Landmark 17: Northern BC Graduate Students Society

Artists:  Jessy Rajan, Ankush Barad, Genevieve Huneault, Shanthini Felba, Alison Warner

Word: Alumni

They were the quietest and fastest working group. Intent. It must be a characteristic of graduate students: to block out everything else to focus so determinedly on the task at hand. Maybe that’s what gets you through, survival to triumph and becoming an alumnus yourself.

They are careful to listen to each other’s ideas, to teach each other, to make sure the late arrival is caught up. They want to make sure “my ideas don’t supersede yours.”  Their ideas suddenly come thick and fast. They want to build a 3D world. Behind the word alumni, floating in the present, is the world of the student, the life you had to lead to get there.  They want to symbolise the contrast between the life of the alumni, in work that is, how routine and structured it is compared with the life of the student: busy, challenged but flexible with much less routine. 

They realise this is going to be harder than they thought, that they can’t add more words. Such a symbol for grad school, I think. It’s always harder that you think and you just can’t throw words at it. But if they need images so, at once, phones are out, research underway, key words for the search determined.

They divide up the tasks quickly. One is searching for images for the group to review, analyse, discuss. The parallel to the tracks of good graduate practice: search for data, search for meaning: interpreting data into new knowledge, working with peers to ensure the best work moves forward.

They are nervous, quiet laughter as each begins their sketching, nervous as they begin to commit ideas to paper. As they try to draw the Agora there is laughter.  Wendy talks about the carpenter’s memory, how the grain of the wood was so present. What is important to remember from the student to alumnus journey?

They are seriously intent. They don’t appear to notice when Wendy is taking photographs.

One is finished quickly. “Did I finish too quickly? Did I get it right?” Worrying: it can’t be good if you finish too quickly.  The completion of drafts brings out curiosity, they are eager to see each other’s work. They are worrying about time, they are debating ideas and a thesis begins to emerge. Each step in the journey from student to alum is a layer and those layers are not even. There are cycles of up and down as you engage learning. The first layer is the race to finish your degree, the next layer is the decision to go to grad school and the years of hard, often lonely, work. Then – what’s next? Community is the open book, which represents community, with the next chapter labelled Alumni. They agree knowledge creates community. The bridge over the park is the link, bridging the building of common knowledge to the reality of the real world the alumnus must reach. The magnifying glass symbolises the SEARCH for a goal.

They are so respectful of each other, listening to all the ideas and struggling with the range and diversity of ideas, all good: “I like my idea but I also like yours.” They move into synthesis, weaving and linking all the ideas into one coherent whole, pulling from each drawing: “I want to incorporate everyone’s.”  They reach agreement with a sigh of relief.

But now the real work begins. How will they craft such diverse and powerful images on to the glass? They abandon ownership of images and accept roles in a collective whole. You work on what’s closest to you. Ideas are flowing fast and furious now, bouncing ideas off each other, and there is much erasing as new ideas are incorporated to make the weaving of ideas coherent. One points out – every university in Canada has pictures of people sitting on grass leading an idyllic student life. Here, it is snow.

There is so much enthusiasm here. And sharing from a knowledge base. The one woman clearly knows the colour palette and instructs the others. The one who has tried the brush is quickly instructing her peers. There is experimentation and testing. They remember Wendy’s instructions so well, clearly so used to following professorial directions.
“We are making history here,” says one. “This will be here forever.” “I’m coming back in forty years to see it,” replies another. One gasps and announces a mistake: “I’ve screwed up. My only contribution must be fixed later.” Wendy calls her brave. You have to be brave, it strikes me, to embark on grad school; brave and maybe a little crazy.

They are intent again, as much as in their drawing phase, working around each other, checking in with each other frequently. There is a tight semi-circle, heads down. Crowded in close to get the details right.

Two students in the hallway look in, curious, become entranced, become audience, then five. Those who have finished their part, stand back but stay close by, stay engaged, stay encouraging;  is it that time, to hold the glass plates over each other, everyone leans in, a collective holding of breath. And suddenly, it is done, it is over, there is celebration, high fives all round. “We did it!”

The journey this small group took together in the room was a microcosm of the journey from student to alumnus. Tackling something that was harder than you expected, learning to think, and create data and discuss ideas all the first stages of the journey. Then, to involve other’s ides with your own, support fellow students through the insecurities and fears;  to take all this new knowledge and build something new, in front of an audience. Then, to bring all this into reality and into celebration captured the essence of their understanding of ALUMNI as a journey.  They passed through that journey in this room and, in doing so, revealed the courage it requires of every day. That journey is not always pretty, certainly not easy but ultimately so worth it. The tightness of the bonds in this group is so evident. They are close and they are colleagues. In gaining an education they are gaining friends. And just maybe that is the bedrock of their word: the relationships forged in the hot shop of grad school are the bigger but unseen gift and guide to becoming ALUMNI.

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