Artists Lead Artists in Student Mentor Program

Senior Zach Ulmer of Winchester came to Radford University intending to major in criminal justice. Two years into the program, he realized it wasn't for him—he missed the art and design projects that had been his passion in high school.

"I thought I didn't want to be on a computer all day," he said, "but that didn't work out." He took his first graphic design class at Radford in summer 2010 and has been playing catch-up since then to get all the courses he needs to graduate this December.

"When I first switched my major, I didn't know anybody in the department, and I didn't know who to ask for help," Ulmer said. That inspired him to create a mentoring program for younger art students.

He started the program last fall as his project for Professor Ken Smith's senior seminar class and launched it this semester with a website, application cards, buttons, a Facebook page and posters across campus. He also gave brief presentations in art classes.

The result was a team of eight mentors, including Ulmer, who work with five younger graphic design students to discuss assignments, offer critiques and give encouragement. The group meets informally for lunch on Fridays.

students in mentoring program

Art students Kristen Bacon (left) and Mary Musselman get feedback from mentor Zach Ulmer on a graphic design project.

"I wish something like this had been available to me as a beginning designer," said senior Elizabeth Favazza of Kilmarnock. She is mentoring two students this semester. "I love the idea that I'm helping young designers," she said. "It makes me consider things I've done in the past and think how I would do them now. It's a progression. It makes everybody a better designer."

Favazza, who will graduate in May, just coached her two mentees through an exercise designing logos for several companies, asking questions like, "Did you think about how this would look on a billboard?" and "Would you want to eat at this restaurant?" She checks in with them regularly by email just to ask how it's going and to coach them through momentary creative blocks.

Junior Kasey Sutphin of Marshall and roommate Kaitlin Fields heard Ulmer speak in an intermediate design class and signed up right away for the program. "It's an awesome idea," Sutphin said. "I never would have thought of it."

She and Fields chose Favazza as their mentor because they knew her from previous classes, and "I really liked her designs," Sutphin said. Favazza coached her through the logo project, which involved "a massive amount of things to do," Sutphin said. "Things had to be done over, but she critiqued the project and it came out 10 times better than I would have imagined. She also gave me more confidence."

That confidence will serve the young designers well in their careers, Ulmer said, when they begin working with clients. "We are so focused on the day, on everything we have to get done, we are in our little bubble," he said. "We don’t get much 'client interaction.' "

In the real world, he said, "you have to know how to speak to people and not the computer. You have to be able to talk on the phone, carry on a conversation if you go out to lunch with a client. Even writing a proper email is hard for some students." If the mentoring group can help his peers develop those skills, Ulmer said, he will have met his class project goal: "to do something pretty big."

His brainchild has already succeeded by two significant measures. The mentorship website won a gold award in the student division of the 2012 Western Virginia ADDY Awards on March 10, the first step in a three-tier national competition by the American Advertising Federation.

The project also won praise in February from the Charlotte, N.C., chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, which encouraged members to "check out the fun website they’ve created to learn more about what the students at Radford are doing."

Mar 21, 2012
Deanne Estrada
(540) 831-6713