May 27, 2014
So, according to my Timehop app, today marks the exact date three years ago when I trekked out to San Francisco and walked across the stage at the Cow Palace to receive my MFA as one of the first graduates of the entirely online graphic design MFA program at the Academy of Art University. What follows for today’s much belated entry is the reflective piece I wrote just after graduation to commemorate the event. My first thought is…woah! so much has changed since three years ago! And then my second thought is…woah! three years in the future I maybe well be doing almost the same thing only in Alberta and getting yet another terminal degree!
It is an interesting feeling to know you’re in the middle of something…not yet arrived yet very much departed from where you once were. I tend to think this new season dates to Winter 2013 when I first was accepted into the doctoral program. And yet looking back I can see the seeds of this season being planted even in 2011…or perhaps even in 2006 when I was first accepted into the program and when I was first giving myself to this crazy concept called graphic design distance education and believing it had value to reach me just where I was.
So, Lisa Jude Hammershaimb of the future…may you look back on these times much like you are looking back on “those” times now…with warmth and grace…with humor and laughter…and most of all with a dazzling wonder at the ways life is redemptive and hope is always always present and you are indeed part of a much larger story.
Finding My Place
by Lisa Jude Hammershaimb
I walk across to the security guard clutching my photo-less ID card—the one I dutifully update the sticker on each semester even though I know no one would ever ask to see it. But today is the big day. I assume a bored expression, like I am an old pro…like it is second nature and this is just another day. Not Graduation. Not the day I’d been waiting for, for the past four years. I flash my ID and then giggle, immediately embarrassed by how out of place I truly feel. The guard nods barely registering, barely caring. I am just another grad walking through the line–to him it really is just another day on the job.
Entering the back hallways—my cool facade in place—I walked like I know where I am going. There are so many people, so much activity, and they all look so… cool. I can do this. I steal a peek into the arena and my heart begins to race. All the old insecurities that I thought I’d put to rest come flooding back to me. What am I doing here? Do I really belong? Who do I even think I am with all these cool, talented, creative people?
My name is Lisa Jude Hammershaimb. MFA Graphic Design, Class of 2011. At least that’s what it says on the card I received when I picked up my cap, gown, and hood. You may remember me from such classes as…oh, wait you probably don’t remember me because you see, I was an online student. My AAU campus was in my basement studio 26 miles west of Chicago, Illinois. Most mornings I had a roughly 4 second commute to school, traveling from my futon to my laptop—interspersed with the occasional coffee shop or library when I was out of town. Yes, I was online full-time, from my shaky beginnings in fall 2006 to my midpoint video conference review in spring of 2008 to my final video conference review in December of 2010. I came to graphic design as a sort of desperate last resort to my creative wanderings and then, in some odd twist of grace, I discovered that graphic design was like coming home—it was the perfect fit that I never knew was possible.
I applied to AAU specifically because it was one of the few places in the country where I could get my MFA entirely online. This was important as I had neither the resources nor the desire to leave where I was currently living and start over in a new city. When I started the program I was about to turn 25, an intense introvert, confused about my life. I was a watercolor painter with an undergrad degree in art history, a diploma in interior design, two semesters at Massage Therapy school and three years of Starbucks work experience. I loved exploring how culture shapes creation and vice versa but I was too free-spirited to buckle down for a PhD in art history and too practical to believe that following my painting muse would ever pay my monthly bills. And so, in the summer of 2006 with a portfolio that now makes me laugh and blush and still wonder what put Phil Hamlett in such an amazingly good mood before viewing, I applied to and was accepted into AAU’s hallowed MFA program.
My first year I learned to love the grid, Pantone colors, and all the keyboard shortcuts in InDesign. I was amazed by the diverse history of graphic design. I felt an odd kinship with these quirky “creatives in the real world” whose ideas had so profoundly shaped visual culture. I was humbled by just how hard graphic design really was and dazzled by how it did indeed touch every area of life. Designers became my new heroes.
My second year, fully committed to this thing called graphic design, I got my first MacBook and my first pair of black plastic glasses. What I lacked in experience, I tried to more than make up for in enthusiasm and hard work. The flexibility of the online environment totally agreed with me and I regularly attended school while visiting new cities and seeing more of the country. Having always been more of a writer than a talker, I had no trouble not seeing my instructors face to face or not physically going to a ground classroom each day. In design I was beginning to find my niche and in my cohort of geographically diverse misfits, I was beginning to find community.
I remember setting up my studio for the my midpoint presentation—what felt like my first big test of design legitimacy. I burned calming lavender candles and arranged a large bouquet of flowers. I wore a black turtleneck like Steve Jobs and kept reminding myself I was a graphic designer and I was legit and I was going to be the master of this very bizarre idea of a video conference midpoint review. Oddly enough, it worked. My parents opened champagne, my friends around the country sent me congratulation emails and text messages, and we all toasted both my small victory in my midpoint pass and even more that I was coming into myself—finding something to give my life to and finding community.
The next two years of thesis work were a roller coaster of design highs and lows—love and apathy. There were several times my thesis just seemed too big and too overwhelming and I questioned why I had gotten myself so vested in this all-encompassing world of design. It was in those times of total uncertainty that I came to appreciate my instructors at AAU. To this day I can vividly remember Skype and iChat sessions where I flipped through page after page of dead-end sketches and whined about not really being so sure of any of it anymore—if I was even good enough to be a graphic designer. My instructors were always there, first patiently listening as I got it all out and then firmly reminding me that design is a process and I just needed to keep going. They believed I could do it even if at that moment I was a sleep-deprived mess who had lost all confidence in my abilities. After each design therapy-like session, I would get off the ledge, take a deep breadth, and continue my work because if they—in their infinite experience and high level of design cool—believed in me, maybe I could believe in me too.
I remember in the minutes before going live with my final presentation (this time a large glass of red wine replaced the calming lavender candles) being so thankful for my experience at AAU. Pass or fail in my final review, I knew deep inside me that I was a different and better person than when I entered the program nearly four years ago. I was confident and passionate about design and its potential for good. I had found a place where I fit. The people to which I was getting ready to present were both my toughest critics and my fiercest allies. I desperately wanted to impress them with the work I had created but even more I wanted to make them proud of the designer I had become because it was their vision that had helped shape my own and their passion for positive change that had begun to rub off onto me.
Thankfully, my final thesis presentation was a success. Four months later I boarded a plane bound for San Francisco, graduation, and finally seeing the school where I’d “found myself” though never physically attended. The ceremony was amazing and surreal and I walked proudly across the stage and accepted my diploma to the cheers of professors I was finally in the same timezone as and to the shouts of my family who were amazed and delighted at the school that had managed to transform Lisa-the-directionless into Lisa-the-graphic-designer.
When I would tell people I was getting my MFA entirely online, I would usually get skeptical questions revolving around the impersonal nature of online education, the loneliness of the online learner, even the validity of an online degree. But oddly enough I found I connected with both my instructors and my classmates on a much deeper level in an online class environment than I ever did while in any ground school I attended. Perhaps I found success because I am inherently self-motivated or naturally independent. Or perhaps–as I am more inclined to believe–it is because the AAU program has gotten it right, the professors really do see the potential in every student that comes into the program (even in the awkward introverted misfits like me) and have found a way to connect with their students in a meaningful way that transcends the distance and impersonal nature inherent in online education.
Now I’m almost thirty, an active member of the design community in Chicago, invigorated each day by the potential in design, and on the brink of starting an online teaching career of my own. I am so excited to be that force for good in the lives of my own students—especially the jaded introverts who wonder if it’s even possible to find a place where they fit and if indeed they have anything inside worth believing in.