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Arts Education is not only for artists

A column for our alumni series by Nosi Msomi

Nosi Msomi, our guest writer for The Alumni Series on the impact of arts education.

When I was asked to write a piece about how arts education may be of benefit even to those who do not plan to continue with the arts in their careers, I was initially so excited. I was already trying to find parallels about how Waiting for Godot reminds one to live life fully and earnestly; or how movement and dance can help you learn how to manage stress and gives practical examples of how to deal with anxieties. But really, I think it goes far deeper than that. My love for the arts all started in primary school. Each year our school would take us to go watch the Pantomime plays at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. I remember the excited chatter of a bus-full of school kids across different grades as we made our way to the theatre. How we would line up to get our programmes and “not-so-noisy” snacks from the bar before making our way into the theatre. As soon as everyone had taken their seats the lighting would change to signal the start of the play and from there my eyes would go wide in awe as magic took place on a stage full of actors who made Cinderella or Jack and the Bean Stalk come to life.

A part of this magic stayed with me for a long time until I decided to take Drama as one of my subjects in high school and guess what? I absolutely loved it! It was there that I realised my passion for writing, for storytelling and bringing those stories to life. I loved the fact that this could be done through different mediums.

There’s no one rule on how a story should be told.

There’s no one size fits all when it comes to expressing the human plight. I fell in love with the versatility of it all, the idea that I could connect with other individuals on this planet we call earth – but I’ll get into that a little later… Because as much as I loved Drama, I had an even greater love: biology – well, the portions that deal with humans, and diseases, and the relationship between the two. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by how the body functions on a molecular level and what happens when external forces stop it from working the way it’s supposed to. This led to the inevitable career trajectory I find myself in: working with infectious diseases!

Nosi in her element in the lab!

You see, I’m a bit of a scientist who likes to dabble in a multitude of activities that happen to peek my interest. What I mean by this is that although I’m currently doing my MSc in Clinical Microbiology and Infectious diseases, I certainly don’t see myself only becoming a medical scientist. Every career path I’ll one day embark on will be based on my various interests. Currently it seems I like to write, while I was still in undergrad I always used to keep myself busy by joining almost every society and social club on campus (yes, I was that person). I’m nowhere near being a multi-potentialite, but I like the idea of trying to find out what cool things out there I would enjoy and be good at. Having a foundation within the arts allowed me to be more comfortable with exploring opportunities that might go against what someone might expect from a “scientist”. If anything my personality is more like the wild flower that blooms in autumn than a stereotypical “scientist”. The influences and lessons that I learnt from my drama classes or from music lessons taken when I was younger, or even that stint in the art class I took that one year, would prove to be more valuable than I could have ever imagined!

A practical example of where these skills come together within the scientific community is at the end of the year when you are expected to present your work in front of other students and professors. Imagine you’re a student who has spent countless hours rehearsing every line you intend to speak, hoping that what you’ve done is deemed acceptable. You get onto a stage in front of an auditorium filled with people. Your hands are shaking from a mixture of nerves and excitement as you begin to share what it is you have worked on and what results you have obtained. Regardless of the amazing work you have done throughout the year, no one will be able to keep up and follow you if you fail to deliver an effective, meaningful and impactful presentation.

Look, you may not think lessons learnt from various forms of arts education in school are tangible skills that we could take forward into our careers but they form the basis of skills everyone is expected to be proficient in. In the above scenario we see how important it is to be able to deliver a good presentation in front of an audience, to be able to write well and fully engage with others. These are skills relevant to any job in any industry, and yet I’ve seen so many of my colleagues within the scientific community underperform in these areas simply because they lacked the necessary “how to” and confidence that comes with taking part in the arts during the formative school years.

"Effective communication and engagement skills helped me in the various leadership roles I found myself in." - Nosi Msomi

Now, imagine you have just completed your presentation. Everything seems like it has gone well until during the questions and answers session one of the professors decides to ask you a difficult question. So, you’re expecting to be asked potentially difficult questions but you’re also aware that this particular professor takes joy in trying to undermine students and making them cry in front of others. What do you do? How do you respond professionally whilst still defending your work?

One thing that I think most people take for granted is the ability to navigate different personalities and working environments. In school we all dreaded the prospects of having to work in groups but if my memory serves me correctly, a lot of what we had to do was learn how to effectively work with various individuals from different backgrounds and figure out how to make it work.

Nosi doing some team building with the student council of her faculty in undergrad.

It taught us how to manage interacting with people even when those people didn’t seem like they were on our team. It’s paramount in any setting and was certainly useful in university where I found myself in leadership positions that required me to work with a diverse multitude of individuals - some of whom were not the easiest to work with and others who just lacked the social know-how of engaging effectively with people who had different thoughts and opinions. I was able to navigate those spaces because I had been exposed to different schools of thought, understood that people’s reactions are influenced by what motivates and influences them, and that by trying to understand these influences you are able to bridge the gap that divides your reality from theirs. This helps to foster healthier relationships with others and develops a sense of empathy and compassion.

This is by no means a coincidence.

If (like I was always told in school) the arts act as a mirror through which society is reflected, then the plays, books, music and artworks we’re exposed to help shape our views of the world around us.

It makes us more likely to be understanding of those in situations vastly different from our own. Consequently, you end being more accommodating of others and their nuances. You end up being more open minded, more willing to learn and engage. This in return promotes critical thinking and questioning and actively seeking answers that will influence your life choices. This is important for the development of well-informed citizens and individuals who will shape the face of society and the world we live in. It also helps mitigate conflict between those with differing views simply because of that underlying sense of understanding.

Nosi was part of a performative acapella group in first year!

Apart from conflict resolution, one other important factor that I would like to share is how it helps with personal character development, self-knowledge and reflection. I say this because most of us don’t have a clear picture of who we and are still coming into ourselves during our high school years. I’ve seen countless times how the arts may be used as a form or self-expression to self-soothe, to reflect, to grow and to make sense of the world around us. I remember so many of my peers and I would use various forms of the arts to deal with teenage angst and work through some of the things that plagued the teenage psyche. It was a coping mechanism that we used to express and deal with our innermost thoughts and feelings. More importantly, it was a healthy means of self-expression which led to self-discovery.

Just because you might not continue with the arts in your career doesn’t mean it won’t benefit you later on. I was privileged in having the opportunity to take up the arts during my primary and secondary education. This taught me that I have a voice that I can share with the world. I suppose this is what gave me the courage to start writing again after so many years of not honing my writing skills. But I realised that just because I’m into the sciences doesn’t take away from my ability to still interact with the arts - even if it’s not on a full-time basis. For now, I blog for fun, visit art galleries to connect with the world, and attend performances to experience some of the magic that drew me to the arts in the first place. And I think that I'm a better individual because of it.


© Nosi Msomi for Collab Company | 2021


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