Photo by Alya Ansari

By Alexandra McLaughlin 16

“A project like this has lasting impacts on the way we acquire knowledge; we are no longer limiting ourselves to literature reviews and data analysis.”
—Alya Ansari 

Class in a canoe on the Mississippi River. A German language textbook inclusive of gender, race, and sexuality. A film about spreading peace and compassion along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers. These are a few of the ideas that Macalester students and professors hope to make a reality this summer with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s award to Macalester for the project entitled “Creating Lifelong Learners: Linking Immersive Experiences to the Liberal Arts Foundation.”

The Mellon grant emphasizes civic engagement, which “ensures that work you’re doing is meaningful in the communities you’re doing work in,” says Alya Ansari ’19 (Mumbai, India).

Ansari works with Professor John Kim on the Mississippi Studies, a new field of research that re-imagines the Mississippi River as a cohesive cultural corridor. “This project is trying to know by acting and doing, through interfacing with communities along the river,” Ansari says. “What are their concerns?”

Radioactive contaminants from uranium refineries concern communities in Illinois, while those in Louisiana worry about loss of coastal infrastructure. Kim and Ansari hope to eventually fund a research barge to sail from Minneapolis to New Orleans and offer an out-of-classroom learning experience. They envision a study-away program in which students engage in seminars while canoeing along the Mississippi.

“A project like this has lasting impacts on the way we acquire knowledge; we are no longer limiting ourselves to literature reviews and data analysis,” Ansari says. Students may construct art installations along the Mississippi or help citizens write proposals for policy changes.

“We will understand more about the world we live in and how to take care of it,” Ansari says.

Conference delegates in discussion at the Katharine Ordway Field Station. © John Kim, 2018

In June, Ansari attended a conference on the Mississippi Studies at the Ordway Field Station with delegates from around the world. One of the organizations, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, an exhibition center in Berlin dedicated to international contemporary arts, asked her to write a piece on the outcomes of the workshop. Ansari studied away in Berlin and often admired the organization as she walked past; she never imagined she would be a part of it.

“Every week is something new,” Ansari says. She might put together a bibliography, identify community partners, write grant proposals, or lead tours of the river.

Another Mellon-funded project, a film and website called “We are Water: Kinship of Rivers,” spreads peace and compassion among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers. Web developer and video editor Harrison Runnels ’20 (Omaha, Neb.) creates a virtual gallery of Professor Wang Ping’s 2014 multi-media exhibition at the Soap Factory gallery in Minneapolis, which brought 100 artists from the Mississippi and Yangtze to perform poetry, dance, theater, Sand Mandala, and installations.

Several Mellon projects this summer revolve around art and the meaning we can gain from it. In his first semester at Macalester, Roan O’Neill ’20 (Belfast, Northern Ireland) took a class with Professor Amy Elkins and encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry. O’Neill comes from the same part of Northern Ireland that Heaney writes about.

Heaney’s work illuminated another way of approaching the political tensions of the place I grew up in,” O’Neill says. “I wrote a paper arguing that Heaney’s bog poems act as a metaphor for the enforced disappearance of innocent civilians by paramilitary groups during the sectarian war we call ‘The Troubles.’” Impressed with his analysis, Elkins nominated O’Neill to present at a conference. With the help of the Mellon grant, they aim to publish a co-authored academic article.

“This project has given me a really helpful look at what work as a freelance artist might actually look like.”
—Kai Arnone

Kai Arnone ’19 (Reno, Nev.) works with Professor Megan Vossler to create illustrations for an open-access German language learning curriculum being written by Professor Brigetta Abel. This online German curriculum takes an inclusive approach to incorporating discussions around gender, race, sexuality, and political engagement alongside introductory language and grammatical concepts. Arnone illustrates German verbs to help students quiz themselves on vocabulary and creates drawings to accompany the units.

“This project has given me a really helpful look at what work as a freelance artist might actually look like,” Arnone says. “It has involved collaborating with a client to create art that corresponds to the goals they are trying to achieve, often involving extensive communication and revision of an initial idea.”

Photo by Eric Carroll and Bade Turgut

Bade Turgut ’19 (Tarsus, Turkey) and Professor Eric Carroll take an interdisciplinary approach by combining art and science. They photograph scientific archives and the people responsible for their organization and preservation. “I am really interested in the visual nature of science and documenting it,” says Turgut. “Getting this grant and working with Eric is helping me get a better idea on how to artistically do this.”

“If we don’t propose projects and hope that our ideas are different and can change things, we’re done. Find something you love and unapologetically commit to pursuing it.”
—Alya Ansari

As an international student on a visa, Ansari faces limits in U.S. employment. “It means the world to me that I got this grant,” she says. “I can focus and fully immerse myself.” She encourages her classmates to apply. “They don’t realize that grants like Mellon are designed for people like us, who have crazy ideas and are untainted by the hardened attitude of the real world. If we don’t propose projects and hope that our ideas are different and can change things, we’re done. Find something you love and unapologetically commit to pursuing it.”

August 6 2018

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