Sarah Tirzah Ellis was introduced to ArtCenter at a very early age. Her mother, an alum, frequently brought her to see work in the Student Gallery. She particularly recalls noticing a car designed by a student and thinking to herself, “I want to go here.” Worry over the price of attending college, however, led her to enlist in the Marine Corps out of high school. Eight years later, with two deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan under her belt, she left the service, found her way back to ArtCenter and started the next chapter of her life as a student in our Photography and Imaging program. On Saturday, she will graduate with honors, with a minor in Social Innovation, an ArtCenter Honors term and she will be awarded the Spring 2018 Student Leadership Award.
Graduating from ArtCenter is itself a remarkable accomplishment; the College provides a rigorous education and everyone who satisfies our degree requirements has good reason to feel proud. Each graduation ceremony we also take the time to recognize a number of exceptional student achievements—students who graduate with honors or distinction, those who have been awarded an ArtCenter Honors term and the top academic achieving student, who is recognized as valedictorian of the class.
But perhaps the most coveted of all is the Student Leadership Award. This award fulfills ArtCenter’s vision of educating artists and designers who are not only leaders within their professional fields but also leaders in their communities. Each term, the College reaches out to the campus population for nominations from peers, faculty and staff. All nominations are considered by a committee of faculty, staff and students and they select the student who most demonstrates leadership through their participation in ArtCenter’s campus life, community outreach, student organizations and department initiatives. The selection committee is often faced with a difficult task of choosing between exceptional students who are both high academic achievers and valuable contributors to the College community. This term was no exception.
Sarah Tizrah Ellis was selected to receive this valuable award on the basis of her devotion to fellow veteran students at ArtCenter. She connected with fellow veteran David Gamez during orientation and together they founded a student club for veterans. “We wanted a group for people like us to come together to share our experiences,” she recalled.
Ellis found the transition from military to civilian life difficult, describing it as like trying to write with your left hand. “It’s messy and full of zigzags and smears. It’s also a very lonely road, especially if you have no one who can relate to your experiences,” she described in a statement supporting her nomination.
The Veterans Association turned out to be much more than a social club. Members helped each other navigate the Veterans Administration system, sharing tips and tricks for getting benefits. The group later expanded to include staff, faculty and alumni.
In addition to supporting fellow veteran students, Ellis was a teaching assistant for eight different classes, served as a photography lab assistant and participated in student government; she was instrumental in the College’s adoption of an early registration policy for veterans; and she brought her unique veteran experience to two Designmatters’ studios, including one that developed campaigns to improve the lives of veterans struggling with PTSD.
All of the nominations in support of award noted Ellis’ devotion to working with veteran students, helping them find their way through the seemingly endless paperwork that is required of vets to receive their educational funding.
Photography and Imaging Department Chair Dennis Keeley raved, “ Over the last eight terms Sarah has demonstrated what service really means to country, what character and honesty means to life and she has put a real face on creativity and practice.”
Ellis found a family in the Marine Corps and she entered ArtCenter wary of others, wondering if she would fit in. She faced her fears by helping others, serving the ArtCenter community as she served her country, and, in doing so, she found a new family, explaining “no one knows the battles of ArtCenter better than an ArtCenter student. No one but an ArtCenter student can relate to what ArtCenter truly is. Through the support I received here, I was able to find myself again.”
The other Leadership Award nominees also boasted impressive community service resumes. Fellow Photography and Imaging student Brandon Rizzuto, also graduating with Honors, was lauded for mentoring his peers, serving as an orientation leader and working in the equipment room and Career and Professional Development department. Graduate Media Design Practices MFA candidate Godiva Veliganilao Reisenbichler co-founded the student group Antiracist Classroom, an initiative that has already made a significant impact in the ArtCenter community, and will graduate with Distinction. Kristen Torralba, graduating with a BFA in Illustration and a minor in Social Innovation, was active in student government and shared governance, worked as a teaching assistant, participated in EcoCouncil and co-founded the Freestyle Dance Club. Graphic Design major Yuma Naito, graduating with Distinction, was celebrated for his mentorship efforts, both as a teaching assistant and also informally by hosting mentoring sessions. Miguel Harry, graduating with Honors from the Product Design program, worked in and out of the classroom to help create a collaborative environment at the College, assisting his peers, volunteering at events and working as a tour guide for those interested in attending ArtCenter. Film major Ana Lydia Monaco, graduating with Honors and a minor in Social Innovation, came to ArtCenter after a successful career in public relations and generously shared her industry knowledge and contacts with her peers, participated in campus life through clubs and worked with her department to host culturally significant events. Fine Art majors Bryan Ortega and Joanne Lee, nominated as a team, were celebrated for being a dynamic duo who galvanized their fellow students and worked to better the student experience in many ways, from making the case for physical spaces for students to work, socialize and relax, to advocating on behalf of inclusion, representation and cultural sensitivity.
We thank and congratulate all the nominees for their commitment and dedication to making ArtCenter a more compassionate, transformative and life-changing environment everyone.