Photo by Tim Klein
Photo by Tim Klein
“Columbia is always telling us, ‘Build your creative posse,’” says Frierson, referring to the first item on Columbia’s list of Principles for Student Success. “This is definitely expanding my creative portfolio.”

Big Art, Big Ideas

The Center for Community Arts Partnerships, a recent addition to the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has a modest initiative with big goals for Columbia’s first-year students.


“This is what freshman year is for,” says graphic design student Donavahn Frierson, who is smiling broadly as tiny grade-schoolers trickle into the lunchroom at Pulaski International School of Chicago in the city’s Bucktown neighborhood. “I’m learning in the city, making connections...”

Frierson is one of four first-year students who, during the spring semester last year, traveled to the pre-K through eighth-grade school to participate in BIGArt. Launched in the fall of 2010, BIGArt is an important and growing initiative connecting Columbia’s first-year students with children attending a Chicago Public School. The program is managed by Columbia’s Center for Community Arts Partnerships.

CCAP, newly housed in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, developed BIGArt with the idea that art can be bigger than the artist—transformative, in fact. Through this initiative, students who are new to Columbia College Chicago are not only forming relationships with their first-year peers, but they are also building an essential connection to Columbia College Chicago and the larger Chicago community.

“The BIGArt program is a stellar example of CCAP’s mission to connect Columbia and the Chicago community, and to foster reciprocal relationships between the two,” says David Flatley, Executive Director of CCAP. “It’s important to CCAP that we create initiatives like BIGArt that involve Columbia’s first-year students, who are new to college life and looking for opportunities to connect to the vibrant community we have here at Columbia College Chicago."

Over the summer, CCAP was awarded a $125,000 grant from TG to create a one-year BIGArt Fellows service project for twenty first-year Columbia students who are a part of the college's Conaway Achievement Project. The cohort will be created this fall and serve as teaching artists and mentors to middle school students at Crown Community Academy of Fine Arts Center ES and Herzl School of Excellence.

For four years, CCAP has worked with the Office of New Student Programs to build and expand the BIGArt initiative. All first-year students at Columbia have the opportunity to participate in events, like the one at Pulaski International School of Chicago, which are held every few weeks throughout the city of Chicago. To further expand the initiative and get more students involved, CCAP and the Office of New Student Programs worked together during the summer to include informational sessions and new student recruitment efforts during Orientation.

The event Frierson is attending at Pulaski International School of Chicago—one of CCAP’s award-winning Community Schools—has four distinct workshops for its children and their Columbia student mentors: dance, improvisation, graffiti and mural work, and storytelling through crafts. Each workshop is led by a Columbia student whom CCAP hires as a teaching artist assistant. The students lend a helping hand where needed and work with the children as they express themselves through movement and making art.

“Columbia is always telling us, ‘Build your creative posse,’” says Frierson, referring to the first item on Columbia’s list of Principles for Student Success. “This is definitely expanding my creative portfolio.”

For freshman graphic design student Olivia Moore, “seeing Columbia alumni working in the field is the most invigorating thing in the world.” Moore is referring to Katie Spero (BA ‘10), a graduate of the Creative Writing – Poetry program, who is a teaching artist at Pulaski International School of Chicago through CCAP’s after school program. Moore and another volunteer at the event named J.C. Joson, a first-year transfer student studying Arts Management, are now pursuing Teaching Artist minors. Both Joson and Moore cite their the experiences in “BIGArt: J-Session” as their reason for enrolling in the minor. “If you are an artist and you share your passion, you are a teacher,” Joson says.

“BIGArt: J-Session,” a three-credit course that is exclusively for first-year students, exposes students to the field of teaching artistry by providing them with the opportunity to work with children in Chicago Public Schools and community-based arts organizations. Frierson, who also took the class with his fellow first-year peers, fondly remarks that today’s event at the Pulaski International School of Chicago is “like a reunion,” as a few of the third-graders he’s working with were also present at an event he attended during the J-Session. “She’s my favorite,” Frierson says, pointing toward an exuberant little girl with brown curly pigtails and, of course, dimples. “When teaching someone, a child, you end up learning something, too.”

Since BIGArt draws on the passion of arts activism, tangible results are being seen both by Columbia students and those served in the community. “Columbia has brought out my daughter’s talent and she’s matured as a person,” says Martha Gonzalez, whose young daughter, Claudia, a fifth grader at Pulaski International School of Chicago, has been participating in Columbia-led after-school programs for six years. She proudly adds that CCAP’s efforts have helped Claudia lose her shyness. Similarly, Moore notes that before her involvement in BIGArt she wasn’t a part of any clubs at Columbia. Now, she has a network of like-minded colleagues and mentors and is more comfortable at Columbia. “BIGArt really got me going in the college,” Moore says.

For many, the first year of life in college can be difficult. It’s a time when a student finds his or her niche on campus. And that is what these first-year students are doing: finding their niches with their fellow students, and embracing the experience that is right in front of them. “It was so much fun,” says Frierson, as he helps clear empty pizza boxes from miniature tables while the children and their families leave the lunchroom. “I’m sad it’s over. I didn’t want it to end.”

Luckily for Frierson and his first-year peers, this is only the beginning of something big.