Back to Episode # 23

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:07
Hello, and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host, Liz Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and to think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. So today, I want to introduce to you all my good friend Uzo Ngwu, a dual study program student at Harvard University and Berklee School of Music, about turning her passions into a career. Uzo, thanks so much for joining me today.


Uzo Ngwu  00:47
Thanks for having me.


Liz Bolsoni  00:48
So before we dive in, I know your high school self. And you know, I know you do too, if you have any advice for high school Uzo, words of affirmation, positive vibes to send her, what would you say?


Uzo Ngwu  01:02
Yeah, I think if I could talk to high school Uzo, I would probably tell her to lean into her intuition and just trust herself a little bit more. I think, there was a lot of self doubt, in regards to art and my passions and pursuing a career that actually made me happy. And I think, I wish someone would have told me to just trust myself, and to trust my ideas, and to trust my creativity. Because I've grown to learn that my ideas, my creativity is good enough. And there's nothing that needs to change. In order for me to be successful. Everything I have is already within me.


Liz Bolsoni  01:39
Absolutely. Yeah. So I introduced you as a dual-student, or dual-program student, can you share with our listeners what that means?


Uzo Ngwu 01:49
Yeah. So basically, I am part of the Harvard-Berklee dual-degree program. I'm a full time Harvard student, but then I actually also take classes at Berklee along with my Harvard classes. And so what that looks like is pre COVID, I would have taken the bus to Berklee on a specific day of the weekend, take classes. But during COVID, when everything was remote, I would just have, you know, different Zooms from Berklee classes, different Zooms for my Harvard classes. And the way the program is structured, is after four years at Harvard, you'll be taking Berklee classes throughout those four years., and then once you've graduated from Harvard, you spend one additional year at one of Berklee's master's programs to get your master's degree in arts slash music.


Liz Bolsoni  02:29
You're already planned that far ahead. That is so exciting. Congratulations. So you didn't start college out as an art major. You were originally going to study anthropology. And what changed your mind, what set you on that path?


Uzo Ngwu  02:44
Yeah, it's interesting, because when I was applying to colleges, and applying with a major, I had no idea what I wanted to study. And I just clinged on to anthropology, because I just felt like it was such a versatile major. And I felt like there was so much I could do within that major, like you can pursue art with an anthropology degree. And it also satisfied my parents because you could pursue -- you go to medical school with an anthropology degree. Even though I had no desire to go to medical school, it was the most -- it was the safest major choice that would satisfy both myself and my parents. But then when it came around time to actually declaring a concentration, or major -- Harvard's just extra -- when it came time to declaring a major, I just didn't, I didn't want to pursue something that I wasn't completely in love with. And I took an anthropology class my sophomore fall. And we declared majors at the end of sophomore fall, and I love the professors so much. And I loved the class. But it's just, I knew that that wasn't what I wanted to be spending all of my academic time doing. And so I talked to some of my friends who are in the Art, Film and Visual Studies Department, which is what I was considering concentrating in. And I kind of asked them like, "Guys, I need your help. How do I determine, like, is this what I want to study? How did you guys figure out this is what you wanted to study." And it was through those conversations that really helped me realize that I want to pursue my academic time at Harvard, you know, building my skills as an artist, building my skills as a filmmaker, I want to pursue what I'm passionate about. Because I also had this weird relationship with my major coming into college because I thought, for some reason, I just thought I had to prove myself and I had to prove my intellect. And I thought that by studying art or music or something creative, I was unable to prove that I was intelligent. And I think that was just a really unfortunate mindset that I had for so long and that I can be smart and study whatever I want. And  at the end of the day, I don't need to prove myself to anyone. So I think getting over that idea of needing to prove myself and also just trusting that I was making the right decision pursuing my passion, just really helps me kind of pivot and ultimately made me feel like I made the right choice when it came to declaring that major


Liz Bolsoni  04:59
So clearly, you're a really artistic, creative person and I and so many other people love your creations. So has art always been a passion for you, or is it something you discovered, something that you kind of developed along the way?


Uzo Ngwu  05:14
Yeah, so I'm honestly always been an incredibly creative person. When I was in elementary school, we had like these compliment booklets. And one of the reoccurring compliments that my classmates would give me was, "I like your drawings, I like your art." And so all throughout like elementary school, middle school, high school, I was always creating something. Like in elementary school, I won this comic book contest, or was like a comic panel, basically illustrating like fire safety. I wrote a song to help me remember vocabulary words. I illustrated a short picture book as part of a class. And like, I was just always creating something. I always loved doing creative projects in school as well. But I think as I got older, I started to believe that art was only something I could pursue on the side or as a hobby. So it was never something that I really fully invested myself into, and actually really tried to get better at. It was just something that I just, you know, I liked it, and so I would do it here and there. But I didn't invest as much time as I wish I did when I was younger. But then come freshmen fall, at the end of freshman fall, I bought an iPad because I used to do digital art on my home computer, like late middle school, early high school, but eventually I stopped. And I always joke that like buying the iPad was like the best decision I ever made freshman year, because once I bought that iPad, and once I started drawing again, I realized that this is something that I love doing. And I think it reignited my passion for visual art, and for digital art. And ever since then, I've been really investing in growing as an artist getting better as an artist. And so in a way, I have always been creative, but I also rediscovered my passion as I got older.


Liz Bolsoni  06:52
So I know in high school, like you did a lot of artistic extracurriculars, speech and debate, theater, choir, right? And how would you say that those translated into college, or were you able to do some of those same things? A lot of our listeners are going to be high schoolers who do the same things you did and are looking forward to continuing that or finding a new path, a new artistic outlet outside of their classes.


Uzo Ngwu  07:18
Yeah. So thankfully, at Harvard, there's a lot of really great creative communities. I was actually supposed to be in the production of Dream Girls, freshman spring, but then COVID happened and it didn't get to get put on. But yeah, so there's a lot of like extracurricular theater opportunities. I actually even took a theater class, my freshman fall. Harvard does this thing called freshmen seminars. And so that was my freshman seminar. It was this acting class, which I absolutely loved. I am in an acapella group, so I'm still singing. I'm actually the president, I'll be the president of that group next year, which is really exciting. But yeah, I think a lot of colleges, you know, offer so many creative opportunities for their students. So yeah, I'm very lucky that Harvard has so many different creative communities and opportunities for me to tap into.


Liz Bolsoni  08:06
So you spoke a little bit about how your parents have wanted you to go into a different field than you are now, and a lot of young people who are interested in pursuing the arts are often discouraged from doing that. So what do you have to say in response to that, or what can you do... what can you say to support our high school listeners who are in that similar situation?


Uzo Ngwu  08:27
Yeah, I think a lot of people -- and media also doesn't help with this, but pushes this idea of the starving artist -- and almost, they try to convince you that if you pursue art, you will, you won't be successful, you won't make any money, you won't make it big. And I just think that's so interesting, considering the fact that art exists everywhere, in our products, in the products we design, in the media we consume, and the clothing we wear. And so I feel as though that it's misleading to keep telling children who have these incredible creative sparks that they won't make it, that they won't make money, because they're actually so many incredible -- there's so many different ways you can make money as a creative. And I think that's another thing that people don't realize. I think when people think of artists, they only think of painters and museums, actors on the screen. But there's so many behind the scene ways as a creative to make money. There's so many different avenues. And I just think, I don't believe in the starving artist trope. I mean, even though it's obviously possible, there are people who pursue their passion and they fail. Like that's just sometimes that happens. But I don't think that we should be telling kids that that's the most likely thing that will happen if they pursue their art and if they pursue their passion. Because with the rise of social media, there's just so many different ways that creatives can make money from the content that they make online, to starting independent projects. Money is the biggest issue that makes people dissuade young creatives from pursuing the arts, I'm like, it's understandable, especially coming from people who come from low income households, and you want to pursue something that'll guarantee financial stability. And that I completely understand. But for me, personally, I don't want to sacrifice what I love for money. Because I just think there's so much more than making. Like, I do hope at the end of the day, I make a lot of money for my art, but at the same time, it's like, I understand that there's more to life than making money doing things I don't like. And so the goal is to make money doing things I do like. Well, yeah, I just think there's just so so so many creative avenues to make money for young creatives that we just don't talk about enough. That's a larger conversation that I won't really get into. But the idea that like, besides being a lawyer, doctor, engineer, schools don't really tell us about other like career paths that exist.


Liz Bolsoni  10:53
Lucrative careers.


Uzo Ngwu  10:55
Yeah, exactly. Like there is so much out there that people just don't know about.


Liz Bolsoni  11:00
Yeah, yeah. Well said. You know, this episode is called Turning Passion into Career. That's what it's about. And you've been able to do that, you've been able to get on that path a little bit. And so I'm wondering what advice you have for high school students, or even students who are in their first or second year of college, and want to pursue a passion, make money, doing something that they love, like you said. So what are some practical tips and tricks, things I can do to make that a reality?


Uzo Ngwu  11:32
I think one super important thing is, you know, once you figure out what that passion is, and what you want to pursue, find people in your fields who are doing what you want to do. I think one of the hardest things for me about wanting to pursue art as a kid is that I didn't know any artists, I didn't know anybody who pursued creative careers. And so I had no idea how to get there. And for me, like, it's hard to visualize a career when I have no idea what the steps to take, what the steps are to get there. And so I think it is incredibly important to find people doing what you're doing to maybe like research, like, how did they get there? And what steps can I take to follow a similar path? I think that's just incredibly important. And another reason that social media has been so helpful for me because I follow so many professional artists, and I can see all the different ways that they made their careers as an artist. And so it gives me a better idea of like, "Okay, what can I do to follow a similar path to make sure that I can make money the same way that they are." So that's definitely one piece of advice I have is just finding people doing what you're doing, and finding established people doing what you're doing for one, but also connecting with people who are at your same level. So like your peers, your classmates, and collaborating with them and talking with them. Because there's this whole idea of like, horizontal networking, not that every relationship needs to be a networking opportunity. But it can be useful when you, you know, tap into the creative community that's right around you. Because you're all on the same playing field. There's no hierarchy of like, oh, you're a celebrity, and I need you to help me, like we're helping each other. And so I think it's important to just tap into other creatives at your school like that is so important. Find your creative community, finding people who can eventually become your collaborators, is incredibly helpful. And then I think a third tip I would give is look into what resources and funding opportunities your school has to offer. Oh, one thing I do want to plug really quick for high school students: there's this program called Young Arts. I never did it, but a couple of my Harvard creative friends did it, and basically, it's this arts program for young creatives. And they pick like finalists and they fly them out to Miami, to like share their creative, like talents with people. And it's for like musicians, for dancers, for theater kids, for visual artists for all types of creatives. And so for any high schoolers looking to apply for a competition where they can share their creative work, definitely check out Young Arts. Couple of my friends have done it and loved it. I wish I knew about it sooner. So yeah, I just wanted to plug that super quick. Going back into my last and final, you know, practical tip is just seeing what funding opportunities are available. This is more so geared towards college students, I don't really know if there was like funding opportunities in high school, but nevertheless, looking into different opportunities that you can tap into both in high school and college that will allow you to exercise your creativity, that will allow you to kind of just get your work out there because you never know, you know who your next client could be or you never know who will see your work and will want you to create something for them. So I think I guess that's actually kind of a fourth point is don't be afraid to put your work out there. All of my freelance work that I've gotten has come because I've been consistently maintaining an online presence and sharing my work and connecting with creatives. And I know that sometimes people are scared of being vulnerable with their work and scared of sharing it and allowing people to critique it, but it is so valuable to put your work online, and to put your work where people can see it and to, you know, build an audience of people and connect with people who enjoy your work, because that's how you get work as an artist -- is when people who like your work see it, and they'll be willing to pay you for it.


Liz Bolsoni  15:20
Well, yeah. And while we're on the topic of social media, do you -- I would love for you to share maybe some examples of when your your work got out there. And I don't want to say it for you. But just like, share with the our listeners, you know, some opportunities you got, and everyone got to access through social media. And yeah, share a little bit about that.


Uzo Ngwu  15:45
Yeah, so I think one of my -- so I started my art account right after I got my iPad, which was November 2019. And I think my most rewarding slash fulfilling social media moment when it came to my artwork was the end of sophomore fall, I took an animation class and I created an animated short, and I posted it on TikTok and Twitter, and it went viral on both platforms, more so on Twitter than it did TikTok. But on Twitter, it reached almost a million views. It got seen by the director of Hair Love, Matthew Cherry, who's like an Oscar award-winning director, and he followed me and he replied to the animation like, "I would love to work with you someday." And like that just blew my mind. But after that animation went viral, a few months later, I started getting emails and DMs from like companies asking me to make work for them. First one being Freeform. I was asked to make artwork for Grown-ish's new season. Then MTV reached out to me. They asked me to make artwork for those social media pages. And then Hulu reached out to me and asked me to make artwork for an upcoming movie, Billy Holiday vs. the United States. And I genuinely feel like those three opportunities came not just for my animation going viral, but also because I already had a huge collection of work growing from my year of posting art online, that people could look at, and that people could see if they wanted to work with me. And so I think just being able to have like this online presence, and this online platform made it so much easier for me to find and get work as a creative, because it's much more accessible for people to see my work, and to hire me when I put it online for them to access.


Liz Bolsoni  17:34
So you mentioned earlier that they're -- art is very versatile, and there are so many different paths to study art. For example, film, music, graphic design, visual arts. You know, there's a lot of different programs and schools that offer different opportunities to study art further. What do you suggest to high schoolers who want to choose a major in the arts or want to find a school that will provide an opportunity for them to pursue that?


Uzo Ngwu  18:03
Yeah, so I guess I should start off by noting that when I was in high school, I was a high school senior, this wasn't something I was thinking about. Because at the time, like I mentioned earlier, I wasn't thinking about, you know, majoring in art. Looking back and thinking like if I were to look for these things in a college, I definitely have a lot of things I would have kept in mind. For example, I think, determining if you want to study arts more generally, or if you have like a very specific, focused art medium, you want to study like illustration, graphic design, animation, or if you're more so interested as art broadly. I think it's important to look at, you know, what specific majors your school has to offer. For example, Harvard, I'm in the Art, Film and Visual Studies Department. So there's not a separate department for visual art and film. It's all, it's an all encompassing department that covers all art-related things. And one thing that Harvard doesn't really have in their arts department is digital art-related courses. So you won't really find classes on graphic design, or illustration. A lot of art there is -- there's a lot of really great film classes, and there's a lot of really great visual art classes that are like traditional forms of art making. So like painting, drawing, printmaking. And so if you are someone interested in digital art making like graphic design, UX/UI [User Experience/User Interface] design, illustration, you would want to look for schools that have either those specific programs, or at least have those classes that you could take at that specific school. That's definitely something I would have kept in mind if I knew for certain I was coming to study something arts-related. And also just comparing programs, talking to students in those programs and getting their experiences, I find that super helpful. It's always been helpful for me to talk to people who are doing things that I want to do and seeing if it's something I would actually enjoy doing from their perspective and hearing their perspective. If you want to go to liberal arts institution, or if you want to go to an art school, and doing research on both of those programs, I think is incredibly, incredibly beneficial.


Liz Bolsoni  20:07
Yeah. Yeah, great advice. And so we know about your successes so far. And we know that there are going to be successes in the future for you. Your passion with art and your career, I don't want to overwhelm you, but just share what you're excited for in the future.


Uzo Ngwu  20:26
Yeah, so this summer, I'm actually working as a research assistant for a short film. This professor at Harvard is interested in making a short film called -- a short film centered around black women in American universities. And so I'm helping with pre-production for that short film. I'm also helping with pre-production for a documentary. I'm helping with some of the illustration they might need, which is super exciting. And as for you know, the next semester, I'm hoping to tap into the creative communities and the creative opportunities at Harvard a lot more, and finding funding opportunities, applying for grants. And I'm also hoping to use this summer as a time to just create art, create as much art as I can. And to continue to grow as an artist, as an animator, as a filmmaker, and just be able to connect with other creative people as well, because I think so much great art comes out of collaboration. And so much of what's next for me is unknown. And I'm trying to be more. I'm trying to not worry too much about not knowing everything, because I'm someone who likes to know everything that's coming next. But I think I just have a good feeling that good things are coming. And so I'm just going to trust that great things will come. And I just know, I just know that to be true. And so, so much of what's next is unknown to me now, but I'm sure it'll reveal itself very, very soon.


Liz Bolsoni  21:54
Thank you. That's really exciting. So we have one last wrap-up question, and it's about looking into the future for students in Minnesota right now. And I know you went to high school here, you went through an education here and the past year for the country, but also for especially for students in Minnesota, has been challenging. And you know, they're -- not just the pandemic and distance learning but such immediate and broadcasted incidents of police violence and police killings. And, you know, that's just to name a couple. So I'm wondering, what are your hopes for students who are in Minnesota right now, especially high schoolers? What parting words do you have for for our student listeners?


Uzo Ngwu  22:41
Moving forward I hope to see a world that cares about the well being of other people, and the well being of all people, not just people who look like us. But all people from all walks of life. I think empathy is so important. Understanding and compassion and caring for your neighbor is such an important and beautiful thing. And I think that's why art is such a beautiful thing, because it allows you to connect with people from all walks of life. It allows you to understand their experiences from their perspective. And so moving forward, I hope that people can continue to be empathetic, can continue to care about others, to care about themselves, and can continue to just listen when they need to listen. Caring about people, is what I hope for, I hope for a world where people care about other people. And I hope for a world where people can use art as a means of showing that care of showing their perspectives, of connecting us all. Because at the end of the day, we're all human, and I think we have more like that we do different. So those would be my parting words.


Liz Bolsoni  23:50
Yeah, and a great way to tie in the art. And I hope everyone is able to, you know, connect parts of their life, their passion into social justice, and what they find important. So thank you for that connection. I really appreciate your time today. Thanks for sharing with our listeners and me a little bit about your story. Thanks for joining us.


Uzo Ngwu  24:13

Thank you so much for having me.


Liz Bolsoni  24:15
I just want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you again for spending some time with us today. This podcast is brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Please dig into the resources we mentioned this episode, which you can find in the show notes at our website Don't forget to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time everyone I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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