by Jasmine Respess ’14 and David Gulliver
This spring, just a walk down the Bayfront from New College, the Ringling Museum displays a stunning interactive exhibit called “Pathless Woods,” by artist Anne Patterson.
In the black-walled room, thousands of ribbons, in colors spanning the visible spectrum, descend from the ceiling. Visitors are invited to meander through the forest of color, listening to the music playing in the gallery. The exhibition display is in the Keith D. (former New College Board of Trustee chair) and Linda L. Monda Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Third-year Ayana Perez ‘14 beams as she strolls through one morning, as well she should.
Just a few weeks earlier, Perez was tying the ribbons to precise locations on a intricate grid. Before that, she was cutting them into precise lengths and placing them into labeled Ziploc bags. And before that, she was driving the artist to craft stores all over greater Sarasota, buying up all the red ribbon they could find after a mail order went awry, but that’s another story. Now she’s just awed by the final product.
“It was a really great experience and I just really enjoyed seeing all of it come together, the tedious ribbon after ribbon after ribbon, making this magnificent exhibit full of light and coming together,” she said.
An unusual experience, though perhaps not far removed from New College’s tradition of far-flung independent study projects and senior theses.
Her participation in the project is one of the more tangible pieces of an initiative that is linking the colleges of the Sarasota-Bradenton area in new ways, from facilities planning to community initiatives, to opening classrooms to each others’ students.
This spring some 20 New College students are taking courses through Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida, USF Sarasota-Manatee and even Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
It’s the most visible aspect of an initiative launched by New College President Don O’Shea.
When O’Shea was a dean at Mount Holyoke College, he worked with a similar association of Western Massachusetts colleges (The Five College Consortium). Soon after his arrival in 2012, he noticed a similar situation: several colleges with distinctly different missions, in close proximity.
New College is a national liberal arts college. Just to the north, USF Sarasota-Manatee offers business-related degrees and State College of Florida provides pre-professional training with two-year programs. Next door, The Ringling is home to Florida State University’s acting conservatory and its master’s program in museum and cultural history studies. And a few minutes down Tamiami Trail, Ringling College is nationally known for visual arts instruction. Finally, up I-75 in St. Petersburg, Eckerd College also offers liberal arts education, but in a private-college context and with some different programs and course offerings than New College.
In June 2013, O’Shea brought together his fellow college presidents for the first of a series of meetings, which was the genesis of the Consortium of Colleges of the Creative Coast – for short, C4. The central premise of the partnership is to create more opportunities for students by capitalizing on the diversity and resources of the various colleges.
“New College itself is very small, but if you hook together students and faculty at other places, there’s just more density of intellectual activity, and the more intellectual activity, the better,” he said.
Over the long term, the colleges hope their partnership will build the Sarasota region’s reputation as a center of learning and education, bringing it both more students and more employers looking to hire those well-prepared graduates.
The initiative quickly drew the support of several local foundations, including the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which was the first to provide financial support, and connected the project with former USF-SM Chancellor Laurey T. Stryker, who has been appointed the initiative’s manager.
“What I really like about C4 is that all of the presidents are on board and leading the charge,” said Mark Pritchett, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “We’ve already seen their quick-hitting successes, like courses shared, new grant money in, and a cooperative spirit among the colleges. This gives me enthusiastic confidence that our region’s new ‘multiversity’ will provide us with a competitive advantage in higher education and economic development.”
The June 2013 meeting resulted in an outline of areas where they could cooperate. Some were in business and operations – shared purchasing arrangements, joint marketing plans, and coordination in case of natural disasters.
Others were more student-focused, such as the possibility of teaming up to build and then share new dormitories or student programming spaces.
There already have been impressive short-term dividends. In November 2015, the colleges’ top officials met at New College for emergency management training. And this fall, the Consortium’s potential helped in the development of a five-year, $750,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for building arts and humanities partnerships in the community.
“I don’t think we would have got it without the Consortium links,” O’Shea said. “I think they were very attracted by the fact that the schools were working together, and then there were all these arts organizations, and that collectively we could make a huge difference in Florida.”
One goal, a cross-registration system letting the students take classes at partner colleges, seemed the biggest challenge to implement – how to handle tuition, financial aid, assigning course credit, and so on. That prompted some resistance at the member colleges.
The colleges came up with a simple solution. First, no money changes hands. Students’ tuition stays at their home campuses. Second, students get priority for seats in classes at their own colleges; cross-registering students are eligible only for openings remaining after that.
Finally, advisor approval is crucial, and required. New College students seeking to take classes elsewhere first need to meet with their advisor and discuss how the course fits into their academic plan. They also must do the same with Dean of Studies, Robert Zamsky. In addition, non-New College courses can’t be used for AOC or college requirements.
Alice Leavengood ’14 (pictured) had been interested in taking classes at Ringling since she first came to New College and said she “jumped on the opportunity.”
“I took the screen printing class because I took printmaking at New and fell in love with the process and wanted to learn more,” she said. “It was refreshing to work with a new professor and I was able to really push my artwork beyond anything I had made before. The class inspired me to continue my pursuit and study of art, particularly printmaking and screen printing as a medium.”
Eliminating so many bureaucratic hurdles allowed cross-registration to come together more quickly than any other initiative. “The thing that looked like it would be hardest has been embraced,” O’Shea said, laughing.
Students from each college now can take classes at any of the C4’s member campuses. As one might expect, enterprising New College students have been the first to take advantage. New College launched cross-registration with a soft opening, via an email to students and the community over the summer. “I was contacted immediately by tons of students,” Zamsky said. “All these students are very enthusiastic about this opportunity. I understand that enthusiasm and I think it speaks to a need that our students have.”
Alumnus Daniel Anderson-Little ’12 actually got a head start, becoming the cross-registration test case when he took classes at Ringling in his third and fourth years at New College. He used the Ringling classes to add job market skills to his degree.
The Humanities AOC took a series of design classes at Ringling, including graphic design, visual communications, design and drawing and finished with two semesters of typography and design. He learned to use programs including Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.
While courses at other colleges don’t count toward New College requirements, the Ringling classes bolstered his studies. His senior thesis, a prototype of a mobile application, incorporated graphic design, and Ringling professor Edwin Utermohlen even served on his thesis committee.
“I wanted to do a thesis with a graphic component, because I wanted to have a full product that I could show to future employers,” Anderson-Little said.
“At New College I was getting a great liberal arts education where I learned to ask the right questions and think through difficult processes, as well as practicing strong writing. I believe these are the foundations of a successful education and career, but having hard skills is immensely helpful and essential to getting a job.”
Second-year Volanta Peng ’15 was one of the students who responded to the summer email. She took a class in printmaking at Ringling in the fall.
“I wanted to take Ringling classes because I’ve always been interested in art,” she said. “Ringling’s printmaking workshop is one of the best in Florida.”
Her classes were three hours long, twice a week. Extensive open hours in the labs and the aid of teaching assistants helped her work in Ringling’s program. “It’s been nice really focusing myself towards these large projects every three weeks or so and challenging myself to do physical art,” she said. She appreciated perks like the ability to use Ringling’s advanced Mac labs, and having access to programs including Photoshop and Illustrator. The “C4” students also can use the Ringling library and the letterpress, after attending a free orientation.
“I would definitely recommend it for other New College students,” Peng said. But with classes not counting toward requirements, students need to have time and energy for the extra workload.
While most of the cross-registration business is from New College students, the traffic does go in both directions. Viktorija Deksne, a third-year at Ringling, has taken two classes at New College – “Globalization and Social Justice” with Professor Sarah Hernandez and “Race and Ethnicity in a Global Perspective” with Professor Uzi Baram – and hopes to take a third next year.
Deksne, who studies business and art and design at Ringling, decided to take classes at New College, after playing basketball with some New College students. She enjoyed getting to know her new classmates. “After my first class, two friends of mine went to the beach and had a good time, but we were still discussing the issues from class,” Deksne said. “I enjoyed the conversations.”
Deksne also said that the New College community helped her appreciate diversity and collaboration. “New College people, as a whole, are different from Ringling people as a whole,” she said. Because of the Consortium’s cross-registration program,” she said, “I think we can find how to interact better and find a common ground. Talking to my classmates is helping me to be more open-minded and accepting and curious.” It’s also helped her find her academic path; she now plans to study sustainability and urban planning. “I would not really know what my goals were, if I hadn’t taken classes at New College,” she said.
The program also seems to be delivering on one of O’Shea’s hopes, making New College more attractive to potential students. High school senior Charlotte Ralph plans to attend New College to take advantage of the Consortium by taking classes at Ringling College.
Ralph heard about it from her sister, currently a third-year computer science AOC at New College, but she is more interesting in psychology and arts, in particular performing arts and graphic design.
New College was already the top college on her list, but Ringling was a close second. “But because of the Consortium, I definitely am more passionate about applying to New College,” she said.
And Perez, too, is taking away a more clear view of the world after her internship. “Throughout my academic career, I’ve been torn between pure academia and art, because I absolutely love fine art. I do watercolor and illustration, but there’s not really a career in that.”
She continued, excited: “So I was torn between having to choose one or the other. Then I figured out that museums offered me a way to be creative and work in a group and make something that you could see. It wouldn’t be pure research but there would be research, and I could work on a bunch of different projects, and travel, and there was everything I wanted for my life in one package.”
As students complete their off-campus experiences, Dean of Studies Zamsky has been meeting with them to learn what works and what doesn’t. Perez’s response is typical. “The students who have done it really enjoy it, and lots of students are doing it again,” said Zamsky.
“We’re a small campus with a fairly small faculty, so the ability for students to enrich their academic program, but without having to do an exchange program, is a terrific part of it. And I do think it’s really good for our students to be on other campuses and interact with students at other schools. We’re always interested in thinking about how the work we do at the College interacts with the local community and constituencies outside the campus, and this is a great opportunity for our students to do that,” he said.
O’Shea, too, is pleased with the response so far, and notes that the Consortium will go beyond classrooms and into other aspects of the student experience.
He foresees a lot more collaboration around the sciences, as well as the humanities. The colleges may team up in public-private partnerships to build dormitories or student centers. They could develop a shuttle or transportation service linking the campuses. There will be better coordination or sharing of activities and services like clubs, games, intramural sports and chaplaincies.
“You know, when you come here to New College, you get a very good education. But you give up some sorts of things you would get at a larger school,” O’Shea said. “That’ll be remedied in time by the C4.”