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Sam A. Carter, ‘Wild Artist’ on choosing Visual Studies
By Clara Quijano
“Friendliness was my #1 priority in choosing a Ph.D. Program, where I will be formed and trained”
The faculty was the main reason I was drawn to the UCI Visual Studies Ph.D. Program, the place where I will be formed and trained. VS faculty members were friendly, grounded, intelligent, and down to earth; they made me feel that this was the right place for me.

I’m first generation in multiple senses of the word. I’m the child of a woman from Curaçao, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, who migrated to the United States at a young age when she met my father from East St. Louis. Neither of my parents went to school, so I am part of the first generation to receive advanced university education in my family. I grew up in a broken home and from the age of 11 onwards I grew up without my parents. I am here today, because many people who didn’t have to, stepped up to raise and care for me. When I got into Brown University, I called my parents on the phone and neither of them had heard of the place.

I struggled for a long time to feel like I belonged in college. It wasn’t until I took courses like Introduction to Modern Culture & Media and Race and/as Technology with Wendy Chun that I found an academic space that felt right for me. I don’t think I was a great student in either of those classes with Wendy, but I felt very at home in them. I’m a testament to the fact that you can’t ever rule students out. The academy needs students like me, with my perspective, and I think that requires educators who challenge their students to be better without ever underestimating the very real potential of human striving. I wanted to be around professors who treated their graduate students with respect and held high expectations for their futures. I found this in Wendy Chun, for example, who has been supportive of my academic pursuits since that introductory class. Though I have struggled a lot, it is thanks to professors like Chun and my graduate advisor that I am now prepared and confident in my work.

I completed my Masters in New Media and Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. My thesis advisor, Niels van Doorn, made me a much stronger writer. I remember turning in the first draft of my thesis. He returned it to me, and he had gone line by line and torn it apart. It can be hard to receive constructive criticism, but it’s rare that someone puts a microscope to your writing and tells you what needs improvement. I believe Niels did that, because he had believed in my capabilities. He understood what he was reading in that moment was just one iteration of me as a thinker and writer, and he maintained faith in me. That faith helped me rise to the occasion. He wasn’t just editing my writing, he was calling on me to become a stronger thinker. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him.

Once I got accepted into the Visual Studies PhD program, I was invited to participate in the UCI Competitive Edge Summer Research program; It’s an amazing program! They bring people underrepresented in their respective fields to campus for eight weeks before school starts. Participants attend workshops about everything from campus resources, to funding opportunities, to mental health. There were panels and speakers who were at different stages in their degrees who spoke to us about our research, building relationships with faculty, and career preparation. I had a VS faculty mentor, Allison Perlman, and a VS peer mentor, Mehra Gharibian. Both Allison and Mehra have been incredible mentors to me, and both have been foundational to my first experiences with UCI and my program. I am grateful for them!  I made a lot of progress in that eight weeks and found the topic I will pursue for my dissertation in the process. Though VS faculty were giving me guidance before I was even an admitted student.

Friendliness was my #1 priority in choosing a Ph.D. Program, where I will be formed and trained; Peter Krapp, Braxton Soderman, and Jamie Nisbet talked to me about new media and incorporating art into my research. Fatimah Tobing-Rony, a VS faculty who I spoke to as a prospective student first and who gave me great guidance even then. She said, “the best thing you can do over the summer is to think about the landscape of your life.” That directive made me reflect on my future and consider how the next five years fits into that broader landscape. I realized that my professional goal is to position myself so that I can maneuver both academia and the creative world somehow, since I identify as an artist. A wild one.

Often artists are asked to define themselves according to one artistic genre, but I resist that pressure. I am a writer, a dancer, a performer. I just love art. The Visual Studies program is giving me the opportunity of be a successful artist and academic.  Before I used to think those two identities irreconcilable, but I don’t really understand one without the other; they are essential to each other and so much richer together. They are both fundamental aspects of who I am.

I had a lot of great mentors, and I still do. I feel coming into VS, that I walk into a space of a lot of different people who are going to help form me into the academic I’d like to be. And that isn’t just faculty. I come into this program with an amazing cohort of students, brilliant thinkers from all walks of life, who I know will be essential to my growth and development as well.

I’m proud of the fact that I’m still here, doing this despite of all the things that could have taken me out or in a whole different direction. I feel most proud of all of the obstacles that I’ve overcome, including myself, to be here.

Sam A. Carter, holds an MA in New Media and Digital Cultures, at the University of Amsterdam and a BA in Modern Culture and Media, at Brown University; her current interests include Digital cultures, and Postcolonialism.