Shelton Lewis recently joined the College of Fine Arts as the new Director of Recruitment and Enrollment Management. Lewis began his career as an Assistant Director in the Multicultural Academic Student Services office at Central Michigan University, followed by progressive leadership roles in student affairs at major universities. Before joining the College of Fine Arts, he served as Program Director for the Leadership Living Learning Center at Baylor University, as well as at The University of Texas at Austin as Coordinator of Sorority and Fraternity Life with the Dean of Students’ Office. He holds a B.A. in photography and an M.A. in Higher Education/Higher Education Administration from Central Michigan University. We caught up with him recently to ask about his new role in the college.
What are your biggest priorities in this position?
We’re working on stabilizing our vehicles for outreach. How do we communicate out to people, and what is the messaging we provide? Because we are at the University of Texas at Austin, a lot of people think that if they’re not in the top 7 percent, they can’t get into the College of Fine Arts. Because all of our students have to do something additional—audition or submit a portfolio—to apply, then UT’s Office of Admissions gives us leeway to work with students who have strong talent, but maybe they fall in the top 20 percent of their class.
The other priority is rethinking how we engage people that is both cost-effective for us and for them. We have a relatively small staff, but I’d like for us to re-envision how we interact with people, perhaps through webinars.
In the long term, we’re re-thinking how we yield students. What additional things can we be doing to get these students to enroll?
What’s your recruiting pitch to prospective students?
I think you try to pick up on what the student’s passionate about. So, take a studio art student, for example. If a student’s passionate about studio art, the sales pitch includes faculty. A lot of these students already knew about our faculty—we don’t hide our faculty. Our sales pitch is that you get to work with this person from the first day you step on campus.
We’re also selling the other parts of our campus and our college. We’re kind of a private school in terms of the way we operate. There aren’t a lot of schools around here that carry the same respect as The University of Texas, but in our college, having a 10-1 faculty-to-student ratio is huge. So we kind of operate as a private school, but with a public school price.
Right now, one of the main ways we sell the College of Fine Arts is to really start re-thinking how we have students engage with current students so they are able to get that student perspective. They can have their questions answered through a student's lens. And for students that come visit campus, we try to walk them through every facility that they could possibly be in so that they can see themselves in that space producing art.
Then, we just talk to them about the number of opportunities that they would have here as a student. In a lot of programs out there, students don’t really get opportunities to be onstage until that junior year. I really try to get them to understand that maybe you won’t perform in your first semester, but in that first semester, you’ll definitely have opportunities to audition for performances. So you can start to perform or to produce work in that second semester while you’re here. There’s nothing that inhibits you from doing that.
What do you see as the biggest benefits of an arts education?
I absolutely see an advantage to having an arts degree because artists have a different approach to life. The mindset that artists have is one that is an out-of-box approach to solving problems. The approach to problem solving and approach to collaboration is totally different from someone in engineering or natural sciences. I don’t understand how engineers think, but I bet it’s a much more structured approach, but artists will approach things through different lenses and will mostly try anything to solve an issue.
What do you say to parents to address their concerns about their student’s future?
When parents bring up the whole question of the “starving artist,” I point out that even some students who graduate with a business degree struggle to find jobs. I tell parents that we’re not guaranteeing jobs, but we’re making a promise that we will work extremely hard to make sure that our students are prepared when they graduate to be gainfully employed. I bring up Fine Arts Career Services as an example of what we are doing to help students prepare for post-college work, and I also point out that it’s a two-way street. We encourage students to get involved early from the first months they’re on campus and to stay active in terms of developing resumes and pursuing internships.
How did your arts training affect your personal and professional life?
I’ll quote Erika Badu: “Keep in mind I’m an artist, so I’m sensitive about mine.” In preparation as an artist, I think all artists are sensitive about their art and what they’re creating. But I think being in an environment where you are always, in some shape or form, evaluating the product or receiving input form other people—it changed my perspective professionally and personally. When I was a younger artist, it was always, “My way is best.” We always have a vision of what the end product should be. But for me, receiving so much feedback and criticism, it made me better because I can receive feedback in a way that’s now productive. I used to hear feedback as, “Oh, they’re just trying to get me to change everything.” Now, yes, I can hear the feedback and hear that they’re telling me that there are some areas that I can make better. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of how to hear feedback and how to implement that feedback.