In a world in which people feel more detached and disengaged than ever, South Texas College is making it a point to stay connected.
Through the arts.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be at a college that understands the power of the arts to connect us,” says William Buhidar, Music Department chair and assistant dean of the Fine & Performing Arts Division at South Texas College. “When I was brought on, my focus was to do just that. To use our music, drama and visual arts programs to engage the public, to entertain them, to challenge them, and to show them that STC was not just an important educational institution but also a part of the community.”
Founded in 1993, South Texas College now serves more than 34,000 students, offers more than 120 degree & certificate options, and is the only community college in the State of Texas to offer four baccalaureate degrees. Despite this growth, STC remains firmly rooted in the culture of South Texas and takes great pride in serving and connecting to the community which it serves.
“Community is at the nucleus of who we are and you can’t ignore that,” says Joel J. Rodriguez, chair of STC’s Drama Department. “Especially in Drama. What we do and how we do it always involves community members not only as the audience but as people we hire in. We rely on the community—our performances aren’t something we do on our own, they’re something we do together.”
For Buhidar, this “bringing together” is at the heart of the important role that the arts play in society. “The arts are for everyone. They have a way of bringing everything to the level of conversation. It’s the bridge. Whether it’s music, or drama, or the visual arts, it connects us to one another. This is important, especially today.”
When it comes to building connections, Rodriguez likes thinking in terms of dialogue—not just the kind that happens on stage, but the kind that happens with an audience. “When we think of what performances we’re going to do, we are always thinking about how to make theater relevant to what is going on now. In 2016, we decided to have an ongoing discussion about understanding people that are different than us, about kindness, and about being civil. So we chose productions that allowed us to engage those ideas.”
“The arts, at their core, are about more than just entertainment,” continues Rodriguez. “They’re a tool for community dialogue and change.”
Charles Neumann, chair of the Fine Arts Department, sees this community-focus as also highlighting the role that the arts are supposed to play in society.
“Some people think it’s just art, it’s just pretty,” says Neumann. “But that’s just part of it. We’re supposed to question things, to create that dialogue and communication through our artwork. That’s the role of being an artist. This outreach and engagement teaches an important lesson about the larger role that arts plays in society. It teaches us to look at the world holistically, to ask questions, and to be independent thinkers.”
While critics of the arts often question their practicality, mounting evidence suggests that the role of the arts in society is actually quite significant, especially when it comes to training the kind of well-rounded workforce the jobs of the future will require.
Over the last several years, there has been a growing movement among scientists and artists across the country to revise the educational focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to a focus on STEAM. Significantly, the “A” stands for the “Arts” and highlights the creative-thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative skills they bring to the table.
According to Buhidar, it is the ability of the arts to teach these elusive “soft skills” that makes them a strong and smart choice for not just artists, but future scientists and entrepreneurs alike.
“There’s a lot of research on this now,” says Buhidar. “The best STEM students often have an arts background. The arts make for a much more well-rounded individual that can not only connect the dots in their field, but actually work with other people.”
In a survey of 500 U.S. senior executives by Adecco, one of the world’s largest staffing firms, 44% of them believed American workers lacked such soft skills as communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.
Similarly, in an April 2018 CNBC interview, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner pointed to the same skills gap, saying “somewhat surprisingly, some people may not realize [that] interpersonal skills are where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance.”
For Buhidar, Rodriguez, and Neumann, “working with other people,” and the skills required to do so, are a critical part of what they teach and what they do as artists.
“We are in the business of relationships,” says Rodriguez. “Especially in the theater, you can’t put on a strong production if you don’t have those skills. How do you talk to people, how do you handle conflict, how do you disagree, how do you negotiate or compromise. Those are key ideas.”
These are lessons that are naturally taught in the various ensembles that STC’s Music Department maintains. As students complete their AA in Music, which provides the practical and theoretical foundation they need to transfer to a 4-year college or university, they are encouraged to participate in ensembles as a way to develop their skills and learn how to behave and work in a group.
In STC’s Drama department, those lessons are taught to students as they work together to put on several, often sold-out, productions a year. Compared to larger 4-year programs, the intimate size of STC’s Drama program means that students are able to assume key roles designing, performing, directing, promoting and managing all aspects of the production.
“When our students transfer, they’re stars,” says Rodriguez. “We completely rely on them for these productions. At larger 4-years, all the big roles go to the seniors or the MFA students. Here, they actually get hands-on experience right away. When they transfer, professors recognize that.”
In the Fine Arts program, students have a choice between focusing on the Visual Arts, for students who want traditional training in the arts, or Graphic Arts, which prepares students for careers as graphic designers and the like.
Regardless of a student’s track, collaboration is emphasized throughout his or her studies, and especially in the service-learning component of the student’s final class, or capstone. In it, students not only learn what it takes to be a working professional but must also fulfill a service-learning requirement that puts them to work for a local, art-based non-profit.
“It not only connects them to the local art community, but it connects them to the workforce,” says Neumann. “They learn what it means to be a professional, what the workforce actually looks like, what day-to-day operations are, and how to organize and set goals to be successful.”
But Buhidar, Rodriguez, and Neumann don’t just teach collaboration, they practice it as well.
“We’re kind of our own little support group for the arts,” laughs Neumann. “We have regular meetings and we talk about what’s coming up and how we can help each other out.
When the Drama Department decided to produce a musical for the first time in several years, they consulted with the Music department, which helped them secure musicians and even supplied a student of their own for the production.
Similarly, for a production of August Strindberg’s surrealist, one-act play, ADream Play, Neumann was tapped to help design the set dressing upon which digital images would be projected, while Assistant Dean of Humanities Christopher Nelson, Ph.D., served as the production’s dramaturge.
As for the future, Buhidar, Neumann and Rodriguez are excited about more collaboration, more conversation, and of course, more community.
“Whether it’s music, drama, or the visual arts, we want what we do to make you think,” reflects Buhidar. “To think about your own opinion, to get perspective on your own ideas. Doesn’t matter who you are, we want you here to experience what we’re putting on. Regardless of your culture, background, we want you here because maybe we can touch your life in a way that is meaningful. But it all starts with those conversations. You have to get people to talk, not yell, but to talk to one another.”
Talking is, after all, where all relationships start. And that means, at least at STC, it’s also where all community begins.