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Unwinding: Darren Canady breaks down his work and tackles doubt as a writer

Fri, 04/03/2020 - 15:26

For many writers, the hardest part is getting the first few words on the page. Associate professor of English Darren Canady is no stranger to this struggle. Canady opened up about his process, where he finds inspiration, how he fosters creativity in his classroom, how he overcomes doubt as a writer, and more on the latest episode of Unwinding.

Unwinding is a podcast that tells the human stories driving the minds and talents of the University of Kansas. In each episode we sit down with KU researchers to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans. The conversation explores the fascinations and motivations that produce new discoveries.

Unwinding is a production by KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is the heart of KU. It’s home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, offering more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. A collaborative and creative community, the College is committed to making the world better through inquiry and research.

I am Seeking: James Moreno

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 14:23

In the College at KU, our research is driven by the passion for improving the world around us. We are explorers, innovators, and dreamers seeking answers to crucial questions in our communities. Learn what associate professor of dance James Moreno is seeking.

The College is a great place to seek the answers to whatever interests you! Visit the College website to learn more about how you can join us and begin your I am Seeking story. For more information, visit the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University of Kansas.

Hawks to Watch: Alex Nichols, content producer & writer

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 13:12
Why Alex is a Hawk to Watch:

Comedy, arts, and entertainment can help us get through life’s rough patches and reflect on what truly matters. And in moments of uncertainty and difficulty, connecting with others through laughter can make a world of difference.

Since graduating with a degree in English from KU nearly nine years ago, Alex Nichols has applied his comedic talents and knack for storytelling to a wide range of creative endeavors, working both on-stage and behind-the-scenes in independent sketch comedy, short fiction, online marketing, television, and, most recently, educational content development. 

But moving outside of his comfort zone didn’t always come naturally for Alex, and saying “yes” to new gigs often required him to confront self-doubt and fear of failure. At the end of the day, he eventually realized, it’s all about perseverance, trial and error, and a willingness to move forward when things don’t go as planned. In his words, “just do stuff.”

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I’m a content producer for Wiley Education Services, which means I write and sometimes direct videos for graduate level online courses at universities like George Mason and Purdue. I also write short fiction, which… doesn’t pay as well.

How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?

The journey is still very much in progress. I’m happy to have a day job that involves writing about interesting subjects in an educational context (as opposed to a corporate context, like when I worked at a small creative agency). Outside of that, I’m doing what I’ve done since graduating nearly nine years ago: writing a bunch of different things for a bunch of different projects. When I lived in Chicago, I did a lot of improv, wrote and performed in independent sketch shows, and produced an independent TV pilot. Here in Boulder, I’ve focused on short fiction with help from the Boulder Writing Studio while becoming more active in the Denver improv scene. Just trying to make things and hoping that it finds an audience.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I’m very proud of my short story “Terms of Service,” which was published in Mississippi State’s Jabberwock Review last year. Getting anything published is an achievement, but more than that, I think it’s the best and most polished thing I’ve ever written. I’m a horrible procrastinator and self-doubt has kept me from writing things in the past, so the fact that I’ve been able to push myself to get good enough to write a story like that feels pretty big to me.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

You aren’t just going to wake up one day and have everything suddenly click. You have to make a lot of stuff and fail a lot and keep failing and be okay with that. I have never actually played baseball, but imagine you’re going up against a great pitcher who paints the corners every time. You can’t just stand there waiting for a fat one down the middle, because you’re going to strike out looking real fast. You have to swing at something eventually. And now I’m picturing 18-year-old me staring blankly at 30-year-old me wondering where I’m going with this baseball metaphor and how I gained all that weight.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

I mean, there are lots of moments to choose from, but the thing that bothers me the most is from the summer after I graduated. I was already in Chicago but had agreed to write a play that would be produced independently back in Lawrence. I put it off for months and eventually told the director who’d asked me to write something that I couldn’t do it. I told them that I was too busy, but the truth is, I was so scared of failing that I couldn’t bring myself to write a single word. The only way to get past that sort of thinking is to do stuff. Which I’ve gradually gotten better at doing since then.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Just do stuff. However much stuff you have the time and energy to do, just do it. Hmm… “Just do it.” That’s pretty good. I should use that for something. Maybe an advertising slogan of some sort.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

I do 100% of my writing in English, so the value of my English degree should be self-evident.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

Living on a planet that isn’t completely on fire.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

Along with my wife, I take care of our three-year-old son and his one-year-old brother, and then after I’ve clocked out from that job, I try to get some writing done or, failing that, lie on the couch half-watching an NBA game I have no actual interest in.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

My go-to fun fact used to be that I had open heart surgery when I was 11 months old, but then I found out that actually the body remembers that sort of thing and so therefore it’s less a “fun fact” than “lingering trauma that needed to be processed.” So instead I’ll say that my fun fact is that a sketch video I wrote for the iO Comedy Network in Chicago was DP’d by Bing Liu, who went on to direct the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, one of my favorite movies of 2018. The sketch was deeply stupid whereas Minding the Gap is breathtakingly beautiful, and I think there’s some sort of lesson in there about the power of perseverance.

Be like Alex. Do something you love. For more information, visit the Department of English at the University of Kansas and Wiley Education Services.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts. 

13 cool new classes in the College

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 16:44

Want to spice up your schedule next semester? Whether you need to fulfill credits for your major or just want to branch out by learning about a topic in another field of study, make the most of your semester by taking a course that piques your interest. For some ideas, check out these 13 new College classes you can take during the Fall semester.

EVRN 306 Environmental Studies – Global Environmental Literature

Explore the global environment through literature, and see how various literary works represent race, gender, class, sexuality, and geography in EVRN 306.

An examination of a variety of literary and other representations of human and non-human environments and environmentalism. Particular attention will be paid to how race, gender, class, sexuality, and geography produce and are produced by those representations. Satisfies: Goal 4 Outcome 2

ENGL 386 English – Language and Social Justice in the U.S.

How do different varieties and dialects of the English language affect daily life, social acceptance, historical construction, and media portrayal of people in the United States? Tackle these important questions and learn about the social implications of language in ENGL 386.

In this course, we consider the social implications of using different varieties and dialects of the English language in the US. Questions covered may include (but are not limited to): different social characteristics attributed to different varieties (dialects, ethnolects, genderlects) and their users; features of language that carry stigma and how such stigma is socially and historically constructed; and the role of media (news outlets, movies, “the Internet”) in conveying what is seen as acceptable or unacceptable in language. We also explore how these language attitudes and evaluations impact different groups of people in their daily lives, and what possible recourses we have to address language injustice. As we discuss these issues, you will not only gain an understanding of the social nature of the English language, but you will also acquire the skills and tools to discuss, analyze, and write about language.

FMS 474 Film & Media Studies – Videogame Theory and Design

What’s your go-to videogame? From popular recent titles like Call of Duty and 2K20 to classics like Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, behind every game, there’s a lot going on. Take a deep dive into the design principles of videogames and gain game-building skills in FMS 474.

This course surveys the history and aesthetics of videogames and then provides a deep dive into the theory, design principles and techniques of game development on the Unity platform. Through assignments geared toward critical design, students gain the skills necessary for game-building in the areas of visual, narrative, game, level and sound design that comprise a typical development team. Although no prior coding experience is necessary, students may benefit from prior knowledge of C#, 3D modeling, or animation. Satisfies: H Humanities (H)

HIST 374 History – The History of Modern American Conservatism

What ever side of the ideological spectrum you fall on, looking around today’s political landscape is likely to make you wonder: How did we get here? Find out how conservative movements during the early 1900s led to the partisan struggles and around-the-clock media coverage that dominate today’s headlines in HIST 374.

In this course students will gain an in-depth knowledge of modern American conservatism, primarily through the lens of political history. We will focus on the development of the conservative political movement from the 1930s through contemporary times. We will ponder several interrelated questions: how did conservatives build a movement capable of exercising political power; what do conservatives mean when they discuss equality, liberty, and freedom; how have conservatives conceptualized the role of the United States in the world; what role have ideas played in the conservative movement; how have different factions of conservatives fought for control of their movement while struggling to maintain political unity; and how have conservatives governed? Finally, we will contextualize modern American conservatism in the broader, dynamic political culture of the United States. Satisfies: Goal 3 Arts and Humanities (GE3H), H Humanities (H)

ITAL 330 Italian – Cinematic Rome

Breezy afternoon bike rides around the city, crowded neighborhood cafes, meticulously crafted works of classical architecture decorating street corners. The mere mention of Rome conjures up distinctive, cinematic images for many of us. For a closer look at daily life, politics, and social issues in contemporary Rome, check out ITAL 330.

A study of cinematic representations of daily life, diversity, urban landscape, and social and political issues in modern and contemporary Rome as presented in different genres. Taught in English. Satisfies: H Humanities (H)

JWSH 349/HIST 349 Jewish Studies/History – Antisemitism: A Long History

Using a variety of media from antiquity up to the 20th century, explore the beginnings, evolution, and historical, social, and religious ramifications of antisemitism in JWSH 349/HIST 349.

This course surveys the genesis, evolution and persistence of antipathy towards Jews and Judaism from late antiquity through the twentieth century, exploring its connections to religious and secular ideologies and its changing nature over time, place, and culture. Using primary source documents, religious and secular art and literature, the mass media and popular expression, the course examines how antisemitism was articulated and implemented, how Jews and Judaism were perceived and represented, and how Jews and Judaism responded to antisemitism.

PHIL 170 Philosophy – The Meaning of Life

Throughout history, influential figures around the world have grappled with many of the same fundamental questions: Why are we here? What’s purpose of existence? What does it all mean? See how prominent thinkers have addressed these questions in more in PHIL 170.

This course introduces central questions about the meaning of life. The question itself may be taken in a number of ways: Why is there a universe that contains life? What is the nature or purpose of human being and persons? What is the point of our existence? Is it possible to lead a meaningful life? This course examines these and other questions relating to meaning in life, such as our place in the physical universe, the possibility and significance of God’s existence, the nature of human persons (including the relation between, and nature of, body, mind, and consciousness), what death tells us about the nature of life and whether it is appropriate to fear death, the nature of ‘the good life’ (including the import for ‘the good life’ of knowledge, success, pleasure, health, friendship, love, in both our physical and mental life, etc.), the nature of value and its relation to meaning in life, and our obligations to other beings. Satisfies: Goal 1, Learning Outcomes 1 and Goal 3 H Humanities (H)

PHSX 191 Physics – Contemporary Astronomy

Are you fascinated by the expansiveness of the universe? Curious out the evolution of black holes, planets, and stars? Hungry for space exploration? You can explore the universe from right here in Kansas and learn about new discoveries in astronomy by taking PHSX 191.

The structure and evolution of the universe, from nearby planets to distant quasars, are examined. Topics include recent discoveries concerning planets, stars, pulsars and black holes as well as their evolution, the structure of the universe today and how it will be in the future. The emphasis is descriptive rather than mathematical. Satisfies: Goal 3 Natural Sciences (GE3N), N Natural Science (N), NP Physical Sciences PC (NP)

POLS 687 Political Science – Introduction to Cyber Intelligence

In an era where election “hacking,” disinformation campaigns, and espionage are regular topics of conversation, understanding complex issues like cyber security and cyber intelligence is more important than ever. Get an introduction to the fundamental principles of cyber intelligence in POLS 687.

Course will provide instruction about the fundamental principles, impact and issues of cyber intelligence. Course will focus on cyber intelligence supporting operations in cyberspace (to include risk management functions, cyber defense, cyber espionage, and cyber-attack) as well as intelligence developed through cyberspace. Topics include cyber-threats, cyber defense, and cyber warfare as well as ethical and legal considerations. In addition to providing a foundation of understanding cyber intelligence within the context of the United States, this course will analyze cyber capabilities of nations and non-nation state actors. Learning outcomes for students include an understanding of the cyber intelligence cycle and structured analytic techniques in providing cyber intelligence products to national security and organizational leadership. Students will also gain an understanding of cyber threat actors and complexity of emerging threats.

PUAD 402 Public Administration – Diversity and Social Equity in Public Administration

Experts agree that diversity in leadership is critical to success within public and private institutions. In PUAD 402, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between diversity, identity, leadership, and views on public policy and democratic participation.

Analyzes diversity and leadership in public and private institutions along ethnic, racial, and gender lines and the challenges of the facilitation of open dialogue on diversity. Examines the political, historical, social, and economic reasons why Americans of different ethnic, racial, and gender groups hold divergent views about major public policy areas, as well as fundamental views about democratic participation. This course is offered at the 400 and 700 level with additional assignments at the 700 level. Not available to students with credit in PUAD 702. Satisfies: Goal 4, Learning Outcome 1

REL 102 Religion – Violence and Religious Ethics

From the Crusades and Medieval Spain to ISIS and American white nationalism, religiously motivated acts of violence have taken devastating tolls on communities around the world and shaped our collective histories. But are religions themselves inherently violent? How have acts of violence been morally justified with religious beliefs and laws? In REL 102, you’ll consider these questions and explore the relationship between violence, religion and ethics.

This course will examine the connection between violence and religion from an ethical perspective. It will focus primarily on Jewish, Christian and Muslim ethical theories, which will be compared and applied to specific cases. We will also consider the ethical justifications for inter-religious conflict and the impact violence has had on targeted religious communities. The course will begin with an interrogation of the meaning of religion, ethics and religious violence—exploring questions like: Are religions inherently violent? Are theories derived from religious ethics used to justify violence? How are acts of violence morally justified? We will then consider these questions in more depth by comparing ethical theories within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, such as just war theory and jihad theory, to see whether religions encourage or seek to curb violence. In addition, each moral theory will be studied in light of specific historical or present cases. Case studies include the Crusades, Medieval Spain, ISIS, white nationalism in America, and recent killings in places of worship. The course will end on a positive note, by examining ethical theories within religions that promote peace, and comparing theories that justify peace with theories that justify war. Satisfies: Goal 5, Learning Outcome 1

WGSS 517 Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies – Policing the Womb

Reproductive rights are as contentious as any issue in modern politics. In WGSS 517, you’ll learn how policies and practices that restrict reproductive rights and decision-making have developed over time.

Women’s reproductive bodies have at times been made hypervisible, subject to medical, legal, and social surveillance and intervention, while at other times invisible. Across these practices, gender and race have been socially constructed in particularly limited ways, which the state has used to justify restrictive case law rulings and policies governing reproductive outcomes. This course is designed to critically examine the history, development, and outcomes of policies and cultural practices related to reproduction that have limited people’s decisional autonomy. This course is offered at the 500 and 700 level with additional assignments at the 700 level. Not open to students with credit in WGSS 717.

WGSS 350 Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies – Black Love and Romance

Black intimacy has been a subject of intrigue for many artists. Discover how black love and romance — as well as related topics like marriage, desire, and singleness — have been treated in different cultural texts including works of literature, art, film, and music in WGSS 350. 

This course will examine representations of love and romance in African American literature and culture. In addition to the romance novel genre, the course studies different kinds of cultural texts, such as art, film, and music. It explores romantic relationships among black people, including related topics such as sex, desire, marriage, and singleness, and how these interpersonal relationships build families, communities, and collective bonds. The class will consider both the content and aesthetics of diverse texts in order to think about how black people connect intimately as well as how various social and cultural politics underline the nature of those intimacies.

For more information, check out KU’s schedule of classes.

10 tips for remote learning: Spring 2020 edition

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 13:54

Welcome to online learning in the College, Jayhawks! Although things are going to look different in this new way of operating remotely amid COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), we still strive to give you a world-class education with all the support you need to succeed, just as we do when you are here on campus with us.

With that in mind, here are our top 10 tips for learning remotely so that you can finish the semester strong and achieve your goals.

1. Log in to Blackboard daily.

All courses will be housed in Blackboard. Many of you will be familiar with Blackboard, because it’s the online learning management system that we have been using for face-to-face courses. You need to log in frequently, as courses will be developing and evolving as we learn what works well and what doesn’t. The best thing we can all do to ensure success in teaching and learning is to keep open lines of communication. Visit for more resources.

2. Check your KU email frequently.

Our main way of communicating with groups of students now that we are all working remotely is via email, as well as Blackboard announcements that are pushed out to your KU email. Don’t rely on auto-forwards from your KU email to another email provider. Check your KU email directly at, and make sure to check your junk mail folder regularly. If you encounter any issues with your email login, visit KU is in the process of migrating email accounts to a cloud server, so your login may be affected by this change. This link provides troubleshooting resources.

3. Stick to a routine.

You likely will no longer have class meeting times to use as a benchmark for setting deadlines so you will need to create a routine to get things done in a timely manner. Create a schedule of when you will spend time on work for each class. It could even follow your previous in-person schedule. You may want to put all of your assignments on a calendar, then plot backward from due dates to set aside the time you will need to meet those deadlines. Remember, this will need to include time to do the activities you normally would have done in class (e.g., watch a recording of a lecture rather than going to your in-person lecture).

4. Log your study hours.

You should plan to engage in your coursework the same amount of time spent in class plus 2 to 3 hours of study per class.  

5. Don’t forget to take breaks.

Get up and move around every hour. Build in 5-minute breaks. Set the timer on your phone for 20- to 30-minute stretches of work and then set it again for a 5-minute break. 

6. Develop technological initiative and resilience.

Technology is great, when it works! Your technology may fail you. Links may be broken. Your instructor may forget to insert an attachment. Don’t let these glitches derail your study plan. Call the IT helpline (785-864-8080). Visit Ask your course mates for help. If an attachment was missed, ask the GTA or instructor about it, or try to look up the resource yourself online.

7. Stay connected.

Moving our teaching and learning to a remote/digital environment is a new thing for many of us but it does not mean that we need to be disconnected. Be proactive about communicating with your course mates. Set up virtual study or reading groups to work through the course material together.  

8. Use your resources.

Ask for help as soon as you feel yourself starting to struggle or be confused. Contact your instructor to discuss what’s going on by using office hours, e-mailing, calling, or scheduling a virtual appointment. Make use of university resources, such as tutoring and help rooms. Check-in with your advisor ( You have a support team. Be sure to use it!

9. Be patient with yourself.

Things are changing quickly, and it is natural to feel anxious with all of the uncertainty we are facing in our day-to-day lives. If it takes you some time to adjust to your new schedule, that is OK. Give yourself some time and some patience to get things sorted out.  

10. Be patient with your instructors.

We have all been asked to switch to a new online format very quickly. Be patient if things do not go quite right at first. The best online teaching and learning takes time to develop. We’re in this together. Be patient and give grace and you will receive it in return.

Keep up with the latest news and resources for students, faculty and staff in the College on our Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information page.

Why Study in the College?

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 14:11

You have a lot of options when it comes to choosing the best path toward your future. So why major in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences?

As the Heart of KU, the College is home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers at the University. We are the largest, most diverse school at KU and offer more than 100 majors, minors and certificates. In the College, you have the most opportunities to explore as many subjects as you like and find your future. The College offers you the flexibility to complete your degree your way. 

Follow your passion

Think about the things that give you joy. The experiences that challenge you and give you purpose. That’s the pathway for your future. Studies prove that majoring in what you’re passionate and curious about will keep you motivated in college and more successful and satisfied in the future.

The Heart of KU is the home of seekers, innovators, creators, helpers, challengers, researchers and improvers. At its core, we are a curious and compassionate community, interested in learning about the world from multiple perspectives and making a difference.

Do you want to help people, communities and environments on a local or global scale? Are you interested in coursework that will challenge you to think about the world’s problems from new angles? Looking for amazing research opportunities? Ready to create new works of art and literature?

Then the College is for you. Don’t just take our word for it. See all the ways on our blog that our students are making creative use of their time in the College, like starting a Beekeeping Club, preparing for careers in health, producing creative work, or getting involved in government. 

Gain transferable skills for a variety of career paths

Employers value people who can take charge of projects. They want to hire people who can innovate and communicate effectively with their team to finish the work.

And research shows that the skills you’ll gain in the College are critical to succeess and adaptability in today’s ever-evolving job market:

  • According to a Pew study, half of all workers say interpersonal skills are crucial to their job. The same study found that nearly 45% of workers say that good communication skills are “extremely important” in their job, and 44% say this is “very important.”
  • A 2015 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that skills like “ability to work in a team,” “ability to make decisions and solve problems,” and “ability to create and/or edit written reports” were sought most by employers, regardless of an employee’s major.

As a Jayhawk in the College, you’ll take classes in many different subjects and build transferrable skills – writing, research, problem solving and collaboration — that will apply to a multitude of career paths. These skills can also help you learn to be your own boss.

According to a report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, employers “overwhelmingly” support broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers surveyed said:

  • Broad learning should be an expected part of the coursework for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study
  • More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences
  • 96% of employers agreed that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses

The curriculum in the College teaches you to read and understand complex writings, improves your writing ability, nurtures creativity and helps with critical thinking—the skills your future employers want.

Classes in the College will also prepare for graduate school. Our graduates go on to medical school, health professions, law school, public administration, business, the arts, humanities, social and behavioral sciences, and natural sciences and math. We even offer some accelerated graduate degree programs to get you to a graduate degree faster.

There’s no end to the opportunities the College can give you to make the most of your future. 

Learn by doing

You can take classes where you create and share work through films, performances or exhibits in state-of-the-art facilities and spaces. You’ll work with faculty on creative projects that pair what you learn in the classroom with real-world scenarios, such as building a historical exhibit on KU in the tumultuous ‘60s or pairing arts and sciences for an “Artnatomy” exhibit.

Students in the College explore their interests throughout their communities and around the world. You can study abroad, conduct original research on a subject you’re passionate about, give back to communities through service, and intern with employers and organizations to apply your knowledge.

You’ll work with dedicated faculty mentors who live their subjects and seek answers to big questions. When not teaching, our faculty continue to explore their areas of expertise, like searching for signs of alien life, treating addiction, and African-American playwrights. See what we mean by meeting some of them in our video series I Am Seeking and podcast Unwinding.

Our university is one of the top research institutions in the United States. Research is the heart of the KU experience. So, one of our top priorities is to encourage research discoveries at every level. We provide funding to support the research and creative works of our faculty, research staff, and postdoctoral fellows, along with their undergraduate and graduate students, through the Research Excellence Initiative (REI), which gave a $580,000 boost to research in the College in 2018-2019 alone. Learn more about the impact of REI funding on research at KU.

You’ll join a global network of KU College Jayhawk alumni

Graduates of the College are all over the world and in all fields. And that network continues to grow, with about 15,000 students currently enrolled in the College who will become the next generation to expand the reach of Jayhawks around the world.

We have over 90,000 alumni, in all 105 Kansas counties, all 50 states and 113 foreign countries. In the words of one recent alum, “studying in the College gives you the opportunity to do anything you want to do.” Don’t believe us? Check out our Hawks to Watch, a group of alumni who are killing it in careers in business, technology, the arts, and more. They’ve worked at places like Disney, Pitchfork, MIT, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, the Kansas Department of Commerce, the Library of Congress, and more.

Our Hawks show that people who study the liberal arts and sciences can make a big impact. Imagine all the possibilities you’ll discover about yourself when you decide to study in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at KU.

Follow your passion. For more information, explore the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas. Your future awaits.

NSF grant helps first-year PhD student research low-income communities and nonprofits

Fri, 03/06/2020 - 10:45

In the School of Public Affairs and Administration, students from every background are shaped into exceptional leaders for public service who provide solutions to the most pressing community challenges at all levels of governance. Ph.D student D’Arlyn Bell is currently working to strengthen the voices of lower income communities to offer diversity, resilience and knowledge where it’s needed most.

What are your research interests and why did you choose them? Was there a moment when you decided this is what you wanted to study? What was that journey like?

My research primarily focuses on the relationship between low-income communities and nonprofit organizations. I’m interested in the interactions between nonprofits and the people they serve that create community, creativity and political capacity. I am developing a research agenda that challenges conventional narratives about poverty, poverty governance and political apathy in and among populations thought to be socially and political disengaged. One dimension of my research is designed to elevate the voices of these communities and offers a counter narrative highlighting the diversity, resiliency and knowledge embedded in marginalized populations. With my current project, I am studying nonprofit legal structures, tax-law, and funding relationships to understand the variables the contribute to nonprofit political mobilization and advocacy. I am analyzing how nonprofit administrators interpret tax-law restrictions on political activity and am conducting a case study analysis to understand if legal interpretations are changing in relation to increased political polarization and growing economic inequality.

I think for a lot of us, we are naturally drawn to research interests that help us come to terms or make sense of confounding things we’ve seen or experienced. For me, my research focus directly connects to my experiences growing up in the inner-city and in deep poverty. I never intended to pursue a PhD, but I’ve always been a shameless nerd, albeit a somewhat radical nerd. I originally wanted to do nonprofit work with inner-city kids doing art, music and being outside in nature. My family is Cherokee Native American, and so I was also interested in working with displaced urban Indians and Natives off the reservation. 

But, there was this moment during undergrad when I realized that really intelligent researchers and scholars actually care and study injustice and inequality. This was really profound for me because when you grow up poor, you don’t think academic type people really care about what’s going on in places like that. My coursework exposed me to all this literature and research that spoke so accurately to things I had seen and experienced. I just thought, I want to do that! I can do that! I remember thinking, what if I throw my lived experiences in with some theories and methods and see what happens. So far, so good. Now I’m an academic type person, which is not without some irony to me.

Tell us what your PhD thesis is in under 200 characters, make it Twitter-friendly:

I research nonprofits, the people they serve, and the interesting things they can do together.

What is one thing you think everyone should know about your research project or research interests? This might be a commonly held belief that your research questions or complicates

Poverty is rampant in rural areas, but my research so far has focused primarily on the inner-city. Many urban areas are only thought to be places of destitution and crime, which is such an offense to the people living here and is simply untrue. Much of my fieldwork has been drawn from a community with important history, art, diversity and culture. One of the fields I’m mapping includes places like the Quindaro Ruins with connections to the underground railroad and the Wyandot Native Indian Tribe’s sacred burial grounds. My field also has murals and street art, views of downtown, beautiful architecture, hidden pubs, coffee shops, ethnic enclaves and religious groups from all over the world.  Inner cities are complex, dynamic and living places with extremely interesting and resilient people. Yet, most of the people who live here are usually very poor and suffer externalities of systems and structures that perpetuate economic and social inequality, particularly for communities of color.                

People will talk all day about the art, creativity and culture of poor communities, which often gets coopted and marketized by the middle and upper-class without proper attribution or compensation. But, as soon as we start talking about “the poor” and the government’s relationship and responsibility toward them, the discourse radically changes to conversations about deservingness and moral worthiness. The reality is “the poor” are also artists and intellectuals, they are also living historians and creators of culture.  Most importantly, “the poor” are not usually poor because they don’t want to work or are lazy. Most are working, but opportunities are extremely limited and with very low wages.

So many people in these communities have had negative experiences with government policies and the institutions of government. This creates a tremendous amount of distrust, which is not the same as apathy.  Social service nonprofits are very interesting quasi-governmental organizations. They are responsible for delivering a large part of the welfare state.  Yet, unlike the government, they are generally considered trusted community partners. This is one of the important reasons I study them.

Where are you conducting your research? In archives? In laboratories? What are your sources?

I had the opportunity to experiment with some ethnography in previous research, which was incredibly rewarding and added depth and clarity to my work that I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise.  I would love to do more ethnography in the future. At this point, my research is being drawn from semi-structured interviews with nonprofit administrators and individuals in the communities they work with. I am about to switch directions with my current project and will be doing interviews with advocacy organizations and legal strategists who are working to build political capacity in the nonprofit world. I also do a fair bit of content and document analysis and will be developing some interesting work with my adviser and others I’m working with. I really like qualitative methods and I think it will be fun for me to learn process tracing, critical discourse analysis, and develop a digital media component that could be an extremely important complement to my core research.

What advice would you give students applying for research funding opportunities?

My advice would be to shoot your shot!  I don’t really fit the conventional profile of a fellowship recipient. I’m a nontraditional student and fellowship opportunities are not necessarily targeted at my subset of the academic population. That sends a strong message to us, which you should absolutely ignore! I’d also add that crafting grant or fellowship applications early is key to developing a high-quality proposal.  I started putting together material for my NSF proposal 5 to 6 months before the application was due. Also, and probably most important – let you work be critiqued. I mean, really critiqued!  It is so crucial to understand that that developing ideas takes a lot of deconstruction.  You have to let trusted advisors, mentors and colleagues challenge you and tell you the truth about that fascinating tangential thought that you spent way too much time developing that ended up being completely irrelevant.  Find people you trust and listen to their advice about your work. 

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

I want to recognize three gems that have been crucial to my development and have contributed to my overall happy heart while I’ve been here at KU. Foremost, my advisor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration Chuck Epp has been such a valuable resource for helping me think and understand my work. Chuck is a brilliant, accomplished scholar and intellectual, but he is also an extremely kind and wonderful person that I am privileged to work with.                

Ben Merriman, also kind and incredibly brilliant, and also in my department, has been a very important teacher and mentor to me. Ben creates space for me to ask him anything and lets me ramble on about every ridiculously random thought that happens to be running through my mind when I pass by his office.

            Last, but certainly not least, Mulu Lemma with the McNair Scholars Program. Mulu is an unsung hero at KU and I would really like for people to know what a tremendous difference she is making in the lives of countless scholars and future researchers navigating this very strange place in academia. Does KU know about Mulu Lemma?  Because if you don’t, please find her and give her the credit she deserves for her tireless commitment and love she shows to the students she serves. Additionally, as I make my way around KU, I’m also getting to know my colleagues and faculty within and outside of my department that make KU a more interesting place to be. 

What is the most valuable experience you have had while studying at KU?

The most valuable experience I’ve had at KU has been my field work.  My research confirmed what I already knew:  people who struggle and constantly have to negotiate the space at the bottom of social and economic hierarchies are resilient and incredibly powerful, even if they don’t know it.  Their power is of a different sort than what we might generally conceive.  I have been incredibly humbled and so thankful for the stories and perspectives I’ve collected in my work so far and it is my intent to find a way to continue to illuminate the history, culture, creativity and knowledge in areas that are often dismissed and frequently maligned. 

What do you plan to do after you graduate from KU?

After I graduate, I hope to stay in the academy and find my way to the tenure track. Staying in higher education will allow me to continue to write, study, and teach. I cannot imagine a better job than getting paid to do what I love and create knowledge with interesting, engaged, and thoughtful people.

What motivates you?

Problems and unexplored potential.

Be like D’Arlyn! Stay in research of what you’re most passionate about. For more information, explore the School of Public Affairs and Administration, Political Science, Literatures and Culture, and Study Abroad and Global Engagement at the University of Kansas. Also see the McNair Scholars Program, NHLIC Research, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Kylie Hewitt uncovers stories from the past in the National WWII Museum’s collections

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 15:42

Objects from the past can speak volumes about the world we live in today. From love letters sent across continents and long-forgotten diary entries to flight logs, maps, and military records, every historic document has a story to tell.

As a digital archives technician at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, KU alumna Kylie Hewitt (M.A. Museum Studies, 2017) is seeking to uncover stories from items within the museum’s collection of nearly 250,000 artifacts to better understand the past and how historic events shape the present. But identifying the stories is only part of the work — by converting documents to a digital format, Kylie is helping to make museums and archives more accessible by bringing their stories to a wider audience.

What are your research interests and why did you choose them? Was there a moment when you decided this is what you wanted to study? What was that journey like?

Generally speaking, my research interest was in culture. I lived on Saipan from ages 5-10 and it exposed me to a multitude of cultures that had to coexist in a small space. I decided to study anthropology at my undergrad university (Kansas States University) and was convinced that I would eventually be working for an international organization that assisted people. My path changed after visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the summer before my junior year. The museum had a temporary exhibit on modern day genocides which helped me to see that as much as museums are about the past, they can still relate to the present.

I took a museum studies course that following school year and signed up for a summer internship. My summer at the Kansas Cosmosphere solidified my decision to work in museums and I began to look into what I needed to do in order to get into a Museum Studies program. I took a year off between undergrad and grad school to gain more museum experience and was accepted into KU’s program in 2015. 

Tell us about what you are doing now. How did you choose that path, and what has that experience been like?

Currently, I am a Digital Archives Technician at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. During my last year of grad school, I visited the museum and fell in love with it. A posting came up for my job around graduation, I applied, and here I am.

My duties include processing archival collections, preparing stable collections for digitization, assigning said collections to volunteers, and ensuring that internal goals are met. Before this digitization workflow was created, I updated the scanning procedures so it complied with the standards set by the National Archives and Records Administration and retrained our scanning volunteers. I also created the metadata template we use for the scans before they are published on our website.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

The major courses that prepared me for my job were Preventive Conservation and Women, Gender and Sexuality in the Archives. Preventive Conservation taught me how to properly handle and house material whereas WGS in the Archives helped me to better understand how to research and look for marginalized voices in museums and archives. Part of my job is to gain an understanding of what stories a collection is telling. The obvious story is an individual’s military experience during WWII, but if you pay attention there is a wealth of information about social norms, food, and other aspects of culture in the letters, diaries, newsletters, and photographs that we process.

What advice would you give to current graduate students?

Use the resources available to you: Make an appointment with CAPS if you’re stressed out; have the Career Center review your resume; ask a professor if they know of any opportunities that can get your foot in the door.  The university wants you to succeed, but it’s up to you to utilize the resources.

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

I cannot thank the Dole Institute of Politics enough. My job as the Collections Assistant in the Dole Archives had such a major role in getting me to where I am today. The Archives team ensured that I grew as a young professional and helped me as much as they could. The scanning procedures I created at The National WWII Museum were largely based off of the Dole Archives’ because I knew they were tried and tested.

I also have to thank Melissa Fisher Isaacs, who mentored me at the Lawrence Public Library during my Hall Center for Humanities fellowship. Amongst other things, she was the one who taught me what I know about metadata.

What would you tell your freshman self?

Probably the same advice I would give to graduate students. I would also add to get out of my comfort zone more than I did.

What motivates you?

Accessibility to information is my major motivator. Museums and archives are not as accessible as they should be, but digitization helps to alleviate this. 

Be like Kylie. Seek out resources that will set you up for success. For more information, explore the Museum Studies Program and the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. Learn more about the National WWII Museum by visiting their website.

Writing from a quiet place: College retreat helps faculty dive in to ‘Deep Work’

Tue, 03/03/2020 - 08:13

Two years ago at a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty focus group, one faculty member spoke about her challenges impeding research productivity. In order to complete a journal article under deadline, she stated, she would need to rent a hotel room for two nights out of town to sequester herself in a quiet place. The process of writing, for her, was not a one- or two-hour proposition. It was a matter of setting aside large swaths of time, away from other responsibilities to clear a mental and physical space.

The hotel room idea offered by the faculty member, coupled with on-campus expertise in writing productivity, morphed into a research development opportunity: a two-day writing retreat for faculty offered once a semester.

Faculty apply using a simple grant application, justifying why they need time away to complete a major creative work, grant, article or book. The first iteration was held in Spring 2019. Five selected faculty members arrived at the retreat space at a ranch minutes away from the KU campus, and stayed Friday morning through Saturday afternoon. Selected faculty participants came from different disciplines in the College and many of them were close to submitting their dossier for tenure to associate professor or promotion to full professor.

KU productivity coach Kathleen Ames-Stratton and associate dean for research (arts and humanities) Tamara Falicov host. The participants are trained in productivity skills, including the concept of “Deep Work,” coined by the author Carson Tate. “Deep Work” is a mental state whereby people focus on their cognitively challenging work intently. One perceives as if time stops, becoming completely engrossed in their writing, in a way very similar to what the faculty member was seeking by staying in a hotel room out of town for two days.

Prior to attending, faculty were asked to read Carson Tate’s book “Work Simply” to learn their personal productivity style. At the retreat they were paired with faculty of the same style to serve as accountability partners throughout the process. Each morning, upon meeting, the group discussed their intentions for writing that day, and made longe-range plans for sustainability of their writing and creative work projects.

Along with significant blocks of writing time to dive into the deep work of their project, participants had the opportunity to meet with a writing coach to develop a plan to capitalize on the momentum gained during the retreat and sustain them when returning to their day-to-day responsibilities.

“The writing retreat was a great opportunity for me to have time away from all the various other duties so that I could focus on writing. After the retreat I stayed in contact with one of the other participants and we exchanged updates about our writing and progress,” said Cecile Accilien, in the Department of African & African-American Studies.

Another faculty participant said: “What scholars need sometimes to support our writing is principally time and space. There are no tricks or shortcuts that can replace that, though a beautiful setting and good company also help. I made substantial strides on my book project, and built mutually supportive relationships with my colleagues. It was a pleasure, definitely a highlight of the semester, and I would eagerly sign up to do it again.”

For more information on College writing retreats, please contact Tamara Falicov

Non-profit internship takes Aristote G-Atata from Lawrence to Tokyo

Fri, 02/28/2020 - 11:32

An internship can help you build professional skills and apply lessons you’ve learned as a student outside of the classroom, and even around the world. For KU senior Aristote G-Atata, an internship with a nonprofit in Tokyo, Japan allowed him to use the interdisciplinary skillsets he’d honed as a global & international studies major to help local children growing up in institutionalized homes prepare for life outside the facilities.

Meet Aristote, and see what he had to say about his role as a nonprofit organization ambassador with YouMeMe, how classes in the College prepared him for the experience, and his plan to pursue a master’s degree in National Security Studies and Diplomacy. 

Internship title and organization:

I did my internship as a nonprofit organization (NPO) Ambassador with YouMeWe in Tokyo, Japan. YouMeWe is a nonprofit organization that helps children growing up in institutionalized homes prepare for life outside the facility once they turn 18.

What were your responsibilities during the internship?

My supervisor, Michael Clemons, tasked me with two majors assignments. First, I worked on a project related to the technological operations of the NPO. The organization furnished sixty institutionalized homes with dozens of computers. The organization also provided the facilities with access to the digital learning platform NIGHTZOOKEEPERS, which helps kids develop writing, drawing, reading, and creative thinking skills. My duty was to analyze the platform’s database in order to measure the traffic and then formulate any necessary recommendations, which may help in encouraging more homes into using the platform. Next, I worked on a business and development project of the NPO. I was in charge on crafting letters and monitoring the organization’s channel of correspondence with its partners. In fact, a few days before the end of my internship, I started working on a project with Netflix to explore the possibility of producing a documentary, which will highlight YouMeWe’s work in Japan.

What did you gain from the experience that will be valuable to you in the future?

The internship gave me exceptional insight into the structure of a nonprofit organization. Primarily, I learned that accountability is critical in order to keep donors engaged to the cause. Accountability is also essential to attract more donors. In such respect, I had the opportunity to participate in a funds raising event at the British School in Tokyo. Secondly, I acquired more communication skills by improving my writing capabilities along with interpersonal relations skills.

What was your favorite part of the internship?

My favorite part of the internship was the home visits. The organization has established a social bond with all the institutionalized homes, and volunteers are given the opportunity to visit the kids living in those facilities weekly. Volunteers participate in several activities such as assisting the kids navigate the online learning platform. However, we would also get involved in some very specific activities such as teaching “coding”. It was warming to witness so much passion and happiness in those kids’ eyes.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

Being in the KU College helps me get a glimpse of various areas of study. As a result, I get to learn about a variety of topics. Furthermore, I am exposed to a diverse set of ideas, which helps me in expanding my perspective in general.

How had the classes you’d taken at KU, and in your major, prepared you for the internship?

The GIST major emphasizes communication. It provided me with the necessary foundation to build my writing capabilities. During my internship, I was able to deploy the same skills in order to write official memos and letters. Moreover, Global and International Studies is an interdisciplinary major with areas studies ranging from political science, history, geography, sociology, to anthropology. Anthropology for example taught me about cultural relativism. Therefore, I was able to switch from my American perspective on seeing things to a more open-minded way in order to fit in a very traditional Japanese society with its own set of rules and customs. History gave me a prior insight of the Japanese society, and once I was in Japan, I became easy for me to understands what emulates some of the Japanese population’s behavior towards foreigners.

Have you been involved in any study abroad programs, student organizations, or had any other learning experiences at KU that you’d like to share?

I studied abroad for the first-time during winter 2019 in Rome, Italy. The program focused on the migration crisis across the Mediterranean. I discovered that the Mediterranean has been a gate to the European continent for centuries dating back to the Roman empire era. Even though the Area spring and the Syrian conflict have prompted thousands of refugees to take the risk to cross the ocean in the hope of a better life in Europe, the region has always been a hub for illegal migration and under the control of smugglers who utilize it to get people from the Northern African region to Spain, Greece, and Italy. The Area spring and the Syrian conflict just created an explosion of the phenomenon and drew more attention to an unknown phenomenon.

What motivates you?

I think I am driven by my quest for success and happiness. Coming from humble beginnings, I understand the value of hard work and dedication, and I know that the United States is the place, which does not disappoint in that sense. As long as you stay committed, you will reach your goals.

What do you plan to do after graduation?

My next goal is to follow up my undergraduate degree with a master’s degree in National Security Studies and Diplomacy. I have applied to three different schools, and I am hoping to hear from them soon. I am attracted to Public Service, and at the end of my higher education, I would like to pursue a career at the US State Department as a Foreign Service Officer.

Be like Aristote. Find ways to give back to communities around the world. For more information, explore the Center for Global & International Studies and the Undergraduate Certificate in Intelligence & National Security Studies at the University of Kansas. Learn more about YouMeWe.

Hawks to Watch: Kiel Johnson, Artist

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 14:37

Why Kiel’s a Hawk to Watch:

To say that Kiel Johnson enjoys the creative process is something of an understatement. He’s positively enamored with it. On any given day, you might find the LA-based artist fashioning an old-timey Western stagecoach out of cardboard, sending sparks flying from metal sheets, or constructing a miniature cityscape from cut-outs, equipped with a winding river and steamboat. He is, admittedly, a bit obsessed with building and inventing. But don’t call him a workaholic. The way he looks at it, work and play are one and the same.

Kiel’s creations, which range from small-scale drawings and paintings to colossal, multimedia 3D installations, are designed to inspire curiosity in viewers and excavate the meaning of his own life’s adventures. His experimental “laboratory” approach to art has garnered him international acclaim and led to high-profile speaking gigs at conferences like TED. But for Kiel, the biggest reward of all comes from the journey of bringing his imagination to life and transforming material into “visual language.”

See what he had to say about the beauty of a creative life, building his artistic vocabulary in the College, travel and outdoor exploration, a 38-foot fall from the radio tower on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, and nostalgia for a long-lost old Mustang.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I bring the objects of my imagination to life, doing my best to share these experiences with others and convince as many people as I can to sacrifice everything for a life in the arts.

How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey? 

It has been an incredible journey to say the least. Not any one moment. One project leads to the next and you just set out each time to try something different or expand on the last exploration. Eventually you look back on an amazing adventure. 

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

Trusting myself to follow my passion and pushing myself to get the work done. I’m proud of myself for putting in the hours when I could have been doing any millions of other things with my short time here. I have sculpted a life that I am proud of and is full of interesting challenges and awesome rewards, but it has been a ton of work. 

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

All highs come with lows. When I’ve experienced low zones, I just work on something. I’ve drawn my way out of any funk I’ve ever been in. Just get to work on something.  Nothing happens while you’re flipping channels. Projects beget projects. A good idea comes while working on a bad idea. 

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

As crazy as it sounds I hope I’m doing the same things I’m doing now.  Saying yes to projects that excite me and creating projects that excite me even more. Traveling the world, sharing with others and making things with community.  Additionally, I think maybe I’ll have a compound of my own on some land with a bit more time to think and walk around. 

What’s your best career pro-tip?

The ride is fast. Do what you love and focus only on your passion. The world will open up if you follow this simple prescription. 

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

1. Draw more than you already do.

2. Read more.

3. Start a relationship with technology now.

4. Master the camera and make more videos.

5. Don’t sell the old Mustang.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job? 

I learned so much about manipulating material and physically making the visions in my imagination come to life at KU. In many ways it was a language degree. I learned to speak better visual at Kansas. I was encouraged to hone my particular dialect and take it out into the world with confidence. 

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

 I spend a major amount of off time outdoors exploring the world. We travel extensively but I simply consider it part of a creative life to ceaselessly explore. I also try to read at least 12 books a year.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I accidentally fell 38 feet out of that tall radio/cell tower down on 8th and Mass. in Lawrence back in 1999. I crashed into a few I-beams on the way down and didn’t break anything but needed stitched back together. I’m eternally grateful it wasn’t my time to go. It so easily could have been. Might be one reason I work so hard today.

Be like Kiel. Work hard, play hard, and search for ways to do both at the same time. For more information, visit the Department of Visual Art and the School of the Arts at the University of Kansas. Explore more work from Kiel on his website.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts. 

Daphne Lin finds connections between healthcare and humanities

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 12:03

From the time KU senior Daphne Lin arrived on the Hill, she had med school in mind. As any medical professional is sure to tell you, a career in the field demands a solid foundation in scientific principles and a firm grasp on a range of physical issues. But in healthcare, as its name implies, the ability to empathize, connect with others, and, yes, care is just as critical. 

To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between healthcare and human experience, Daphne found a home in the College as a humanities major on a pre-medicine track, a combination of studies that allowed her to meld her interests in STEM and liberal arts and learn from experts in a variety of disciplines.

See what Daphne had to say about student leadership and getting involved at KU, being selected as the recipient of an Ex.C.E.L. (Excellence in Community, Education and Leadership) Award, the value of learning from failure, and the Jayhawk connections that defined her College experience.

Where are you from? And why did you decide to come to KU?

Before my family recently moved to Missouri, I lived in a small rural town called Coffeyville, Kansas (population ~9000) for about seventeen years, but because I attended high school in the neighboring town (Independence), I call both places home. Leaving rural Kansas life was a big step for me. Lawrence was not only a much larger city, but I experienced culture shock my first week here. I originally decided to become a Jayhawk for two really simple reasons: its close proximity to family and its prestigious School of Medicine. I had no idea that there would be so much more than that in store for me.     

Why did you choose your major? And how do they complement each other? Was there a moment when you decided this is what you wanted to study?

I actually changed my major during my freshman orientation from Biology to Humanities just a couple days before I moved into my dorm. I knew that taking pre-medicine requirements would build a strong science foundation necessary for graduate school and my following career, but when I met with the Honors advisors at Orientation, I realized that I wanted a broader undergraduate experience during my time here. Humanities, with its multidisciplinary approach, seemed like the right way to start. Having been inspired throughout high school by my English classes (big shout-out to AP Literature and Mrs. Rene Stanley!), I wanted to expand on my critical reasoning skills and my studies on the human experience. I think that there’s a really critical need for more humanities majors in STEM students, especially those on pre-health tracks. Too many people forget that health is a field that, although strongly reliant on a knowledge-based background, also relies equally as much on empathy and connecting with others.

Photo credit: Archana Sundar.

Is there a particular professor or mentor you’d like to give a shout out?  

Mercedes Bounthapanya. She currently works for the Dean’s Office in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, but I’ve known her since I was a first-year because she was one of the thirteen womxn that chartered KU’s multicultural progressive sorority, Sigma Psi Zeta, back in March 2016. I didn’t really get to know her closely, however, until I unexpectedly took up the position of President of our sorority. I had a lot of self-doubt coming into the position. To help me, Mercedes scheduled weekly one-on-one meetings, and those hours are where a lot of my critical growth has taken place. I have gained so much confidence in myself and my capabilities as a leader this past year alone. Mercedes is always there whether it’s to give me general guidance, or if I’m having trouble overcoming a large obstacle in my position. I dedicate a large part of the 2019 Ex.C.E.L. Award to Mercedes, as I would not have applied for the award without her direct encouragement when I first approached her about it.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

Photo credit: Archana Sundar.

One main benefit from being in the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is having the opportunity to meet and talk to peers who have also been exposed to a broad range of subjects and fields of study. There are more than a hundred offered programs under our mutual College! That alone shows just how many people with different experiences you have the opportunity to meet here. The friends I met through various classes are each so unique and I know I will be forever thankful for all of their stories and our open-minded conversations.

What has been your favorite class at KU?

This is a really hard question because I’ve absolutely loved so many different classes, but if I had to narrow it down to a couple then I would choose “Literature of Human Rights” (PCS 565) with Dr. Marike Janzen, or “Gender, Sexuality and the Law” (WGSS 563) with Prof. Nicholas Syrett. I found “Literature of Human Rights” to be extremely thought-provoking as we explored what it truly means to be human, which is surprisingly far more complicated than one may initially think. The assigned readings were also really enjoyable; I’ve reread most of them since the class ended. However, my favorite part were the discussions, especially since the class had several graduate students whose academic focuses were mostly directly related and thus sometimes provided more detailed and thorough perspectives. “Gender, Sexuality and the Law” is tied for my No. 1 for most of the same reasons while also exploring more controversial issues that are critically relevant to current news. I credit Professor Syrett for a large portion of what I gained from the class, because it wasn’t just the content but also how the content was delivered. (Plus, it turns out he makes an amazing life guru at times.) In the end, WGSS 563 only enforced my beliefs that every student should take at least one class in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies during undergrad. If you’re a current or prospective student with room in your schedule, I’m talking to you!

Have you done any internships, study abroad or research programs, or have you been involved in any KU organizations that you’d like to share? Do you have any advice for KU students who want to get involved?

The very first student organization I joined (or, more specifically, was convinced to join by various Board members,) was the Asian American Student Union (AASU). I actually ended up being a part of AASU for the next three years, first as its Freshman Representative, then External Vice President, and lastly President my junior year. Being President of AASU was one of the highlights of my college career, especially because I lucked out with an amazing group of general members that year. I most definitely did not expect to play that active of a role in AASU when I originally joined, mainly due to how much I had repressed my identity as an Asian-American for so many years prior, but AASU ‘s warm community and the close friends I found through its meetings and events quickly made me realize that I wanted to personally contribute to this organization by being more closely involved. The close friends I made in AASU directly led me to joining Sigma Psi Zeta as well. Everything cascaded from there. My involvements in student organizations have undoubtedly been the most influential aspect of my college experience and I’m incredibly grateful for these opportunities. Through them, I’ve learned countless leadership and organizational skills, along with getting to know myself better.

If you’re a KU student wanting to get involved, please know that it’s never too late to join student or community organizations! At the end of my junior year, I applied and was accepted into a co-coordinator position for an advocacy-based program under the Center for Community Outreach (CCO), and this is quite honestly one of my favorite leadership positions I have taken on.

What can you tell us about being selected as a 2019 Excellence in Community, Education and Leadership (Ex.C.E.L.) Award recipient?

Being selected as one of three Ex.C.E.L. Award recipients, and even merely being part of an incredible line of Finalists, was such an unexpected honor! All ten Ex.C.E.L. finalists were each so talented and impressive, which is evident in the fact that the selection committee awarded more than two Award recipients for the first time. To me, this award is proof that hard work and dedication towards your community does not go unrecognized by KU.  

What do you want to do when you graduate?

I intend on working as a medical scribe in Kansas City. I wanted to maintain an independent lifestyle while staying relatively close to KU. Going straight to graduate school was something I strongly considered and applied for, but I was rejected from KU College of Medicine this past fall. This is something I think many students – including myself for a time – are oftentimes too silent about. While it’s important to set high expectations for yourself, it’s also just as important to learn how to make the most of your failures on the way. I’ve done a lot of self-reflection since and I think this next year will be personally beneficial by allowing me to continue improving my application, gain more health experience before graduate school, and work on my mental health.    

What would you tell your freshman self?

Have an open mind joining new organizations and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance from others!

What motivates you?

I have multiple motivators in various parts of my life: In more social student organizations like AASU, one of the most rewarding and inspirational results has always been watching communities being built and friendships coming together. For Sigma Psi Zeta, watching others grow stronger as individuals into leaders themselves motivates me to continue my work as President. But my main motivator on an everyday basis are my mentors like Mercedes, my older sister Tiffany, and my closest friends who give me a healthy amount of constructive criticism through our open and honest relationships that I am extremely lucky to have. These individuals exemplify the kind of individual I strive to be through their compassion, empowerment, determination, and presences as positive differences in others’ lives. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without them, and for that and more, I am thankful for them beyond words.

Be like Daphne. Get involved and keep an open mind. For more information, explore the Humanities Program, the Asian American Student Union, and Sigma Psi Zeta at the University of Kansas.

I am Seeking: Maria Velasco

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 10:59

In the College at KU, our research is driven by the passion for improving the world around us. We are explorers, innovators, and dreamers seeking answers to crucial questions in our communities. Learn what professor of visual art Maria Velasco is seeking.

The College is a great place to seek the answers to whatever interests you! Visit the College website to learn more about how you can join us and begin your I am Seeking story. For more information, visit the Department of Visual Art at the University of Kansas.

Habitat: Explore KU’s greenhouses

Thu, 02/13/2020 - 11:43

On a third floor terrace on Haworth Hall, KU researchers cultivate hundreds of plants for research on genealogy and evolution. The KU greenhouses are home to a variety of plants including some rare species like a large carrion flower and an array of carnivorous plants. Go inside the greenhouses on our latest episode of Habitat.

For more information, explore the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Ishan Parikh launches his third feature film ‘Ego’

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:52

Steven Spielberg released his first full-length film at the age of 25. Hitchcock made his debut at 26. Ishan Parikh, a film & media studies major and business minor at KU, has recently launched his third feature during his junior year.

The concept for “Ego,” which released on YouTube in November 2019, had been simmering in Ishan’s mind since high school. But the logistics of developing the movie, which features a complex story with interweaving plot points, from scratch – assembling a cast, securing funding, and a myriad of other production challenges – had left plans of tackling the project just out of reach.

Then years later as a student in the College, Ishan found resources and mentorship that soon opened doors to new opportunities for creative partnerships and helped bring “Ego” to life. Now, he has received a $950 Arts Research Grant from the The School of the Arts Student Advisory Board to green-light a new project titled “Rainbow Boulevard.”

Where are you from? And why did you decide to come to KU?

I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas and am from there. I decided to come to KU because it was close to home, and I had heard the film program here was great and provided a sizable experience for students.

Why did you choose your major and minor?

From a very early age I always loved films and their ability to entertain. I can’t remember the exact moment, but from very early on I decided that I wanted to be a movie director because I was fascinated by the job and all its responsibilities, and so from there on, I made films in high school with friends and did my best to develop my craft, and the journey has basically led me here.

As far as the business minor goes, it essentially came as a byproduct of choosing my major. I felt it complements being in the entertainment industry, which is a business in itself, and helps one understand the financial stuff better.

What is the benefit of being in the KU College alongside students studying sciences, arts and humanities?

KU has an excellent standard for students being able to develop their projects. I think it’s quite a welcoming place for people who need the aid to not only get better at what they want to do, but also to meet others with the same interests. I’ve found the most beneficial thing is to meet others and group with one another to work on things that interest you, whether that be making a film, working on a project, or what have you.

Give a shout-out to a professor, mentor, advisor, or someone at KU who has helped you?

I have found a lot of support in many of my professors here at KU, but chief among them would have to be Tamara Falicov, who is the Associate Dean for Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Tamara was my professor for my Introduction to Film class my freshman year and she was not only a great teacher, but an incredibly productive and approachable professor. She immediately heard my pitch to make my film and was nothing but supportive and encouraging the whole way through the process. She gave me the freedom to pursue it how I wanted to and was a great resource and sounding board for me in the process. I couldn’t possibly run out of things to say about Dr. Falicov and how great she is.

Please tell us about your newly released film, Ego. Where did the idea of the film come from, and how did development and production come together? What was it like collaborating with the team to create the film?

Ego is a film I’ve had in my head for a while now. It takes the disparate stories of a failed private investigator, a married couple, and a successful internet blogger and connects them through the themes of self-pride and narcissism. It taps into large themes about human nature and basically acts as an allegory for the entire philosophy on egos.

This was a film I had the idea for in high school, but back then, circa 2017, it seemed impossible for me to ever make it. When I got to KU, I found so many resources, in terms of the theatre department and film students, that it suddenly seemed possible for me to pull this off on a low budget.

I spent a lot of time last fall prepping the film, figuring out the cast, crew, locations, and all the logistics of how we were going to go about this. We began shooting in February of 2019 and went straight until the end of April when we finished. Even though how fast we were moving in terms of filming, the process was incredibly rewarding in terms of working with actors, and bringing to life such a dense and complex story.

Lots of amazing friends within the film department helped out on the making of this film and they couldn’t have been more generous, lending their time and help making this happen. This is by far the most ambitious and hardest thing I’ve yet to do when it comes to filmmaking and the amount of help I was able to get is the only reason we were able to pull this off.

Do you have any tips for KU students who want to launch their own creative projects?

The only tip I can give is the one that is given many times, which is go out there and do it. There are probably so many others with similar goals as you, and I would say go out and find them. Collaborate with them. Make stuff. Put it out there. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Have you done any internships, study abroad programs, or any other learning experiences you’d like to share? If so, what was that like?

I am currently working with another professor at KU on a project that I am doing as an internship for the spring. We’re developing a documentary. I have yet to go abroad to study, but the plan is to do that in the fall of next year.

What would you tell your freshman self?

I would tell him to slow down, enjoy life in the moment and appreciate it for what it is, because as we all know, time flies.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

The plan is to move to Los Angeles after college and find a job working within the industry somehow, be it starting out as a production assistant, or working on a film crew. The goal is to hopefully be a working filmmaker someday.

What motivates you?

I would say I’m motivated by going out and pursuing what I want no matter the circumstance, or limitation. I think if you keep trying to reach your goals without giving up, eventually, you will succeed in one way or another.

Watch Ego (2019) in its entirety:

Be like Ishan…. For more information, explore the Department of Film & Media Studies and the School of Business at the University of Kansas.

Collaboration across cultures: Returning to Tanzania with ColLAB

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 10:46

Soaring palm trees. Cool ocean breezes. An East African metropolis. These aren’t images you’d normally associate with the University of Kansas. But for 10 Jayhawks this summer, these tropical trappings made for the perfect KU classroom.

In July 2019, those Jayhawks — seven students and three faculty members — participated in a field school in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. The field school was part of the Kansas African Studies Center’s research program, ColLAB: Bridging East Africa’s Health Divides, which brings together KU students and faculty from different fields and backgrounds to study questions of global health and development.

“The program is an opportunity for students of all levels to take a big step toward living, working, and conducting research in an African context,” says Katie Rhine, ColLAB co-director and associate professor of African & African-American studies and geography & atmospheric science.

Part study abroad and part experiential learning, the field school puts months and years of students’ Swahili language learning, African studies expertise, and research skills to the test.

From Mufindi to Dar

Coastal and boasting more than six million inhabitants, Dar es Salaam couldn’t be more different than the quiet, rural highlands of Mufindi, the setting of the first field school in 2018.

In planning for 2019, Rhine and her fellow ColLAB co-directors, Elizabeth MacGonagle, associate professor of African history, and Dr. Peter Ojiambo, associate professor of African & African-American studies, decided to transplant the field school to the city. Also new: Scholars from the University of Dar es Salaam would work and learn alongside the Kansas students in the field and at lectures and seminars at the university.

Altogether, the 2019 field school would represent an even fuller experience than 2018, offering a trifecta of field research assignments, visits to local non-governmental organizations, and trips to historically significant sites around the region.

From left: ColLAB co-directors Katie Rhine, Elizabeth MacGonagle, and Peter Ojiambo Far afield in the field

The 9,000-mile journey from Kansas to Dar was a long one, but the ColLAB students enjoyed little time to rest. In a formidable first day in the field, the KU and UDSM students were paired off into teams and sent off into different areas of the city. Each team was assigned to collect data related to broad research topics, such as public transport and health and sanitation.

The project, an example of ethnographic research, encapsulated the field school’s objectives.  Kansas students engaged with their UDSM counterparts, interacted with local Tanzanians, and conducted field research in incisive, sometimes unfamiliar ways — experiences impossible to replicate in a classroom environment.

A campus on a hill

Between field trips, the students spent time at the UDSM’s hilltop campus. With its midcentury breezeways and soaring palm trees, UDSM was a scenic, low-key locale for seminars and lectures.

Clockwise from left: Symantha Dawson, Tyler Cargill, Mariah Crystal, Eric Splavec, Lia Thompson, Macie Rouse, and Joe Clark enjoy some downtime on the University of Dar es Salaam campus.

“It’s a beautiful campus,” says Eric Splavec, who graduated in 2019 with a bachelor’s in political science. “The amount of history and character there — it reminded me a lot of KU.”  

In the classrooms, the students and faculty shared each other’s markedly different learning and teaching styles. “In the U.S., we believe in participatory exercises and engagement and conversation. In Tanzania, they’re going to give you an hour-long lecture, and you need to listen,” says Katie Rhine.

At the 2019 field school, ColLAB students worked alongside scholars from the University of Dar es Salaam. Living history

Effective humanistic research relies on an understanding of a culture’s past, and how it has shaped societies today. With that in mind, the field school visited several historically significant sites in or near the city: The National Museum of Dar es Salaam; the Pugu Hills Forest Reserve, site of what is considered one of the world’s oldest forests; and Bagamoyo, a former hub of the slave trade and capital of Germany-occupied East Africa.

“When it comes to the slave trade and the history of Dar, there’s so much that affects the living conditions and demographics today,” said Tyler Cargill, a senior studying chemical engineering. These histories figured much more prominently into day-to-day life than he expected.

Students witnessed those effects in a walking tour of the city. Its straining infrastructure and crowded skylines revealed a city fighting forward from a patchwork history of colonialism. Less than six decades after achieving independence, many of Dar es Salaam’s inhabitants still remember the country under colonial rule.

Engaging with Dar’s disadvantaged

East African non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are a major focus of ColLAB’s research efforts. This summer, the program partnered with two nonprofit NGOs: Child in the Sun, a faith-based orphanage funded by the Catholic archdiocese; and PEDDEREF, or People with Drugs Dependence Relief Foundation, a sober house for men and women who suffer from addiction.

Child in the Sun takes in Dar’s “street children” — homeless, frequently orphaned boys who were found stealing, begging, or participating in delinquent activities. Rhine draws connections between the organization’s work and problematic missionary efforts during the slave trade. “Our students saw those parallels when we went to Bagamoyo, where we toured a number of spaces that were rehabilitation centers for former slaves. These were connections that needed to be made. That’s why these histories still matter.”

PEDDEREF seeks to integrate men and women with substance use disorders back into society, as well as treat their addictions and emotional trauma. “To me, PEDDEREF addresses questions of healing that go beyond the body, that have to do with structural inequalities, social stigmas, and gender roles and performances,” Rhine says. “I think those are valuable lessons for our students to bring back with them.”

For Macie Rouse, who graduated in 2019 with a bachelor’s in anthropology, the visit to PEDDEREF was eye-opening. “I was honored that they opened their doors to us and let us see this side of Tanzania. Addiction is a deeply stigmatized issue here, so a lot of these people feel really marginalized. That they were willing to share their stories with us was inspiring.”

Endings and beginnings

After nearly two weeks of rigorous fieldwork and close-knit collaboration, the 2019 ColLAB field school came to an end. Many students boarded planes for the U.S. and some to other parts of the world. All planned to continue their work in academic or professional capacities. “We all went on our own journeys after the field school,” Rouse says. “Whether that meant returning to KU, starting a Fulbright, or continuing to travel within Tanzania — that’s exciting.”

For Katie Rhine, the 2019 field school was a turning point for the KU and UDSM students. “I feel a thousand percent confident that the KU students could jump on a plane tomorrow and begin a job or an exciting research project in Tanzania,” she says. “Likewise, the UDSM students could come to the U.S. and enrich and enliven the universities here.”

When asked what she’s taken away from the trip, Lia Thompson, who graduated in 2018 with a master’s in anthropology, is quick to answer. “Confidence. It’s easy to get comfortable in America. Doing research in America, or just being at an American university. But it takes courage to get on a plane, travel 20-plus hours to another country, and interact with intellectuals about topics that you know nothing about.”

Whatever the future holds for ColLAB and the field school, its significance remains clear for Rhine. “I think the approaches to human health that we take in this program hold a tremendous amount of promise,” Rhine says. “This is how social change is going to happen. This is how students are going to learn the skills that they need to make a difference in the world.”

A recipient of the prestigious Foreign Language & Area Studies fellowship, Joe Clark focuses his research on contemporary hip-hop. Symantha Dawson’s research — on violence and health in East Africa — is based on fieldwork conducted at the 2018 field school.

Top 10 #HeartofKU stories of 2019

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 15:27

As the first month of 2020 comes to an end, we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite KU stories of 2019. From bees, beer, and Oscar buzz to research excellence, a Jayhawk Women’s Hall of Famer, and the search for habitable planets outside of our solar system, here are 10 stand-out moments from the past year that highlight just some of the incredible achievements and discoveries of students, faculty, alumni and staff in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Heart of KU.

1. Busy award season for Kevin Willmott

KU professor of Film & Media Studies Kevin Willmott had a busy awards season in 2019. As a co-writer on Spike Lee’s film, “BlacKkKlansman,” Willmott received numerous industry award nominations for his work on the script.

The biggest recognition Willmott received came during the Academy Awards at the end of February when Willmott took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The award capped off a wild month for Willmott who accepted the award onstage during the telecast with co-writers Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, and David Rabinowitz.

2. Go behind the scenes of visual art

Comprising five stories and 130,000 sq. ft. of space, Chalmers Hall provides the perfect home for visual art students to create and learn. In episode four of our video series Habitat, see where students get hands on learning in everything from painting and drawing to textiles and fibers.

3. Meet our Hawks Who Brew

To celebrate National Beer Day on April 7, we profiled six Jayhawk alumni who are applying their KU degrees in the most delicious and refreshingly thirst-quenching ways, working in the beer industry for operations both big and small across the country.

With degrees in Microbiology, Geography and Latin American Studies, Chemistry, Art History, and Atmospheric Science, they’re using their diverse talents to create and innovate in their spaces, combining yeast, hops, and water with enthusiasm and a healthy dose of Jayhawk pride at Free State Brewing Company, Ballast Point, Lawrence Beer Company, 23rd Street Brewery, MillerCoors, and Black Stag Brewery. Cheers!

4. For the Love of Bees Photo by Meg Kumin, photographer at KU Marketing Communications.

You’ve probably heard about the recent boost in popularity for the KU Beekeeping Club (KUBC), who signed up nearly 300 Jayhawks at Hawkfest and Unionfest alone in Fall 2019.

To find out what’s driving the buzz, we asked KU seniors Alex Murray, co-founder and president, and Elizabeth Sundahl, co-founder and club treasurer, who are bringing their creative energy and academic interests to the KUBC to better the environment, connect Jayhawks across disciplines, and build community around beekeeping.

See more of the latest stories about our current students.

5. Unwinding podcast explores the motivations behind new KU discoveries

In new episodes of our podcast Unwinding, we sat down with KU researchers in the College to chat about what they’re working on, why they’re passionate about it, why it matters, and what makes them tick as humans.

Check out some of our latest conversations, including discussions with memory researcher Dave Tell on race, memory and the legacy of Emmett Till, astrophysicist Jennifer Delgado on the search for habitable planets outside our own solar system, and ecologist Joy Ward on how plants respond to rising CO2 levels. Subscribe to Unwinding on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Stitcher to get new episodes immediately.

6. Hawks to Watch: Estelle Johnson, professional athlete

Before playing soccer professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France as part of the Cameroonian National Team, Estelle pursued her love of the game on the Kansas soccer team from 2006 to 2009, appearing in all 85 games during her career at KU. At the same time she was building experience as a player with the Jayhawks, Estelle applied her same work ethic to gain complementary skills as a communication studies major in the College.

Learn more about the marks our Hawks are leaving in their industries and communities.

7. Sam Steuart named as KU’s 20th Truman Scholar Photo by Meg Kumin, photographer at KU Marketing Communications

Sam Steuart couldn’t contain his excitement when a visit to Chancellor Girod’s office in April turned out to be a surprise announcement that he had been named as KU’s 20th Harry S. Truman Scholar, which carries an award of $30,000 for graduate school. Then, in December, Sam received another round of exciting news when it was announced that he had earned a George Marshall Scholarship for graduate study in the United Kingdom.

Sam, a senior from Topeka majoring in American studies and biochemistry and minoring in Spanish, is studying how socioeconomic status affects a person’s ability to receive health care and education, and intends to pursue a degree in comparative social policy at the University of Oxford. Rock Chalk, Sam!

8. Professor Sarah Deer inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame gained its first Jayhawk in Fall 2019. Sarah Deer, a KU alumna and faculty member who has a joint appointment with the School of Public Affairs and Administration and the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame during a ceremony held on September 14, 2019 in Seneca Fall, New York.

She was recognized in particular for her work on the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act and her advocacy around issues of sexual assault and domestic violence in indigenous communities. She is the first woman from the University of Kansas and the fifth Kansan to be inducted into hall.

9. Research Excellence Initiative fosters innovation and student growth Photo by Earl Richardson.

Discovery starts with the spark of curiosity. Through hands-on, real-world experience and faculty mentorship, the College’s Research Excellence Initiative (REI) fosters innovation and growth among KU researchers. In 2018-2019, the College’s Research Excellence Initiative provided $580,000 in support for faculty and student research. From filmmaking in Garden City to exploring health access on the ground in East Africa, REI funding is driving KU discoveries that impact communities in Kansas and around the world.

Learn more about REI-funded research in the College in KU Giving Magazine from KU Endowment.

10. College alum Gary Woodland wins U.S. Open

It was a big year for KU athletes. PGA Tour professional golfer and KU College alum (B.A. in Sociology, 2007) Gary Woodland won the 119th U.S. Open in June, marking the first time that a Jayhawk claimed a major golf championship.

Check out what Gary had to say about his career and time at the University of Kansas in Kansas Alumni Magazine.

Keep up with the latest good news from the Heart of KU. Check out the latest stories on the College blog, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, and explore our website.

Hawks to Watch: Mugabi Byenkya, writer, poet and rapper

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 16:25

Why Mugabi’s a Hawk to Watch:

Life has a way of writing in unexpected plot twists. For KU grad Mugabi Byenkya, whose journey to a career as a writer, poet and “occasional” rapper has been anything but predictable, adapting to shifting circumstances, often brought on by debilitating bouts of chronic illness, has required equal amounts of personal determination and patience.

After an initial childhood stroke, Mugabi wasn’t expected to live past the age of 9. Born in Nigeria to Ugandan parents, he arrived at KU with plans to pursue his passion of ecology and policy and eventually land a steady 9-to-5 job, plans that would change after a new series of recurring health issues. But he soon found that the skills he developed during his time at KU were transferrable to a new path. Now at 27 years old, he’s keeping a full schedule performing shows across five countries and promoting his recent book Dear Philomena, which has been distributed in five continents.

An all-around creative force, in addition to being a one-man-shop, operating as his own booking agency, publicist and manager, Mugabi was selected as one of ten emerging theater artists in bcHUB’s Emerging Artists Ensemble and named “one of 56 writers who has contributed to his native Uganda’s literary heritage in the 56 years since independence”; his award-winning writings have even been used to teach international high school English reading comprehension.

With many successes to his name in the face of lifelong challenges, Mugabi continues to defy expectations. And through his experiences, he’s learned to take things one day at a time, to set manageable goals, and, now more than ever, to be kind to himself.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I’m a writer, poet and occasional rapper. Being an independent, proudly anti-establishment artist involves juggling a lot of hats, as I operate as my own booking agent, publicist and manager.    

How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?

Definitely a longer and still ongoing journey. I started writing privately at a very young age, and I always envisioned a future with a stable 9-5 full-time job, while pursuing my writing as a side hustle. I was able to attend KU through an incredibly generous full-tuition scholarship from the International Institute of Education. I felt internal pressure to gain a practical skill-set that could be leveraged into a sustainable career. Artistic careers are notorious for financial instability in the gig economy, so after two changes in my major, I declared at KU as an Environmental Studies and Global & International Studies double major. I intended to combine my passion for ecology with my love of policy and gain a practical skill-set that could be leveraged into secure, reliable, sustainable full-time employment.

My parents lived through three wars, and I’ve faced my fair share of instability: surviving a stroke and subsequent health complications in 2001, as well as the loss of my father and drastic change to my family’s economic stability in 2005. This taught me to prioritize stability, security and sustainability over everything. So, I worked hard and studied harder at KU, which brought me an additional scholarship from the Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow, four undergraduate research awards, and three amazing part-time jobs as an RA, DA and later Night Security with the Department of Student Housing. After four spectacular years, I graduated from KU in 2014, and moved to the University of Michigan for a Masters in Environmental Justice, partially funded by an Academic Leadership Fellowship. But “everything changed when the fire nation attacked!”

At the end of my first semester of graduate school, I suffered from two back-to-back strokes. The doctors told me I wouldn’t be alive to see 2016. With my impending death looming over my shoulder, I started writing Dear Philomena, as a last minute attempt to fulfill my dreams with the limited time I had left. Initially this was grueling; the exertion that 15 minutes of writing would entail on my body would result in an excruciating 3-hour long seizure. Over time, I built up the capability to write for longer and longer. This eventually led to me finding my current publisher and embarking on my current journey! The journey is far from over and managing my disabilities and chronic illnesses occupies the majority of my time.

I’m currently partially dependent on my incredibly generous family and friends for food, shelter, and financial assistance, which I’m simultaneously humbled and incredibly grateful for. Despite my significant challenges, I’ve managed to survive several years past my intended life expectancy, distribute my book across North America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica and Australia, tour in support of my book, performing in eighty shows across forty-three cities in five countries, and for that I am very proud.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

Tripling my intended life expectancy. I was supposed to die after my initial childhood stroke at 9 years old and I’m 27 currently!

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

During the final leg of my book tour last year, I got hit by an unexplained extended bout of massively deteriorating health. I was supposed to have a thirty-five show, twenty city, six country tour. Instead, I was barely able to complete a ten show, five city, three country mini-tour. These massive cancellations left me devastated and disappointed in my unreliable body. This was magnified by the barrage of racism and ableism I faced while dealing with doctors, promoters and show organizers. I was unable to properly process my feelings while struggling with partial paralysis, seizures, ridiculous amounts of pain and fatigue, among other chronic illness issues. Being chronically ill is a daily struggle and living in an ableist world is even worse. So, I try to allow myself space to grieve missed opportunities and recognize that even though I inhabit an incredibly volatile body, it’s one capable of producing such beauty and is worthy of love, recognition, admiration and respect.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I used to be incredibly Type A and had my five-year plan charted out at any point in time. Life has since then laughed at my plans and thrown me for a loop, so I try not to be as rigid. In ten years, honestly I hope to be alive. I hope to be contributing to my chosen family and communities in whichever ways I am able. I hope to be happy and I hope to be loved.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

I know that you perceive your mind as your biggest asset due to your disabled body and the ableism you have internalized. However, your mind is not your biggest asset, your heart is.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

My friend from KU, Alec Bostwick (@BostWiki on YouTube/Socials) made an incredibly poignant YouTube video a while back that outlined how to become successful in any career. I will re-iterate his advice because it’s the best career pro-tip I’ve heard. In the video he says, you need 1/2 things in order to become successful, namely:
1. Luck
2. Connections + Privilege
3. Hard work (OPTIONAL)

Hard work on its own gives you nothing. Some of the hardest working people I know consider themselves failures for things beyond their control. You can’t work your way out of miserable circumstances; everyone needs a helping hand. However, when hard work is paired with either luck and/or connections and privilege, you can move mountains. You can’t control luck, so folks should learn how to best leverage their respective privilege and make the right connections in order to succeed.

For example, while I was working on edits for Dear Philomena, my roommate’s older brother walked in and asked me what I was up to. When he found out I was editing a book I wrote, he recommended a friend of his wife’s. She had just recently founded her own independent small publishing house. I decided to learn from the mistakes of artists I knew and opted for a non-conventional independent contract, as this was my first book. I bought the rights for the book from my publisher and paid up-front for all publication costs. This was significantly more than I could afford, so I ran an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, which more than tripled my intended fundraising goal! Shortly after this success, I ended up with a terrible agent, who took a large chunk of my Kickstarter money and did next to nothing with it. This was when I made the decision to become my own manager/publicist/booking agent rather than outsource. 

Currently, I have made significantly more than the typical advance and 5-10% royalty deal that most authors get. I’ve been able to leverage all I’ve learned as my own manager/publicist/booking agent in order to find folks able to actually contribute to my career.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

My degrees at KU directly prepared me for a very different job that I am no longer physically able to do. However, the transferable skills that I learned within the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and within the greater KU ecosystem, massively prepared me for my current job. While I was at KU, I had to juggle demanding classes, a part-time job, student organization involvement and relationships/life. Because I was a double major, I went from Chemistry to African Film to a Student Senate meeting in the same day. Similarly, in my current job, I can go from a TV interview to writing and publishing something new to a paid performance in the same day. My KU degrees not only taught me how to juggle many hats in different fields but also how to write for an audience effectively, efficiently digest large amounts of data, and present findings in an engaging unconventional manner.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I used to have a mantra when I was working on Dear Philomena: “#NoDaysOff.” Every day I would post my progress through a word count. This helped keep me accountable but also fostered an unhealthy work practice. I would feel incredibly guilty for being unable to write. Yet, I always had a valid and health-related reason for not writing.

Lately I’ve decided to prioritize rest and the privilege to be able to have “#DaysOff.” When I’ve clocked out I enjoy chai and conversation, live music, especially anytime I can catch my brother and his friends perform, and devouring our 5000+ comic book collection we’ve been accumulating since 1998!

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I hate chocolate.

Be like Mugabi. Tell your story. For more information, visit the Center for Global and International Studies and Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas. Get the latest news from Mugabi on his website.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.