10 Questions for our alumni



1. Why did you choose to attend Grand Valley?

Both of my parents went to Grand Valley, so it was an easy choice for me. They have always spoke so highly of their time here. It's where they met, fell in love, and also created long lasting friendships. I grew up around the friends my parents made at Grand Valley and they have become my extended family. So, when I came for portfolio review, my dad gave me a tour and told me many stories about his time here. I felt comfortable on the campus, not too big, but large enough to feel like it would offer me the opportunities outside of the arts as well. I wanted a well rounded education along with the focus of an art program that would teach me, challenge me, and grow my portfolio. That's exactly what Grand Valley gave me.


2. How or why did you choose your major or main emphasis area?

When I applied to Grand Valley, I knew I was going to be an art major. In high school, I had the most experience with ceramics because of that, I started out as a ceramics major after foundations. I was also interested in metalsmithing, so I took classes at the same time, knowing that I would have a difficult decision ahead of me in a year or two. In the end, metalsmithing won over because of the process. I appreciated clay and it was an escape for me, but I felt I could do more and grow more in the metals department. A lot of that had to do with the mentorship of Beverly Seley and Renee Zettle-Sterling. The atmosphere they created was warm, welcoming, and family like, it's exactly what I needed and wanted. The meticulous process of metalsmithing lended well to my personality and allowed me the freedom to try, fail, and try again to succeed.


3. What advice do you have for future students thinking about colleges?

The short answer is to find a school that YOU want to go to. This is a big decision and I know not everyone has that luxury, but if you have the final say, make sure that it offers you the opportunities and experiences that you are looking for. You're spending the next 4-6 years at this institution, so make sure it counts. On the flip side, if you choose one and a year or two in it doesn't feel like the right choice, look for another option that might be a better fit. It's okay to change your mind.

The longer answer - When you are choosing your college, there are a lot of factors at play. The financial burden is the biggest one. Spend a lot of your time finding scholarships and putting in the work to apply for them. There are a lot of obscure scholarships that no one (or a very select few) apply for, especially for artists. Not only will you learn about yourself by answering their questions and fulfilling the requirements, you will have a step up on others in school who did not do that. There are very valuable lessons to learn in apply for scholarships, not only will you receive free money for college, you will also learn how to write about yourself, your work, and what it feels like to be rejected and accepted. We live in a world where most people graduate with crippling debt and struggle after school, if you can help yourself with that, do it now. Whether or not you end up going into the arts, learning how to apply for opportunities is how you enrich your life in college, because sometimes people say yes. Don't stop at scholarships. When you get into college, find the things that you want to do and apply for those too. These things include internships, residencies, study abroad, apprenticeships, the list can go on and on. Those experiences will help you stand out in an applicant pool and will give you skills that you might not have received otherwise.


4. What advise do you have for current students thinking about careers?

Think outside the box. There is more than teaching or becoming a professional artist. With that being said, examine your passions and what you really want. If teaching is what you really want, set your goals towards that. You're not always going to know what you want to do and that is okay. Exploring your options is a great skill to learn. Some people find that they can utilize the skills they have in a nontraditional way. For example, having a type A personality like I do, the very rigorous and detailed process of creating a piece of jewelry taught me how to find the bigger picture while also seeing the details and mechanics to create the final product. This knowledge transferred quite seamlessly over to curating, event planning, and management.

The arts give you a multitude of skills like creative problem solving, ideation, and the ability to give context to a concept. Hone those skills and explore other opportunities. You can do this by applying for residencies, internships, apprentices, in and outside of the arts. Don't be afraid to step outside the norms and if it's not for you, come right back and figure out what you want to do. There is no time like college then to explore this. As much as you say you'll do it when you get out of college, you'll find that "the real world" hits you like a ton of bricks sometimes. Then again, you might live in that 10% that gets it all.

The arts are hard, there is no faking your way into it, but if you are disciplined and not afraid of failure, you will be able to leverage your education to fill or create positions that you want.

The last bit (and this goes for everyone). Do not be afraid of failure. Failure is a necessary evil in the world. It's often said to "fail often and fail fast." This is because when you fail, you learn what not to do. You also learn about your own character. My dad always says, "Failure is failure, it is what you do afterward that determines the type of person you are. After you fail, the question is, can and will you pick yourself back up?"


5. What did you do after graduating?

After I graduated with my BFA, I moved to North Carolina. I thought I wanted to get my MFA. Rather than paying out-of-state tuition, I wanted to gain residency and in order to gain residency, there are certain steps you have to take. i.e. get a job, change over your license and license plate, etc. I moved to Raleigh because I got a job at a photography studio and I knew a couple people there. This was the best decision I could have made. It allowed me the space to examine what I really wanted to do, instead of what everyone was telling me I should do.

After living there for two years, I figured out that I did not want my MFA, but I did want a master's. A mentor pointed out that I have always worked for or volunteered at arts nonprofits. She pushed me to examine that more. In the end, I realized that going back for a Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management was the way to go. At the time, I wanted to work towards creating (or working for) an arts school (that's another story though).

Focusing on the search for a nonprofit program lead me back to Grand Valley. Since it was a completely different program I didn't feel weird going back to the same school I received my BFA from. However, because I had a BFA, I did have to take some prereq's in the nonprofit program. This leads me to a multitude of opportunities. This is how I got connected to the Family Business Alliance and ultimately lead to my Graduate Assistantship at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Which also led me to the Graduate Student Association, where I was the Communications Officer and then President.

The reason I'm explaining all of this is because I did A LOT of things after graduation. I was fortunate enough to take on opportunities that I wouldn't have taken, had I not had the education I had in undergrad. During my last semester of grad school, I was offered an internship with the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG). The perfect marriage of my BFA and MPA. SNAG is a nonprofit arts organization that helps promote and advance the field of metalsmithing and jewelry. I became the conference intern and learned a lot under the Conference Director, Monica Hampton.

After I graduated with my Master's, I worked for a short time at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. Soon after I started this position, I was offered a full time position as the Conference Program Manager. Of course, I took it and I was able to work from home, which allowed me the flexibility to also work on a jewelry line that I launched in the Fall of 2017.

I have done and will continue to do a lot after graduation. It won't stop and I believe it's because of the well rounded education that I received from Grand Valley. It taught me that I don't have to fit into one box. I can do so much more than what my degrees say I can do.


6. What are you doing now?

My final project for my Master's was the creation and implementation of a class that teaches artists, entrepreneurship and business techniques in a way that is complimentary to their learning styles. I worked in conjunction with the Dwelling Place and the Center for Entrepreneurship on this class. We developed and taught it in on the Avenue for the Arts for a few years, completing 4 cohorts.

Now that the Avenue for the Arts has somewhat disbanded, I have been working with Creative Many on a strategic partnership to find other ways to teach the class. I am also making and selling jewelry under the name of A. Clarke Metalsmith.

Currently, I am looking to work with Michigan based entrepreneurship organizations to help connect them to the artist community. Entrepreneurship and the arts have a very linear process, it is my hope that we can create intersections between the two to propel Michigan's economy through the arts.


7. How have you used the skills you developed in your field of study in your life and/or career after GVSU?

I use the skills every day in every aspect of my life. I think I could write a book on this question!

I mean, I am making functional and conceptual jewelry from the skills and concepts I developed during my time as an undergrad. I am working with artists, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit organizations to implement and transfer the knowledge that I have in a multitude of ways. I learned how to do that through my experience with the Entrepreneurship Center, The Graduate Student Association, and my master's.

Through this experience, I learned that I enjoy being the one behind the scenes creating opportunities for others to succeed. I don't have to define myself as one thing and this is the pocket that I want to sit in.


8. What is the best advice you got from an instructor at Grand Valley? What is your favorite memory of being a student at Grand Valley?

The best advice I received from is two-fold. I don't know if it counts as direct advice, but they were lessons that I learned.

From my drawing professor, Tim Fisher, I learned how to draw in a way that my brain was able to process it. What I mean by that, is that I didn't like to draw and I think it was mostly because I didn't understand how to draw. He taught me that it was and could be very mathematical. Meaning that you could take the lessons of a two-point perspective drawing and apply them to a still life or really anything you wanted to draw. It was all measurement and could be an exact science. I may have been taught this before, however, I didn't understand it until him. It's two-fold because I took that concept of applying one technique to multiple processes. I guess I still don't like to draw, but not because I don't know how to, but because my brain has always worked more 3-dimensionally then 2-dimensionally.

When I went back to school, I mentioned I had to take some prereq's in order to apply to grad school. I was very nervous going back, especially because it was more academic by way of tests and quizzes, then projects and concepts. I had never been a good test taker, until I had Dr. Neal Buckwalter for Public Administration. He taught in such a way that encompassed all learning styles. He did so after learning what kind of students he was teaching. He required us to meet with him for 10 minutes during the first portion of the semester. He wanted to get a feel for who he was teaching and it was an extra 10 points! After he did this, he taught us how to learn. He did this through the assignments we received and the way he tested us. He incorporated multiple choice, fill in the blank (with and without a key), short essay's, and long essay's. He wanted to give us the opportunity to excel in at least one of the areas of the exam. He recognized that our brains don't all function in the same way.

Learning isn't always innate, but it can be taught. Learning how to learn influenced the way that I teach and how the curriculum was developed. Without that, I believe my teaching style wouldn't have developed in such an inclusive way.


9. What is your favorite memory of being a student at Grand Valley?

There are so many memories I have from Grand Valley, however, the thing that stands out the most is the family that was created. The connections, mentors, and friends I found have influenced me as a person and have shaped my career. Most of them are still, very much, a part of my life. The experiences you have in your life are formed by the effort you put into cultivating them. The same goes for the relationships you build in your life. My experience at Grand Valley gave me so much more than an education and two degrees. It gave me a sense of who I am, who I want to be, and more importantly, it gave me a support system, a family, to fall back on when I fail. They've helped me pick myself up, learn from my failures, and move forward to the next opportunity.


10. Anything else you would like to share with our Visual and Media Arts Community?

You cannot have the same experience as anyone else. You have to make it your own. It will be what you make of it. If you work hard, have an open mind, create opportunities, and take advantage of your education, you will learn so, so much and succeed. If you expect for this to be easy and float right through, you might pass just fine, however, your stories and experiences might not have a positive influence on your life.

Don't be afraid to dive in. Life is hard and it'll knock you on your butt a million and one times; get back up, try, and if it's not for you, move on. Find what is for you. You can change your mind, you can move across the country, you can move back, you can stay right where you are. Your experience is yours, you always have control over that.

(Alaina's portrait was shot by Leigh Ann Cobb Photography. You can see Alaina's work at https://www.aclarkemetalsmith.com/.)

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Page last modified November 18, 2018