As part of our research we interviewed 28 of our alumni and community members living in the Pioneer Valley to help us get a better idea about what our alumni are doing and the challenges they are facing working in the creative economy of the Pioneer Valley. These alumni were identified as potential candidates for interviews through our department chairs. Some alumni also self identified as being interested in our survey by contacting us after hearing about our project or as a result of our creative economy survey online, where we included a form for alumni to submit indicating their interest in participating.
Interviews were completed by a graduate research assistant at the alumni's home or business during Spring Semester 2008. The following are summaries of what we heard and some quotes from our alumni;
When asked what the best part of their program at UMass was and what part of their program helped them most professionally, alumni stated that they were generally happy with their programs at UMass, frequently citing positive experiences with professors, dedicated peers and valuable work experience as interns, teaching assistants and research assistants which shaped their experience at UMass.
“The seriousness of both the students and the teachers. I thought the program was working on a very high level and the professors really trapped into diverse pieces of the poetry world.” –Lori Shine, Copy Editor at Magazine Publishing Company, MFA in Writing alumna
“The caliber of the faculty is one of the good points and I would say the other was the variety of opportunities. I got to TA for the chamber choir, opera workshop, magical singers, vocal jazz ensemble, choral musicette, so lots of different opportunities which was really what I was looking for as a music educator: I wanted to come out with a very broad base.” –Masters of Music Education alum
When asked what ways the program could have helped them more, many alumni cited a need for career counseling support at a program level. While many originally had aspirations to teach, the competitive reality of the job market was a shock to many once they finished their studies. Many alumni interviewed held multiple jobs to cover living expenses or rely on income from partners to offset the instability of income received as a writer, adjunct professor, artist or musician. Some who did find jobs in the creative economy were initially shocked by amount of administrative work their jobs and felt unprepared for those tasks by their programs at UMass.
“The ability to get as much practical experience as well as the educational foundation is something that is really helpful when you go out into the job market.” –Heather Haskell, Director of Springfield Museums, Masters in Art History alumna
“The theatre education was useful and I am using it now quite a bit since that’s what I do, but the business side is what I struggle with. If they had a way of putting those two together so we’re getting a little more well-rounded education.” –Erin Greene, Founder of Greene Room Productions, BA in Theatre alumna
Many of the alumni interviewed had creative hobbies or volunteer work that they completed outside of their day job. Often this work is related to the creative field in which they work primarily during the day. Many also volunteered in schools and on cultural councils in their municipalities or for other non-profit organizations.
“I’m very involved in the town that I live in. I do a volunteer work and I’m a member of my town’s permanent building committee. I’m a library trustee, and I chaired the building committee when we built a new library.” –Lorin Starr, Interior Design Company Principle and Executive Director of WMAIA, MS in Interior Design alumna
“I do a lot of volunteer work. I work on the Mattoon Street Arts Festival as a volunteer, I maintain the web site for the festival and help promote it and staff it. . . I coordinate something called the 2nd Saturday walking tours and those are held April-Nov. on the 2nd Saturday of the month and they’re in conjunction w/the Springfield Museums. . . I am a board member on the World Affairs Council. . . I just joined the membership committee.” –Erica Walch, Italian Professor and Founder of Accent Modification Company, BA in Art and Masters in Translation Studies alumna
One logistical challege to community outreach that was mentioned in our interviews was navigating the University's large campus and finding parking. At over 1,400 acres it isn't hard to imagine the campus being intimidating, especially to someone who hasn't visited before or doesn't visit often.
This challenge effects our ability to draw community members to hear lectures, visit our galleries, and attend other events. The problem was put this way by a University of Massachusetts Foundation Board member;
“One of the problems that the University and the Colleges have is that during the day it is hard to get close to any of these creative things [because of parking]. At night when there are performances at the FAC parking is not an issue…
One has to be fairly determined to attend one of the University’s creative functions during the day. . .
I think it must make it harder for the University’s creative spaces to be a public presence. That extends for example to the College of Humanities and Fine Arts undoubtedly has if you look at the 5-college calendar you see that there are often very interesting lectures, writers, or people from various parts that come and talk and it’s open to the public but it’s not accessible to the public.” –John Armstrong, Retired Physicist, UMass Foundation Board Member
Many alumni had thought about leaving the area due to economic reasons including cost of living, jobs, and housing. These alumni have chosen to stay, however, due to the quality of life here, and relatively low cost of living as compared to other centers of activity for their professions such as New York and California. The area also was cited as close to art hub Boston and New York, but situated in the rural country.
“What’s led me to stay has been the acceptance of all kinds of people. I feel like it’s okay to be quirky, arty, whatever people want to be. . . I also like the outdoor things you can do. . . I do white water [kayaking], I love it, it’s nice to be near the Deerfield river and to go out in the woods and hike. My favorite Northampton story is that on the same day I saw a concert by a group from South Africa, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, and three bear cubs out in the woods.” –Norma Roche, Freelance Science Textbook editor, BA in English
“We kind-of can’t leave, because the valley attracts the kind of people that we really love to be around. There are so many artists, writers, and musicians in the Valley, and that cultural capital is really hard to find. . . It’s really hard to find that kind of chemistry anywhere.” –Lori Shine, Copy Editor at Magazine Publishing Company, MFA in Writing alumna
When asked what alumni liked best and least about Western Massachusetts there were a variety of responses. Alumni disliked the long winters, escalating housing costs, threat of sprawl, and lack of pubic transportation and commuter rail service (partially they admitted was a challenge due to the area’s rural character). Alumni raved about the natural beauty of the area, a place where rural charm meets metropolitan culture, the assets of the 5-College community and accepting nature of the people.
“A cross between the natural beauty, the farmland aspect which reminds me of home [in the Midwest], and the cultural capital of a big city.” –Lori Shine, Copy Editor at Magazine Publishing Company, MFA in Writing alumna
“It’s just a great mix of a rural area with a lot of participation and opportunities, cultural opportunities, interesting people. It’s very special that way.” –Lorin Starr, Interior Design Company Principle and Executive Director of WMAIA, MS in Interior Design alumna
“Western Massachusetts is in a fairly unique position geographically between Boston and New York but is still rural. You have this small town environmental look and yet the offerings in the area are very significant in terms of the different arts offerings and speakers that come to the area and intellectual endeavors.” –Heather Haskell, Director of Springfield Museums, Masters in Art History alumna
Alumni cited the Valley’s natural beauty, quality of life, and plethora of creative professionals like them as assets that the Valley gave them that other locations might not. Alumni can get feedback from their peers on their work and have a network of like-minded professionals close by. Business owners cited ease in finding talented professionals close by to help with photo shoots, advertising, editing and writing.
“The thing about being an artist in Brooklyn is that your rent is really expensive. And you have to have a full-time job. [Here] I can be a poet and a part-time copy editor and own a house and live with my musician/designer husband who works for himself and have a reasonable existence. Cost of living and quality of life.” –Lori Shine, Copy Editor at Magazine Publishing Company, MFA in Writing alumna
“For me running this business, there are a lot of writers, a lot of photographers, a lot of illustrators here because they’re attracted to this kind of area so I don’t always have to recruit people from LA or NY in order to find somebody good. . . I like the fact that we’re not a suburb of a city, that Northampton and many areas in Western Massachusetts are their own small cities and that we all sort of function together as a vibrant place without having to be dependent on a Boston or New York or another big city to define us.” –Magazine Publishing Executive and MFA in Writing alumna
Alumni by-in-large attributed UMass a huge role in contributing to the creative economy of the area in part due to its sheer size. Other roles cited included: major employer of creative professionals, educator of future creative professionals and supporters, and in exposing the community to world famous artists brought in for programs open to the community.
“I think they play a huge role, I think they bring in so many opportunities with the different programs that they offer as well as the different degrees that they offer and the students they have come in to the institution, so I think their role is really paramount.” –Heather Haskell, Director of Springfield Museums, Masters in Art History alumna
“I think that whenever you’re generating people in the creative fields, there becomes an appreciation for them in the area. . . If you’re training people in an area, a certain percentage of them will try to remain here, you kind of build that into the community.” –Lorin Starr, Interior Design Company Principle and Executive Director of WMAIA, MS in Interior Design alumna
“I think it’s a huge stimulus. I mean there are direct programs that have to do with music and visual arts and literature especially that I’m aware of that are sponsored and held at the campus of the University. There are other programs that are sponsored by the University that are held off campus. We have readings in this book shop for example that are sponsored by the University: we have readings of faculty and graduate students and undergraduate students at this bookstore. . .” –Mark Wootan, Owner of Amherst Books