COVID-Era Arts Graduates Exemplify the Best the U has to Offer

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Kevin Cody

(Photo by Kevin Cody | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Luke Jackson, Arts Writer

 

Fear and insecurity regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to decrease. Thanks to science, life has regained some semblance of normalcy and current University of Utah students are preparing for a long-awaited reunion with in-person classes and eased restrictions.

Before this reunion commences, however, it is important to reflect on the last year and acknowledge the students who left the U during the pandemic. Due to safety restrictions, the U’s graduating Class of 2020, made up of more than 8,500 students, had their senior year cut short in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Digital and remote learning impacted all students, but having the cumulation of their formal education end in a Zoom call was a jarring and unceremonious end for many.

Discussing this experience led me to two former arts students who graduated in 2020. As I spoke with them, my intention was to better understand how they coped with losing a large portion of their senior year and how they moved forward from the pandemic’s effects as artists and human beings.

Resilience Amidst Heartbreak

First, I had the opportunity of speaking with Alicia Ross, who graduated with a degree in modern dance. Ross expressed the closeness and community she felt in the dance program, with the curriculum allowing students to work in a tight-knit group throughout their four years. “There were 22 of us and we took almost all of our classes together,” said Ross. “It was very heartbreaking when we didn’t get to finish our senior year.” Most heartbreaking of all was missing out on their senior show, Ross said. “We worked so hard to culminate in this senior show and we never got to have the experience of all being on stage together. It was really devastating.”

Although she was hit hard by the pandemic’s changes, Ross chose to use the extra time to take an introspective look at herself as an artist. She emphasized the self-motivation required without auditions available or a clear future. That self-motivation and sense of resilience launched Ross into the Salt Lake dance scene after graduation. Due to her talent and diligence, she was offered many opportunities, the most exciting being the start of her own dance company. Fem Dance Company undertakes the important task of representing and empowering women through dance. Their first performance, “home bass,” is premiering at The Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival in late July and early August.

Surviving and Moving Forward

Next, I spoke with Jae Weit, who graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theatre. Weit expressed very similar feelings of loss and devastation as they were unable to perform their senior shows. “There was no final moment where we got to create art together,” Weit said. Because of this loss, they found it increasingly difficult to approach musical theatre in the digital medium. “There was no live theatre and there was real pain in that,” Weit said. “It was hard motivating myself to dance and sing because it didn’t feel like those things mattered anymore.”

This extremely honest sentiment touched me and I’m sure it reflects how many artists have felt over the past year. Weit also explained how the theatre community as a whole and they as an individual had to take a step back and rethink their storytelling. “Artists are so resilient, and it only took a couple of weeks before theatre started happening over Zoom,” Weit said.

When I asked Weit if they felt they had gained anything from their pandemic experience, they said, beautifully, “It made me feel more human.” Weit explained how the time of self-isolation became a time of self-reflection — at the forefront of their mind were questions about what made them an artist and why they pursued the industry to begin with. The pandemic led to a better understanding of who they were as not only a storyteller but as a human. Weit concluded our conversation, saying, “I survived and I’m still making art. I made it through the pandemic. I did that and I can do a lot of things.”

Now working with the Salt Lake Acting Company, Weit is in rehearsals for an original show, “#SLACabaret,” starting in August.

Both graduates inspired and impressed me. Their resilience in the face of heartbreak and insecurity can and should be an inspiration to current and future U students whose academic experience has changed. They exemplify the best of what the arts community on our campus has put forward and remind us we all can do hard things. Sure, it is cliché, but sometimes the most powerful affirmations are. Their words should stick with all of us as we return to campus.

 

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