Non-Traditional Path Leads to Cool Career

Non-Traditional Path Leads to Cool Career

11/17/2017 

Senior art and art history major Kelly McKenna can see her future career path quite clearly. She wants to become an experimental archeologist and she’s made all the right moves so far.

When she graduates in December, McKenna, of Cortland, N.Y., may pause to earn a graduate degree before she digs in — literally — to a lifetime of reconstructing ancient pottery techniques in an attempt to study past cultures.

But this enterprising scholar didn’t always have such a firm grasp on her academic direction. In fact, McKenna illustrates how those with a strong initial focus sometimes end up finishing undergraduate degrees as non-traditional students.

McKenna, 24, had graduated from Homer (N.Y.) High School in 2011 with strong grades in the sciences. As a youth, she had watched intriguing television shows about the field of forensic science and decided to pursue chemistry at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry.

“ESF would focus on natural chemistry when I wanted to focus on a different aspect and it was a lot more intense than I expected,” McKenna said. “I switched majors and went into landscape architecture, where a requirement was to take an art history course. I enjoyed it. It was probably the best class for me. But after a year and a half, I found that doing landscape architecture on the computer was not something I had an aptitude for. I was better with hands-on work.”

In 2014, she took a leave from ESF and worked for a year at different jobs while deciding what to do next. In Fall 2015, McKenna transferred to SUNY Cortland as a junior art and art history major. She’s also working on an archeology minor through the Sociology/Anthropology Department.

“My paperwork was mixed up and I was assigned to studio art with a studio art advisor rather than an art history advisor,” McKenna said. “My advisor happened to be (Art and Art History Professor) Jeremiah Donovan,” she said of the noted ceramics specialist, who continues to be her advisor.

“Jeremiah did his best to fill that position. My first semester I didn’t do ceramics, although he encouraged me to. I started doing ceramics in spring 2016.”

This makes her an art history specialist who has taken an extraordinary number of studio art courses.

“Is that unusual? I guess so,” McKenna said. “I know for studio art majors you must take one or two art history courses. I believe it gives me a more rounded background. Most of art history is focused on painting and that was not my interest.”

“She’s really the life of the studio art program right now,” Donovan noted about McKenna. “I think the ceramics program has really touched her deeply. Her ability to find a place, to create a sense of community, is something you can see when you come by the studio at night.”

Donovan never considered that McKenna was a non-traditional student yet he noted her extraordinary organizational skill.

“She stands out from other students for her level of maturity sets her apart from a typical 18-year-old student,” Donovan said.

She worked with Donovan on an independent study of Mayan culture in Belize, as reflected in its pottery. McKenna later earned approximately $2,700 in SUNY Cortland Undergraduate Research Council funds to travel to Belize and continue their collaboration.

Using material the Maya might have found in nature, McKenna successfully developed a “Maya blue” pigment to approximate the ancient Maya pottery technique lost to civilization around A.D. 300.

It’s a puzzle that’s evaded scholars for centuries. But McKenna drew on her chemistry background and began a quest to find the right mix of natural compounds that would yield a contemporary blue paint that closely mimics the lost, nearly permanent, sacred pigment of the Maya.

Her own recreations of pottery using her rediscovered color technique were displayed last fall in Dowd Gallery. The pottery was part of an exhibition that included genuine Maya artifacts on loan from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University and authentic reproductions of traditional Maya pottery made by a contemporary women’s collaborative in Belize.

McKenna continues to spend a lot of time in the studio as she refines her ceramic techniques.

“I still have a lot of the materials that I used and I’m trying out things,” she said.

McKenna’s archaeology minor is vital to her career plans, so she has been most lucky in finding her second academic advisor, Scott Stull, an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology/Anthropology Department.

“Scott’s focus is to find an artifact and attempt to duplicate it using what we know now and think might have been done then,” McKenna explained.

She has her eye on Ireland and the Dublin Experimental Archeology Program. If she obtains a master’s degree in experimental archeology from there, she then will investigate doctoral programs in archeology. One school she’s considering is Northern Arizona University. On the faculty there she’ll find Donovan’s research collaborator in Belize, Jaime José Awe, a Belizean archaeologist who specializes in the ancient Maya.

McKenna also is a certified scuba diver, having taken the course during her first semester at SUNY Cortland. She hopes to use her acquired skill in future research.

“There are a lot of ritual caves in Belize,” McKenna said. “They have yet to be explored because they are underwater. During rainy season, it floods and sometimes the only access is to go underwater.”

McKenna helps other transfer students make the transition successfully, working with the national honor society for transfers, Tau Sigma.

“I was part of Tau Sigma’s program for transfer buddies during transfer days, the week when they come to campus to get their schedule and adjust to campus,” McKenna said. “I was in charge of a small group of students who came here. I don’t want people to feel as frustrated as I did when I came in as a junior and felt so lost.”

Arriving on campus, she used the Nontraditional Student Lounge to meet people and found answers to her questions from Cheryl Hines, coordinator of student outreach and non-traditional student support in Advisement and Transition. 

“If I have the answer, I feel I should help them out, whatever makes it easier for them,” McKenna said.

McKenna is another reason why SUNY Cortland recognizes and celebrates dedicated students during annual Non-Traditional Students Week, which runs through Friday, Nov. 17, and features an array of activities.

The College will recognize notable non-traditional students throughout the week with a series of feature articles on the College website. You can nominate someone for recognition by contacting Non-Traditional Student Support Coordinator Cheryl Hines or by visiting the Non-Traditional Student Support webpage.

Read the stories of other remarkable non-traditional students that have appeared this week:

Julia West

Thomas Benedict

Andrew Siciliano

Melissa Garrett

Non_Trads_Rock_Kelly_McKenna17_WEB 

 


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