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Maricela Ramirez, Writing Center Tutor Alumni Profile

11/8/21 Interview with UIC Writing Center Tutor ‘15 alumna, Maricela Ramirez

  • Pronouns: she/her/they/them
  • Graduated: BA 2015 in English with concentration in Media, Rhetorical and Cultural studies/Double minor in Communication and in Moving image Arts (film)
  • Took 222: Spring 2013
  • Tutored: F13-May S15 as staff tutor
  • Now: Manager of Youth Pathway Programs at Marwen

What was your path to this job from school?

So I did After School Matters all four years of high school. And I really liked it, and that’s how I learned my artistic practice of film. I wanted to go to school for film because it was something I really liked and wanted to study. And I got into the school that I wanted to go to, but it was too expensive to go to do my film major, so that’s how I ended up going to UIC. And then I didn’t like the film program that they had at the time. So I dropped my program and was undeclared for a while, and when I was taking my Gen Eds, I happened to take a lot of English classes. Yeah. My advisor was the one who asked me, like, why are you taking so many English classes? And I was like, because I love writing! And it’s easy! So that’s how I realized, like, Oh, I should just be an English major. And I just did a lot of writing stuff during undergrad, but I was also taking a lot of film classes.  And then when I graduated, I was trying to think of, like, Oh, I don’t necessarily want to be writing all the time. So then I actually looked for a job in After School Matters because I really wanted to have a type of job like that. But then nothing really popped up that was interesting to me. So then I was like, there has to be other organizations that are like After School Matters. So I legit just googled “organizations like After School Matters in Chicago.” And then Marwen came up and they had a position for a coordinator of college programs. So then I applied for that job. But I didn’t end up getting it because I didn’t have enough experience being an advisor or counselor. But I was like, I know I really want this type of job. Because it was the first time I ever saw that type of programming within an art setting. I don’t know if you remember, I used to work at the museum too? So when I worked in the Museum of Contemporary Arts—I had interned with them first semester senior year, then they hired me spring and summer, then for two years as a freelance videographer and editor. But then whenever I worked in just the art setting, I really wanted to work more with students. And when I was working just with students, I really wanted to work more in art. So that’s why when I found Marwen, I was like, Oh, my God, it’s the perfect place where they put both things together! So I was like, I really want this type of job.

During this time I was still working at the animal shelter, the Anti-Cruelty Society. So I worked there for two years, but during that time that I was working there, I was also working with this organization called Imentor which is a college access program for high school students. So I was doing that too at the same time, and that’s how I got my college counseling and advising experience.

And then I randomly ran into one of my old instructors from After School Matters and they were like, Hey, we’re actually looking for someone to teach in the same program that you were in at the high school that’s by your house. And I was like, Okay, so I left the shelter and I started working there. And I had finish working at Imentor too since it was only a 2 year program I was in. So I was working in the arts, but I still wanted to work with students. So then I started working for GEAR UP, which is another college access program for high school students. I was doing that at the same time I was working for After School Matters, so I was basically like a high school college counselor during the day and then in the afternoon was a teaching artist for film stuff. It was literally two part time jobs put together that was more than a full time job. It was like 50 hours or so I was working.

But then eventually, I had a close friend who was working at Marwen and was a student there when she was in high school. And she was like, Hey, you’re perfect for this internship program that they’re going to have. It was in Communications/marketing. I was just like, I really like this place and I would want to work there. So I applied for  it. I didn’t get it. And then when the person told me I didn’t get it, [they said] but I feel like your resume would be really aligned with this other job we’re going to post in a couple of weeks. She said I’ll send it to you when I post it. And it just so happened to be the exact same position I had applied to when I graduated. So it came back again, and then I applied for it and got it. I’ve been there for three years already.

How do you like it as a marriage of those two things that you wanted, working in the arts and working with students?

I feel like every time I worked at a job, I was like, okay, what’s next? Like, where am I going after this? And [Marwen] was the first job where I didn’t automatically think about that. It was like: I really like this and there’s so many ways to grow and learn here and it’s really cool. And I feel like what I love about my job is that there’s a lot of possibility with it, because everyone’s an artist and everyone’s thinking about new ways to create programs and help the community and to bring in our lived experiences into the work that we’re doing. And high school students are the ones that I work with the most, and they’re really cool and funny. It’s just always interesting, so I really like it.

Can you describe a typical day-in-the-life? Or maybe a week-in-the-life, if it varies a lot?

Well, we run programs three times over the year, so we have spring classes, summer classes, and fall classes.  So sometimes a typical day is going in and having meetings for the programs. And we just like to check in with each other too,  for self care and so we’re aware of each other’s work. How are we doing? How is our work aligned with the mission of the organization? So the first half is mostly meetings and logistical stuff, just checking in on how things are going and if there’s ways that we can support young people and their families any better. And then also planning for the next things that are coming. Or thinking about how we can partner with the community or other institutions in the city or community-based organizations. And then also there’s a lot of professional development too. We do a lot of professional development [PD] around social justice and antiracist work. There are readings or webinars and workshops.

It’s really cool that they allot time for that, like this is part of the mission.

Yeah, it’s part of our work, which I really like. I’m right now doing PD around abolitionist teaching and liberation work. A lot of how to work with young people and build a curriculum that is antiracist and liberating for them. But also helping them be abolitionists in their communities, which is really cool.

So that’s kind of like the first half. That’s more of the logistical bit. And there’s always emails. Emails are everywhere.

Then the second part is helping out with the course we are doing. So it’s checking in with the teaching artists to see how they’re doing and if they need any support with the process. Or checking in with the young people—how they feel about being at Marwen and if they feel like they belong and feel welcome, or if there’s stuff that maybe doesn’t that maybe feel right. But then also—“Hey, have you thought about college or have you thought about your next class, or are thinking about work, are you interested in being a commissioned artist?” and stuff like that to help them see how they can have art become a career field. So having those types of conversations with them. And also parents too. Seeing how parents are doing, if they need any support in their home life. If they’re like, I’m struggling with this, do you have any resources, we can [connect them] with our community partners.

And then I also teach too, so right now I’m a program manager and a teaching artist.  So I teach a class that’s an internship program where we have a specific group of people who are being paid to create programming at Marwen. Because a lot of what we try to focus on is centering young people’s voices, and the work that we’re doing isn’t for us, it’s for them. So we really want them to be at the center of creating these programs and telling us what we should be doing and what kind of things they want to see. So I  facilitate that with a coworker. And we help them learn teaching skills and facilitation skills and programming so they can learn these things while they’re in high school and don’t have to go to college to get an unpaid internship.

So yeah, they’ve already facilitated a whole art fair fundraiser and they put together a Halloween event also. Yeah, so it’s really cool. I like it. And then right now, we have a commission project in the spring that’s called Design to Print. It’s a program where young people get paid to create designs for holiday cards. And then once they’re done, we print them on cards to sell for the holidays. And all that money just goes back to Marwen to build up more programs.

Do you guys have a grant or something that’s a continuous source of funding, or do you have to keep reapplying for funding?

We mostly have a lot of private donors. Marwen has been around since 1987. We do have some grants; we don’t have any government grants. But yeah, we apply for a lot of grants, arts-based grants, after school program grants, youth programming grants.

How big is your organization?

We’re only a staff of 20 [managers], I think. Including teaching artists, it fluctuates, but right now we have 24-25 teaching artists, so a total staff of 40-50.

How many students do you have, and what are the eligibility criteria?

Yeah, so we don’t really have an eligibility thing, because everyone should be able to access it.  I think the only thing is that you just have to come from what’s considered a marginalized community, because if people can pay for art classes, they should be paying for art classes. So it’s for young people who can’t afford it, or don’t have access to it in their schools or communities. So that’s the only thing. They have to live in Chicago I guess, but we have had students who lived here at one point but [then moved and were doing an online class].

Do students tend to get referred through their schools?

So a lot of them get referred sometimes through school, but actually a lot of word of mouth. There’s a lot of teaching artists who work at other places and tell their students, You should go to Marwen. We also have a lot of people who know people who worked there or a mom tells another mom, Hey, you should put your kid in this program. So a lot of word of mouth. We do also have schools where we will tell them: we have these programs if you want to tell your students about it, they can sign up with a real quick registration here, we just need their basic information.

And it’s free?

Yeah, it’s free.

Wow, I didn’t even know this existed! Is it similar then to After School Matters in the way it does its outreach and how it funds it and the kind of programming it offers?

Yeah, I guess, kind of. I feel like After School Matters has more of a corporate approach and ours is more community-based where it’s more like . . . like they’ll get paid to take classes at After School Matters. Yeah. Like, if you take a class, you get a stipend. Which sometimes gets kind of, you know . . . you may not always get the people who are there with the right intentions necessarily, since a lot of people are just taking it to just show up and get the money. So the programs that I put together that are paid programs—those students are people who’ve been with Marwen for a couple years already or taken a lot of classes because they really like being there. So it’s kind of more of like, Let’s just kind of take it to the next level, because you’re really invested in this and let’s see what that looks like.

Because you’ve already shown your investment, let’s try and get you some commissions or pay.

Yeah, it’s really cool.

And how many students do you think are involved in Marwen at one time, roughly?

It depends, I guess, also because of the pandemic. [In a normal year] it would be like 2000 students. But it would also depend because in addition to courses we have events like for college application workshops, or workshops for how to put a portfolio together for art school. So I guess it varies, but I would say like, in a given year, it could be in the thousands.

So when the pandemic hit, did you guys move everything online? How did that work out?

We had to close the building, which was really sad. Because a lot of people loved going there just to hang out and use the studio space to work.

I imagine some practices really require studio space.

Yes, it was really hard. It’s like, how do you move ceramics virtually? So we did have to adjust to that. And then we actually [put up recordings] of teaching artists and ended up just making all our classes [we could] virtual. All those [ceramics classes] we just had to end up canceling when we closed the building. Ever since that summer after the pandemic, we’ve had classes virtually, and every student gets an art kit they can take home. I feel like it wasn’t too bad of a transition, trying to figure out how to do art stuff from home, because it’s like, Let’s just make sure everyone has this and that and we just ordered the stuff for them.

Was ceramics the exception?

We had some sculpting classes but it’s with clay and stuff. Like you know, clay [you can] just stick in the microwave. But yeah, like people could still do print-making.  There was a class that I had where they created designs, like that program for the holiday cards from the past spring. And everyone got an iPad so they could design at home. And people got disposable cameras to use, yarn and thread to do stuff from home like embroidery or fashion. So we gave everyone the kit that they needed to be able to do the art stuff.

Right now we have hybrid classes. So we have some classes that are in person and some that are still virtual because most of the high schools students are vaccinated and then one or two middle school classes; when we have middle school classes, they are the only classes in the building. Usually we have 8 classes in person going on at the same time, but right now the max is 3, since they each have to be on a different floor of the building.

Right. Are you guys still doing your office work together in the building in the morning?

Yeah, we do like a combo. It’s like—you can work from home. So I feel like our schedules are kind of hybrid right now. Like, you know, you could still work from home and just come into the building when you have to. So it’s always because we do programming that we go into the building for that.

Honestly, I’m so happy for you. It sounds like you really persisted and also you had this clarity: This is what I want, ideally, so I’m going to just keep checking back, and I’m also going to get myself the background I need to be qualified for the position I want. You built up the resume you needed. And then when the job came back, you got it! I usually ask people, do you have a favorite part of the job?

Yeah, I would say my favorite part is just working with young people because they’re really funny, they have such fresh ideas and they’re just fun humans to hang around with. Like, I have a lot of really close friends who are in high school. So yeah, it’s just nice because I feel like I remember being in high school and being really close with a teacher and feeling like, “Oh my god this is really cool because they think I’m cool” and it’s nice. And you know, building that relationship with younger people which I feel like a lot of adults don’t, which comes with adultism, like, “They don’t know any better, they’re younger than me.” But I feel like they have such smart ideas and they’re so brilliant in their own ways. Being able to go to programs where they feel like they have the power to make decisions and do all these things they get paid for? It’s a really big deal—it’s really important too because I feel like it took me forever to even try to get something that was what I liked doing, where I felt I was empowered to make decisions and be a steward for a program in my community. So that just took a LOT of work, like, “Well, I have to go to college and have to do an unpaid internship.” There’s just so many loopholes you have to work through. It’s just like a huge obstacle course and it’s built on white supremacy and capitalism and all these other things. So it’s really cool to be able to build out programs so that they could be able to do these things too. Yeah, and I think just like hanging out with them—they’re just really, really cool people, and they’re really funny. And also all of them are artists so seeing their artwork is really amazing too, how creative they are, and learning a lot from that, like, “Oh my god, this person is a really great painter. Teach me how to paint like you.” But yeah, so just like learning from them too.

Anything that you would say is maybe a less favorite part or a challenge?

I think time? Time and money. Money is always a factor with everything. I want to build out a lot of stuff but there isn’t enough time in the day to build it out. And I’m very conscious about boundaries and my self care and mental health and making sure I’m not overworking myself so I don’t burn out. So I’m really good about that, and also I say that a lot to young people I work with. Like, as much as you want to do the most, don’t do the most, because that’s just going to lead to burnout. But yes, I feel like time is a thing that I wish I had more of. And then also money because like, “Oh I want to pay 20 people $300 each, but don’t we have the money for it.” So yeah, I think those would be the things, just time and money.

I’m so psyched to hear about this program. I feel like there are other tutors who are in the arts who really like the peer tutoring anti oppressive philosophy and are really interested in abolition and social justice work and this seems like a perfect fusion of art and those things. And I hear from teachers-in-training that sometimes it’s hard to find within the standard education system a vision that really aligns with your values. This feels like an alternative to that. And you’re not bound by all these standardized measures or the limits of a public school system. That you get to create the curriculum with the students is really cool.

Yeah, it’s really nice. I really like it a lot. I also didn’t realize until this morning when I was just like, Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that I get paid to do the same stuff I was doing at the Writing Center! Because I help my high school students write resumes—even people who already graduated from high school too, we have a lot of people come back to Marwen, because they’re like, “Hey, I’m going through a career transition or applying for a scholarship or a new job, I forgot how to do FAFSA, or they’re just like, hey, now I’ve decided I want to go to college.” [So I’m] helping them write resumes and personal statements and cover letters . . .And oh my god, I never realized how much peer-to-peer collaborative editing [I do in this job].

Well, that leads to another question I ask everybody which is how do you feel your experience as a writing center tutor applies in your current role? How does it transfer? Are there things you learned as a tutor that you’re finding applicable?

Yes. I would say that, for sure. I think also the Writing Center helped me a lot to realize the type of relationship I wanted to have within my work. Because at the Writing Center was the first time where people actually cared about professional development and not having this hierarchy of their staff. It was like, we all just learn from each other, and I loved having conversations with you and Vainis about ideas and writing. I still remember when I went to you and I was like, I want to do a video for my project? And you were like, “Sure, okay! Let’s do it!” And I was like, Oh my god, this is awesome. I can take ideas that I have, I can implement them in this space. And I think having a space where it doesn’t feel like I’m going to class, it feels like a learning environment. And it’s like a comfortable space, where I can be myself and meet other people who like the same things that I like, and it doesn’t feel nerdy or weird. And being able to be in dialogue with other people who share the same interests. And then just making connections with people, even the people that I peer tutored also. Like, Oh, cool, like, let’s look at this together, and just like learning about people through their writing, such a vulnerable thing to be able to experience, an experience that I never had anywhere else before working at the Writing Center. So I feel like that helped a lot with seeing another type of environment, and the vibe that I had in that space is the same type that I wanted as a career field or workplace I want to work in. Yeah, so I feel like it helped a lot with that—like knowing what I wanted, because it was such a good environment to be in.

Oh, that makes me very happy to hear!  That really warms my heart. I mean, it sounds like in some ways what you identified was: what is the culture of work I want? And so there’s a kind of kindred culture at Marwen with the Writing Center in the sense that there’s a value placed on peer-to-peer learning and staff-to-peer learning and staff-to-staff learning, and an overall sense that we’re all learning together?

Yeah, like we’re all learning and growing together. And I feel like the Writing Center was one of the first places I experienced that. Like: I can teach people something, they can teach me something, in an ecosystem of learning together. I remember being like, “Hey, Vainis, I’m going to use the computer!” And like, you know, just be able to feel like that space was mine. I remember having friends in college, too, who were like, “Why don’t we go hang out over here?” and I was like, “No, I don’t want to hang out there, I want to hang out at the Writing Center! I want to print out my papers here! I don’t want to go anywhere else but here.”

I feel like I have a memory of you having a friend who didn’t work at the Writing Center, but would sometimes come and visit you at the Center?

Yeah, that’d be my roommate! I used to bring her all the time.

I’m so glad to hear that. It’s a space that the tutors make, it really is mutually constructed from everybody. You know, it’s not something you can do top-down. It’s the way you guys talk to each other and the way you talk to writers and the way that, again, it’s not hierarchical between the tutor and the writer, and hopefully that same sort of idea of it being a dialogue of peers carries through at every level. 

Yeah, because I feel like that culture is definitely the same culture I have at my job, where it was like, at the Writing Center, it felt very much like: we’re all here because we love writing and we all

do it in different ways. But we can all learn so much from each other. And at Marwen, it’s like, we’re all here because we care about art and we’re all artists with our own artistic practices in our own ways, but we can all learn from each other. And yeah, it’s literally the exact same thing, but was just like with art vs. writing.

Well, speaking of artistic practice—I know you said for you film and photography were your primary media. I wonder, what does your artistic practice look like now? I know that sometimes work can subsume that a little bit but . . .

So film is still my thing. Wedding videos are what I’ve been doing this year. So filming and videography work and editing are still my thing. But I’ve done a lot of other stuff. I paint now.  I wasn’t a painter before. I’ve been exploring embroidery work. Mostly a lot of mixed media stuff too. I’ve been doing a lot of woodwork. I’ve made my own tables.  I’ve done graphic design. I’ve done digital illustrations. I’ve done some printmaking too. I think that’s it. Those are the top ones now.

It sounds like your work is supportive of you guys making time for that. That seems really important. I feel like a lot of jobs—when I worked in animation, people who were doing the job to support their painting practice ended up having little time to actually paint.

I guess maybe that would be part of another challenge. There isn’t always a lot of time. Well, I would wish we carved out more time. I feel like we’re just so dedicated to building out programs for other people we forget that, Hey, we’re also practicing artists ourselves, we need to take the time to build that into our work schedule. I’m actually going to advocate for that for next year, designated time during our work hours to [develop our own art practices].

Well, I will ask you another question I typically ask—what advice would you give tutors who might be interested to pursue a similar path? Is there anything that you wish you could go back and tell yourself about either the major or school? Is there any advice you’d give to people who say, I want to do what you’re doing?

I would say, just to be super blunt: just do whatever the fuck you want to do.  This also comes from feeling like I had to be on a specific type of path. Like, “This is the way things are supposed to look like: I graduate from high school, I pick the best college, I graduate in four years, and you have your salary job as soon as you graduate and that’s it. You’re just in the job forever.”  I feel like that was such a thing that didn’t happen for me, like, at all. I was struggling because I was so like, “I have to graduate in four years and I have to pick a major and I have to figure out what I’m doing with my life right now at this time.” I think that really took away from just trying to do the things that I wanted to do. And I think just knowing that things are not gonna go the way you planned them to go, and that’s the point. They’re not supposed to. Not everything is gonna happen the way that you want it to, and that’s okay, and sometimes that’s even better. Because, you know, things will just align when they’re meant to be aligned. Yeah, because I feel like I just focused too much on trying to figure out all the things all at once and having an answer to everything and that just didn’t work out at all. And I feel like when I didn’t have things figured out, you know, things just kind of landed on my plate. Like, it was just a random coincidence that I ran into my After School Matters [colleague]—I saw him once and got me that job and that led me to something else. I applied to my [current] job twice and didn’t get it. The first time was like, Okay, cool. I don’t have the experience, but this is what I want to do—instead of just trying to figure out, Oh, I need to have a career. Then all that experience led to that job falling back on to my plate. Who would have known that that exact same job would have come back? And yeah, things just kind of happen when you just start doing the things that you want to do instead of things that other people want you to do. And I feel like that was such a big family thing too. My mom had such big expectations of, like, “You’re going to do this and that and this is how it’s gonna work.” And I feel when it wasn’t working out she was like, “Why is this happening like that? Is there something wrong with you? Are you not good enough?” And that led to a lot of imposter syndrome in so many ways.  But yeah: do whatever it is that you want to do. 

Also, ask people for help. Because I know for sure that was something I didn’t do. Ask people to help you make connections with people too, because I feel like that’s the way I also got to where I’m at now, by sharing with people my interests and things I enjoy doing and that led to people figuring out for me, “You probably would really benefit from this type of this program” or “Talk to this other person.”

[In college], I had no idea that I would be able to do the work that I’m doing now. I remember graduating from UIC and being like, “Oh, I love working at the Writing Center. But it’s not like I can do that for a job forever.” And when I was at the museum too, I was like, “Well, I can’t do this forever either.” But there are things—like Marwen just happened just because I was googling it, but had I mentioned it to other people, someone would have helped steer me in this direction eventually.

So: make your connections, do whatever it is you want to do, [don’t worry too much about] figuring out a plan, because it doesn’t always work out. I mean, sometimes it does, and that’s great. 

It really resonates with me, to be honest. It seems like part of what you’re describing too is having to learn who you are maybe in opposition to or in contrast to people you grew up with who have a vision for who they want you to be. And it can take a while to figure out: “I have to individuate”. And that might be a point of tension or friction. Do you have any advice for people who feel like, I really think my family assumes I’m going to follow this path and it’s like, “You’re the first person in college, you got to do this for us.” How do you reckon with that and feel like ultimately, I may have to say no? How did you deal with your mom for instance?

Yeah, I would say for sure: At the end of the day, your life is yours and you can choose how you live your life. And this is such a big thing also for us first generation college grads, and my entire family is undocumented, and that was really rough.  Like going through college with all of that and feeling the expectations my family had. Like, [I] can’t mess up because it’s not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of other people too. But I feel like when I was doing stuff for other people, that just never worked in my favor. Because I was always doing things I didn’t want to do, or doing things in the way that I didn’t want to do them. So I [ended up] doing things I wanted to do because I was unhappy doing them the way my family wanted me to do them. There was a lot of backlash for that—and I feel like a lot of people who come from Latinx families, or other people of color, have the same type of vibe with their family, like there’s such an expectation. You know, our families have so much generational trauma that just kind of comes down to us. And now there’s this whole expectation of, like, We’re gonna do all the things to fix all these other things that came before us. But you know, at the end of the day, your family’s going to have to accept the way that you want to live your life. You know, they just kind of have to live with it. And you kind of have to also be okay with knowing your family might not accept that slash be okay with it?  Like I still get [critique] from my mom, but I’m happy with the way that I did things. 

​​But yeah, I would say just be prepared to have conversations with your family about that, like: “It’s my life and I’m going to choose to do the things I want to do because I’m only going to get this opportunity once.” And [be prepared to] be blunt with your family because I feel like we tend to tiptoe around that too, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, but in the end, you end up hurting your own feelings.  I think just also, be honest with yourself. That was something that I didn’t do for a long time. I always [focused on], “I should probably do this” but didn’t ask myself, “What do I want to do?” Just being really honest about what you want and what you’re aspiring to. Because we’re only in these vessels once.

Really good advice. I think it’s something a lot of students will relate to. And maybe that will give them a little bit of courage too to know that—it sounds a little mystical, but once you really start pursuing the thing you want, in fact, it’s kind of easier to be successful, right? Cause there’s a way that when you’re constantly striving for something you actually don’t really want to do, it works against you. But once you start really speaking up about what you do want—as you said, once you started telling people what you wanted, it increased the odds that someone would say, “Hey, I know of a position you should consider” or “Have you considered this organization?” But if you don’t really vocalize it—I know it’s kind of a dumb, mystical thing to say “put it out in the world” or whatever—

(laughs) Yeah.

Of course, it may not immediately materialize, it’s not an instant thing. But there is a way if you really persist in saying, “I know what makes me happy, and this is the thing that does,” it pays off. Do you feel like in the end, your family recognizes that you’re happy and that you are successful in your job and you’re having a huge impact on so many young people? Do they see the value in that now? 

Yeah, I would say for sure. I feel like parents are always resistant because they always want what’s best for you. This is also kind of full circle why I have the job that I have is to show other people that whatever we’ve traditionally seen isn’t the only thing that you should be doing or the right way of doing things. Because it’s not. There’s so many other directions you can go. And I feel like down the line, as long as your family or whoever it is in the know of that. . .  Because I feel like I kind of kept my family in the shadows of what I was doing because I was very scared of resistance from them. So I feel like that just kind of created more tensions than I wanted to. Now, I take my mom to my job every now and then and say, “This is the stuff that we do.” And she says,  “This is really cool.”
You know, the kids get to hang out and play and we’re helping them out doing art stuff. And one of my nieces, she’s old enough now. She’s in middle school now so she can take classes. And now my mom sees, Oh wow, [my niece] really likes it and she’s been here for a long time. Really, I think, sharing successes with your family helps them to understand the choices that you made. Because I got promoted eight months after I started my job. And I think within three years, I’ve gotten promoted twice already. And sharing that with my mom was a big deal. Like, Oh my god, you know, I’m growing and they’re recognizing my work, and I’m also getting a pay increase. And [when they see that] you’re getting paid for the work that you’re doing—that means a lot. So just having them part of that, sharing successes with them, is a big deal. 

Which happens the same with my students too. Like, I’ll tell [parents], “Your young person did this painting and we paid them $400 to do it.” And they’re like, Oh, wow! And then that’s when they start thinking that their kid can really get paid to do this—this is a long term thing. So that’s part of my job too, to have conversations with their families. Because that way they get to understand why it matters, instead of just like, “Oh, it’s just a hobby.” It’s not just a hobby; it’s an actual thing. It’s a lot. Because also, just think [about through] the pandemic, how many people relied on creative things? Like, someone created Tiktok, someone created  Instagram, someone created Zoom. 

So showing that to my mom: these are the successes too.  Basically, like, the job is paying off.  Instead of, you know, I’m just willy nilly doing whatever I want.

It sounds like in some ways that sharing a little bit of the conventional measures of success— my bosses have liked my work enough to promote me; I am earning a salary; I’m getting affirmation from my superiors at work— those kinds of things make it legible to her that you’re doing well, and that’s important.

Yeah. That’s really important. Like, I feel like my mom never really took the work that I was doing seriously because she was like, Wait, you don’t want to be a doctor? I don’t get it. Every parent wants their kid to be a doctor or a lawyer for some reason. She was like, you don’t want to do these things?

I think also sometimes, for parents, there’s only a couple of professions that are really high profile where people know what the path is to them. So the professions where there isn’t a clear-cut path, where it takes a little bit more trial and error or experimenting to get there, might feel sort of scarier to parents. You said now you’re having those conversations with families as part of your job, is that something then you’re noticing with your students too, that they’re like, “My parents really want me to get serious and study bio in college” or something?

Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s like a big conversation I have with seniors a lot when we’re talking about what do you want to do after you graduate. They’re like, My mom wants me to go to college or my dad wants me to be a lawyer. And you can literally just see it in their eyes, where they’re like, I don’t want to do it. And then I’m like, Well, what do you like doing? And [they light up]: “I really like graphic design, or I really want to be an animator, let me show you this thing I just did.” And then it’s really cool, when we can be like, “Oh, hey, have you thought about this college, they have a really good animation program? Or there’s this fellowship you can apply to if you want to be an animator.” And I feel like, yeah, that helps. A lot of time we’re having those conversations with parents too, where they’re like, “[My kid] wants to do this but I don’t really know if that’s a thing.” And I can be like, “It totally is a thing! Let me show you. There’s these programs, look at these people.”

You’ve really learned what those paths look like so you can make it concrete to families and say, There is a program in that and it’s at this college, or there’s a fellowship they could do here. So you can show people: there are paths.

Yeah, yeah. So I feel like that’s really nice too, because I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. Even now, sometimes people will be like: “Hey, there’s a whole

thing if you like bookbinding.” I’ve just learned this—there are people who actually cut the books! Like, that’s a whole job. People who work in publishing companies will work with you to pick out the type of paper you want, the font, and decide how big a book is or how thin or how large, and there’s people who specialize in this.

Oh wow. What is it called? Bookbinder maybe?

I guess it’s a bookbinder because we were talking about it not that long ago. We started looking at jobs. And we discovered, “Wow, there’s a whole factory that does that type of work cutting.” Like the actual people who cut the books, do the book binding, put the covers on. And we were just like, Wow, we didn’t know that was a job. We just figured it was a machine—and yeah, I mean, they use the machine but . . .

. . . there’s still someone who has to make decisions?

Yeah. And I guess it would be a bookbinder. Like how your books are all different sizes—there’s like a science to it.

Is that something where, once you joined Marwen, you began to amass resources and learn about these different programs or opportunities? Did you learn that on the job? Like, what are the things we can recommend to students as next steps?

Yeah. It’s also something I knew beforehand. That’s something I really like about my job is that I’m constantly learning about these things. Because I think one of the first things that blew my mind when I first started working at my job is I had this student I was working with who loved doing illustration. They loved it. But they also loved anatomy. And they were all about like, “I want to be a bio major, but I feel like if I am only in science, I still want to do art, and if I’m only art, I still want to do science.”

Medical illustration?

Yeah! Medical illustration. And actually she ended up going to UIC for their medical illustration program. I think she’s about to graduate next year. She should be a junior right now. Yeah, that was really interesting, too. Because I was like, Wow, I didn’t know this was a thing.

And a cool part of that learning too is the world gets bigger. Once all these different options become visible to you, you realize, Oh, it’s not this narrow thing where it’s only doctor, lawyer or engineer. They’re actually a lot of viable options that we just don’t know about. I wish I had gone to a place like Marwen as a kid.

Yeah. Me too.

But it seems like you really help with the idea of translating: Here’s something you love to do. This is what it could look like professionally. Here’s how to professionalize what you love doing. And in a way that maybe their families wouldn’t even know to tell them about. That’s a really important thing to offer people.

Yeah, so I really like it. That’s how I also learn about different artistic practices too, because I’m like, “Oh wow, this is a thing. I want to learn that—even just for fun.” But yeah, because I feel like that’s like such a big thing. I remember being in high school too, and learning about different career fields and, like, the arts wasn’t really a thing besides just being like an architect. Now I’m realizing, “Hey, you can be like an interior designer, or an industrial designer, or woodworker.” There are people who make cabinets.

Yeah, it was just so interesting. I was having this conversation with someone who wants to partner with us. They basically do tables, chairs, everything. They were like, “Can we offer a class for students to learn about how to make furniture?” And I said that would be awesome because there’s so many people who love that and would be so interested in that. The idea of young people being able to design furniture is really cool. It’s a whole thing. But, you know, you just never really think of it as a career field.

Do you think that’s partly because you can’t learn some of these things in school? If I wanted to take a class in cabinetry or bookbinding at UIC, I don’t know that I could. How do you enter those fields, I wonder? It used to be there were journeymen and apprentices and trades, but now I don’t know. How does someone get into furniture making?

Yeah, so I feel like that’s like what we’re kind of going up against is . . . well, you know, you traditionally, you would have to go to school to learn anything. And a lot of students don’t have art programs [in their schools], absolutely no art program, or if they do it’s like one class.  [Some] schools have full blown ceramics studios and photography and dark rooms and stuff like that. But it’s pretty rare. And on top of that, they have one only class they offer the whole year for 30 students, out of a class of maybe 10,000.  So it’s really hard to get into those classes. I remember having to fight for a graphic design class when I was in high school. Because you wouldn’t be able to take an art class up until your junior or senior year, and I had to really work around it, to really get straight A’s. It’s completely inaccessible. And if [it’s outside of CPS], it’s private art classes [you have to pay for].

That’s a cool thing about why now there’s so many organizations to offer free after school classes. Like After School Matters.  Or like Yollo Calli in Pilsen. Or CHICAT, Chicago Center for Arts & Technology, they offer classes.

So there’s a lot of organizations now to do that, but it’s not built into the education system here. So they’re like: That’s an after school thing. Do that later. That’s never a thing that’s important because we have to learn about science and math and history and stuff like that. So it’s a marginalized subject. And for that to be of interest to someone from a marginalized community, it’s like a whole other offset.

’Cause a lot of our students are BIPOC. So that’s a big part of what we do, just showing them that this is something we can take seriously and it’s something you can get paid to do. It’s not just a side thing.

Because if it’s relegated to this second class status by CPS, they need to hear: Actually, totally legit.

Yeah, I feel like that’s what they’re seeing everywhere. Art is just a side thing, it’s not a thing that I can do. And art materials cost money. I mean, that’s also true for a lot of colleges too. I remember when I was part of the [UIC] College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, like my tuition was way more expensive than it was when I was in LAS. It was like an extra $6,000.

It’s not uniform?

Because there’s a—differential? I forget what it’s called. Like, if you are in a specific type of college, you’re gonna have to pay more tuition to have to access certain things. So that’s a whole other thing. But yeah, I guess we’re trying to show people it’s really important to pay artists because, you know, they’re also working professionals.

So do you recommend alternatives to college where people could enter the arts without having to go into debt?

Yes, oh my god. Yes. So when I first started my job, the department that I worked in was called the College and Career Center, and my job title was Coordinator of College Programs. So I specifically worked with students who wanted to go to college. But I did remember feeling so guilty also, just thinking of my own experience. I remember wanting to go to Tisch School of Art and I couldn’t go because the tuition was like $63,000. And I was only able to afford like $24,000. That was using scholarships, loans, FAFSA, everything. So I felt so guilty for telling a young person, “You should go to college and go to an art school” knowing that it’s going to [cost] a lot. 

But also one of the things I did in my job was to change that, so we’re now called Youth Pathway Programs instead of calling it College and Career Center. Because I think that was kind of putting the image in people’s heads that you have to go to college to have a creative career. And that’s not true because there’re so many people who are well-known artists and creative professionals who have never gone to college. And that just came from, literally, people just doing what they want to do. And you know, making connections with people, working on their craft, and building out their own experiences.

I feel like that was such a big thing of not wanting to tell young people you have to go to college. If you want to, sure, and we’ll help you in figuring out how to navigate that. What are you interested in? Do you feel like you want to keep going to school?  Some people are, “Yeah, I love school. I want to go to college.” Some of them are just, “I just want to work.” So if they just want to work, we find a job where they can do this type of work. We build partnerships with other organizations because those are people that we want to connect with—they’ll be like, “We can take an apprentice or we’ll take an intern and that can lead to a job.” Because at the end of the day, they don’t care about what degree you got or what you majored in. All they care about is experience.

Because my minor was in film. But it had nothing to do with arts programming or anything. It literally just came down to experience.

So in some ways, if the whole thing that matters is the internship, you know, why not bypass the price tag of college tuition and just get connected to internships? Then if someone enjoys education and wants to make that investment or wants that community, they could pursue college.

Yeah, I had a student who was going to go to USC, University of Southern California. She just graduated this June, was all set up to go to USC. Then she did an internship with us over the summer and decided she didn’t want to go because we tell people, “Make sure you’re going to a school that you really want to go to and just make sure you’re prepared.” And then I guess just from talking to people she just ended up deciding, literally a week before, she didn’t want to go to that university anymore. So she decided, “You know what, I think I just want to take my time.” Because she had the idea in her head of, like, “You have to go to a top college, you have to have the best university experience, that’s what’s gonna get you a job.” And I think just her hearing from other people—like, “That’s not it.” There’s so many other things you have to go through once you graduate college. It’s not like you’re just gonna magically get set up with a job. And jobs are asking you to have like three or five years of experience that she knew she wouldn’t be able to have. So she ended up not going and decided just to take a gap year. And then she told me, “Hey, I ended up deciding not to go, can you help me on my resume?” And I was like, “Actually, we’re about to start our art fair, why don’t you reach out to my coworker too and ask to help her out?”  She asked her and [the student] basically planned the majority of the art fair, it’s a whole huge fundraiser. She planned it with her, that was a part time commission job she had. So now she has all of that experience under her belt and she hasn’t even gone to college. Yeah, so now she is looking into either working with us part time or looking for another job where she can do more fundraising events because that’s what she wants to do long term, fundraising for arts organizations.

If we have students who say, “I really want to work at your organization or one like it,” are there things you’d say you look for when hiring or things they can do to prepare if they want to enter this kind of work?

Yeah, I would say, Well, actually, side note: I’m actually hiring for a coordinator of youth programs. So if by chance you know anyone.. .

I’ll post it on our Alumni network!

Yeah! I would say for sure experience is one of the biggest things we look for, because we don’t necessarily always look at people’s education. We look at the experience that they have working in art settings or working with young people. As long as you’ve some type of experience teaching in the arts, or involvement in the community too is a big thing. That’s a thing we’re really heavy on is how we’re connected to communities. So if they already have that experience as teaching artists in the community or tutoring experience—that helps a lot.

If people want to learn more about Marwen or other things, would it be okay for tutors to reach out to you?

Yeah, they can reach out to me, I don’t mind. They can DM me on Instagram or go to the web site too,, my email is on there too.

Are there any tips you share with tutors about how to survive the post-grad transition in terms of mental health and self care, or how to make that rough patch survivable?

Yeah, I would say, if you need to take a break, take a break. And what I mean is taking a break from work. I actually didn’t realize how burnt out I was from school until after I graduated and did nothing. I didn’t realize that I was experiencing depression and anxiety and feeling burnt out and running super low on fuel, trying to do the most all the time. I would say for sure, take a break if you feel like you can and you need one. Because yeah, that was a huge thing. I didn’t realize, how busy I always was. I  would wake up at, like, six in the morning and literally be on the go from 7 until sometimes 3 in the morning. That was mostly every day. It was work, school, internships, homework, family stuff, friend stuff. It’s just a constant thing of having to do stuff. Yeah. So I definitely neglected self care when I was in college. I also didn’t know about self care when I was college. I was  just like, “Having time for me—what? That is not a thing. I need to graduate college on time and do all the things.” That’s why I’m saying, like, you know, do whatever the fuck you want to do because if you’re doing stuff for other people, it won’t work out in your favor.

Yeah, I think that transition can be stressful and murky and that’s fine because most transitions are. Even when you’re commuting, like the transition from one place to another, it can be stressful. Transitioning from getting out of bed is even hard. Transitions are always going to be difficult, but once you get through it, it’s fine. Like, I hate getting out of bed. But once I do it, I’m like, whoo! I’m alive! The sun is shining and it’s fine.

So I would say transitions are hard, which is fine. I would say just reach out for help. Because if you’re feeling some type of way, someone else for sure is feeling that way too. Which I think is really a cool thing about having the WC community is we’re connected to each other. It can make it easy to be like, “Hey, I’m struggling with this.” Reaching out for help is never a bad thing.  And I’ve never heard from anyone ever in my life that asking for help was the worst thing they ever did.

So I would say ask for help, ask for resources. Reach out to folks who look like they have it all together because they probably don’t. And if they do they can help you with figuring out what to do next.

Because I don’t think I also know anyone who was like, Hey, I reached out to someone for help and they were like, No, I don’t want to help you. And if people don’t have the resources to help you, they can [point you to someone who does]. And you know, there isn’t just one person in the world who can help you. There’s a whole community of people, at the Writing Center, outside of it. I think that was one thing that I didn’t realize until later on was that I had so many communities that I could reach out to like, at home, or where I lived, or friends from school or outside of it who could help me out.  But yeah, I would say like, just really take advantage of those relationships. Because, I mean, that’s why you have those relationships with people.

So I feel like that’s great advice. I mean, what you’re saying is exactly the thing I’m hoping, that people will use the Writing Center alumni community as a resource. Because there’s a lot of you now. It’s not just the people who are currently tutoring. We have 100 people at a time tutoring between the 50 who are staff and 50 who are in training, but each year you guys graduate. And we didn’t really ever keep track of you, your email would expire and then, you know, that was that. So I’ve been trying to resurrect contacts with all you guys to build a network  because I figure a lot of us are first person in our families entering our professions. And a lot of how people make their way in is through knowing someone in the field who can say we have an opening, you should apply for it. Or you know, come check it out, come intern with us—it would be to everyone’s advantage to have a greater pool of people they can reach out to.

So I’m hoping that because you guys are all entering so many different fields that you guys can discover, “Here’s someone who’s doing this kind of work I had never thought of before,”  like the job you have. And if someone said to you, “Hey, I also was a tutor for three years at the Writing Center,” I feel like you guys would be amenable to talking to each other about your jobs, having had that common experience of tutoring. There’s kind of a common language of what it means to be part of a workplace of mutual respect, I imagine. That’s my hope.

I feel like yeah, the Writing Center helps so much with making friendships. I remember Melissa [Martinez] was not an English major at all. She was a Communications major and I was always like, “You should come work on your papers here,” because we had Communications classes together, and I think that’s how she ended up taking to 222 because I was like, “You should take this 222 class and then you can be a tutor and then we can hang out and talk about writing all the time.” And she was like, “Okay, that sounds cool.”

I didn’t know you referred her!

That’s how she made so many connections to other people. Yeah, I love this, because it’s literally a replica of my job, like, someone knows someone and connects them and then they connect people.

I believe that too. We need all those relationships. And I really want that network to exist for people who may not have it through their families. I hope that can expand our idea of career options out there because I think, for many of us, our families know of two or three or four professions that look bonafide and everything else looks a little suspect. So I’m hoping I can kind of grow this, with help from people like you.

So last but not least: what is bringing you joy these days?

I have so many things,  my head’s going all over the place. I would say even just holiday shopping? I love buying gifts for people. Just enjoying being outside, even though it’s fall. Nature going through transitions is always so beautiful, because it’s related [to our own transitions]. As rough as we know it’s going to be, after that it’s spring and it’s fine. So even though I absolutely hate winter, it makes me look forward to spring again. I love seeing the trees transitioning through colors because even during transition, they look beautiful. They’re also a reminder to me of if I’m going through transitions, it’s okay.