solely on my encounters with them as a student.)
I’ll be honest, institutional administration is not the group that I most closely align with. But I support MICA’s president, Samuel Hoi. He began as the president, the same year I began my freshman year. It has been refreshing to see the ways in which a school President is unapologetic in his commitment to inclusion, visibility, and revolution. (At least as unapologetic as you’re allowed to be in that positon.) I’m not sure if he even remembers, but every single time I saw Sammy around on campus, he looked me in my eyes and greeted me with a smile and a hello. Every single time. To me, though a small gesture, it was something important.
Another thing I appreciated about MICA was the community. Though I am not the most collaborative artist when it comes to my personal practice, I valued the sense of community and collaboration at MICA, that was almost seemingly nonexistent when I was considering other schools. One of the strengths of MICA, is that you are truly in an environment where others want you to succeed; because people realize that their success means your success. Instead of creating an environment where people are in constant competition with one another, there is a sense of communal growth. Of course this varies for a variety of people, but I witness the communal spirit at MICA and I appreciate it.
Now, some of the weaknesses:
I truly believe there are a lot of professors (most of whom are older) that should be seriously evaluated in the classroom. It is my belief, that the majority of the younger adjunct professors I had, were also some of the most captivating and challenging professors. It excited me to no end, and I truly respected them. The same, unfortunately, could not be said about some of the older professors, that had quite outdated, non-inclusive, and shallow minded ways of engaging in discussions, critiquing work, and interacting with students. There were also a number of problematic statements made (primarily out of ignorance, more so than malicious intent, in my opinion) that made me lose trust and respect in them as educators. I felt that adjunct professors were often held to a higher standard than full time faculty, who seemed to coast by in safety, while my adjunct professors didn’t hesitate to dedicate extra time and energy. There is a time where you realize you shouldn’t be teaching anymore, but it’s quite disappointing when your students begin to realize that as well.
I believe MICA still has an incredible amount of work to do on diversifying the student population, the staff and faculty. The amount of staff of color, compared to the number of faculty of color was disappointing, to put it simply. The amount of black students who were born and raised in Baltimore, who attended MICA, was almost non existent (especially when one considers MICA’s geographic location in Baltimore.) MICA needs to do better. And they know it. In the entire four years I studied at MICA, I only had two professors of color, and only one of those was a full time professor. It’s unacceptable and quite frightening.
MICA is not a research institution, nor have I ever been under the impression that this is the case. Though I can only speak for the departments I came out of (Photography and Humanistic Studies) I think there should be more emphasis and curriculum on professional development for students. I actually believe that it should be a requirement for every single major. There are too many inconsistencies between programs that require internships to graduate and those that don’t. There are too many inconsistencies between majors that have professional development courses and those that don’t. My photography program for example, offered it’s first professional development course during my senior year of high school, and even then, it was only offered as an elective. I recognize that there are administrative obstacles, as well as factors including the number of enrolled students in the program, that contribute to the scheduling of courses and their availability. But I think there are too many students who are still unsure of what copyrights are and why they’re important for artists, how to do taxes as a independent artist, how to write about your work, both for exhibitions and for grants, and a long list of other tools necessary to succeed and do it confidently. There are a lot of life skills that aren’t being taught, at least not on a consistent level, and it is really going to hit students hard when they graduate and realize they focused on conceptual discussions for four years, and still have no idea how to maneuver and advocate for themselves as professional artists.
I’ll take this time to wrap up this discussion! If anyone is interested in furthering this discussion and/or reflecting on their experiences at MICA or other art schools, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me! You can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot me a DM on Instagram! That’s it for now, thanks for reading :)