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'Chasing a dream': Arts in higher education driven by student, community demand

OREM — When Lya Santa Maria tells people she's majoring in modern dance, most offer their support and encouragement. To others, she said, it "seems like a joke," and their responses are somewhat predictable:

"Well what are you going to do with that? Is that practical? Where is that going to get you in the world?"

They're questions heard often by other students and faculty in Utah Valley University's School of the Arts, especially when the university's computer science program down the hall frequently sees students recruited into high-paying jobs before they even graduate.

The same internal conflict is felt on a larger scale throughout Utah's education system. It's a STEM vs. STEAM kind of dilemma as lawmakers and teachers balance demand from a flourishing tech industry seeking science, technology, engineering and math students while fostering student expression through the arts — the "A" in STEAM.

For individual college students, however, the most persistent questions don't come from concerned parents, teachers, friends or prospective employers. They come introspectively from the arts students themselves.

And those can be the toughest to answer.

"If I was going into anything else, I wouldn't have as much drive or passion there as I do in dance. I could never go into accounting or business because it would just not be fulfilling for me," Santa Maria said. "It's kind of one of those things where you just have to buck up and smile and say, 'I will make a way.' That's the great thing about arts. You can make a way if you're really searching."

UVU now helps more than 1,500 arts students find their way as they pursue passions in anything from modern dance to music to sculpture. That number will continue to grow as the university is projected to enroll some 40,000 students by the end of the decade.

While "very few" freshmen enter with realistic expectations of how difficult an arts degree can be, the majority of them graduate and leave with skills in business and other career paths, according to K. Newell Dayley, dean of UVU's School of the Arts.

"I think most come in chasing a dream. Some of them catch on right away that this dream is elusive and they have to work really hard. Some of those will peel off into something else," Dayley said. "It requires an incredible amount of work, and that work is so focused that they're able to handle anything else."

School of the Arts

UVU's School of the Arts was formed when the institution became a university in 2008. And despite the program's relative youth, it's the second-largest program of its kind among Utah's eight public colleges and universities. It offers dozens of degree options through its Art and Visual Communications, Dance, Music and Theatre departments.

And its students are earning national recognition year after year.

UVU's theater students have taken home multiple national awards while participating in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The school's ballroom dance company last year earned a world title in Blackpool, England. Photography students are also getting top national honors.

Yet UVU is the only university in the state without a performing arts facility of its own. The school's music department lies across a narrow hallway from its auto body restoration facility, and the entire wing of campus rings with a mix of vocal warmups, instrumental practice and power tools.

"We've been like a science program without any labs," Dayley said.

But years of effort has brought educators, lawmakers and community members together to change that.

Legislators this month awarded $30 million, adding to $20 million in private donations, to build a new performing arts building at the Orem university. The new facility, which is still in the design phase, will house stages for music and theater, as well as practice and storage space for students.

It is the only capital project requested by education leaders and funded by the Legislature in the past several years that isn't directly tied to science, technology, engineering or math fields.

UVU leaders expect to break ground for the building this fall, with completion scheduled for the end of 2018.

While a career on stage is what many of the arts students hope for, UVU instructors seek to prepare students for a variety of career options in the arts. Some will become business owners. Others will get hired with a production agency. Many, like Santa Maria, hope to become educators in some way.

For that reason, every arts program at UVU has a business component with it to help students add versatility to their degree, Dayley said.

"We try to help them understand where the revenue streams are in their particular field," he said. "We forget that for every performer, there are 10 other people making a living off that person."

Shifting demand

UVU leaders this year are celebrating the institution's 75th year. It's a recognition of institutional progress — what started as a vocational school in 1941 has now evolved into the largest university in the state, with a community college mission, numerous four-year degrees and some graduate degrees.

But as university leaders set a course going forward, there's gravitational forces from all directions that make balancing the arts among other academic priorities all the more difficult.

STEM is one such force.

Workforce demand from Utah's thriving tech industry is sending ripples across the Wasatch Front, pulling the epicenter of Utah's population growth south of the state's capital city and into UVU's service area.

Census estimates released last week show that Utah County could soon be gaining more residents each year than any other county in the state, due in part to the number of tech jobs opening there.

Some educators at UVU see the arts as a partial solution to the workforce demand, not a distraction from it. Arts students, for example, regularly gain valuable experience in success and failure, communication, competition and the nuances of human emotion, according to Mark Talbert, professor and head of UVU's ceramics and sculpture program.

"The goal, I think, of all higher education is to create critical thinkers and problem-solvers. That's really the most valuable tool you can leave higher education with," Talbert said. "Art is complete engagement."

Industry aside, Utah's communities also have a "natural affinity" for the arts, according to Dayley. This is part of the reason, he said, why UVU students perform so well on the national stage.

And the community's support for the arts is further illustrated by private financial contributions for UVU's new performance building, Santa Maria said.

"I think that's why this arts building will be as successful as it will be because the community is just ready and excited for it," she said.

Creating traditions

Other pulls come from within higher academia. Just as some community colleges gravitate toward offering four-year degrees, institutions like UVU are often driven toward wanting to become a research institution.

But the transition from teaching to research can come at a price for student learning, Talbert said.

"The pressure on the faculty, the old publish or parish thing, is real. The emphasis isn't so much on the students," he said. "Most of the faculty that I've met on this campus are here to be teachers."

Institutional growth and evolution has also caused some institutions to "jettison" trade and technical programs, Dayley said. And while such a move could leave more financial resources to the arts and high-demand technology programs, having the trades and the arts on the same campus makes for a more well-rounded student experience, he said.

It's a concept symbolically illustrated by UVU's trades and music programs being housed in a corner of campus together in a friendly struggle of sound and space.

"We're continuing to keep the trades here alongside everything else," he said. "I think having the trades alongside the professions is really healthy."

Some institutions have also abandoned the open enrollment model and raised the bar for admission, partly as an effort to improve completion rates.

While UVU's 2014 graduation rate of 31 percent was second-lowest in the state, university leaders see an open enrollment model as critical to accommodating a rapidly growing student population.

Last fall, UVU became the largest university in Utah, taking on a 6 percent enrollment increase from the year before for a total of 33,211 students. Another 7,000 students are projected to arrive by 2020.

With that growth, the pressure to follow other universities into the realms of tighter enrollment and research ambition leaves UVU leaders with persistent questions about their current model, questions not unlike those asked of their own arts students:

"Well what are you going to do with that? Is that practical? Where is that going to get you in the world?"

For now, the answers seem to come easily.

"We don't have a long tradition because we don't have a long past, so we're not dragging traditions behind us. This school is about the future," Dayley said. "We're trying to create traditions of the future. It's all about the students."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen