Professional Experiences Benefit Students, Community

Guest Correspondence

Screenshot from Patriot Play Virtual Tour.

It is no secret these days the professional world has become innately competitive, especially in the more lucrative and global industries. Employers are hungry to hire skilled and competent young professionals who are industry-ready from the day they walk across the commencement stage. When I took up my role as Ringling College President, it was clear to me students were graduating straight into a career crisis because they often did not have the opportunity to get any form of professional experience before graduating. Perhaps they had a summer job or internship, but what about those students who did not have that available to them?

As educators, we needed to change the way we looked at higher education and see industry experience and professional partnerships as a non-negotiable component of our student formation and preparation. 

As a pillar of creative and academic excellence, Ringling College of Art and Design offers students a world-class art and design education, and a pre-professional program imbued with the commitment each and every student will have a professional opportunity before they graduate. This is, after all, what employers are looking for and helps to break the perpetual cycle that has haunted college graduates for years: “I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience, but I can’t get experience because I can’t get a job.”

In 2012, Ringling College partnered with The Patterson Foundation with the shared goal to strengthen the creative workforce of tomorrow. The College’s INDEX program — Industry Experience at Ringling College — continues the legacy of this partnership by aggregating the myriad experiential educational opportunities the College long offered. 

The INDEX program has impacted more than 2,300 Ringling students across all majors, involving work experience with more than 200 professional bodies. Many are household names, such as Cirque du Soleil, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Moffitt Cancer Center, the Baltimore Orioles and General Motors. But many other clients have been closer to home: Patriot Plaza, Suncoast Blood Bank, IMG Academy, The Ringling Museum, The Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition and so many others. 

These professional opportunities require a high level of trust between the client and those “contracted” students to complete the work. Ringling College is fortunate to have fostered long standing and trusted relationships with local organizations, nonprofits, clients, donors and friends of the College, like The Patterson Foundation. The endowed charitable foundation is committed to “strengthening the efforts of people, organizations, and communities by focusing on issues that address mutual aspirations, foster wide participation, and encourage learning and sharing,” and has been supporting our community for over 25 years.

Creating the space to nurture community and connection has always been at the heart of Ringling College’s mission. While having the opportunity to connect our students with major projects with large national and multinational corporations is an amazing privilege, the projects that mean the most to me have been connections in our local community. Take the Patriot Plaza INDEX project. Spearheaded by The Patterson Foundation, the $12-million Patriot Plaza at Sarasota’s National Cemetery was donated to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration. Open to the public, the amphitheater with its world-class art installations, quickly became a favorite destination for educational field trips and tours, and as a place of solace and reflection for military veterans, active duty and their families. 

When the pandemic hit, Patriot Plaza closed; tours were suspended, class trips canceled. The project request came directly from the Foundation, who engaged with INDEX to assemble a student-led film production team. Over the course of the semester, Film students created 11 cinematic and experiential films bringing civics lessons of military service and sacrifice, all conveyed through the space, art, and architecture of Patriot Plaza, to educators and classrooms locally and nationwide. Students in public schools could once again learn the lessons imparted.

By participating in the INDEX program, students are building up their resumes and enhancing their portfolios, therefore increasing employability. It has always been my view creative confidence is forged in the crucible of deadlines, demands and deliverables — the very foundation of INDEX. But in addition, and perhaps more importantly so, they are contributing to meaningful projects that bring immeasurable value to the respective organizations. What a bonus for all of us that many of these organizations are right here in Sarasota. 

Dr. Larry R. Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art and Design.

Screenshot from Patriot Play Virtual Tour.

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