Bridging Cultures with Language

About a dozen people seated in small separate groups, scattered throughout the room, were deep in conversation. There was occasional laughter—and if you listened closely, you heard a jumble of languages. This was a session of the Language Exchange and it was—happily—just as I imagined it might be. Presiding was Educational Skills Professor Charlotte Brown, who founded the Language Exchange three years ago. She reported on it at one of my faculty meetings not long after. Her goal, she said, was to allow non-native speakers of English practice their English while those studying a language such as French or Chinese or Japanese could practice those languages with native speakers. The hope was that the Exchange would attract enough local and foreign born individuals to satisfy the ambitions of all who entered. And so here they were: a group of three, including students from India, South Korea and Vietnam, trying to master American slang; a duo, one American the other Korean—each practicing the other’s native tongue; and a group of four—practicing English and Japanese. There were more people at this particular session than the usual six or eight, but their demographics were the same: students, staff and faculty—even FIT’s “senior scholars”—those non-degree seeking older students who audit FIT classes. At one point on this evening, a staff member walked in and found a Korean student to simply translate a document for her.

Recently, our Cultural Fellows program began sending two fellows to each session. These are either international students or students with extensive international experience. Warm and empathic, they are vested in making our international students feel at home at FIT.

What particularly pleases me about the Language Exchange is the way its sessions act not just as casual, low-risk language-learning opportunities but also as real cultural exchanges. In fact, that is what attracted a number of the participants. Indeed, Nao Fukaya, from Japan, wanted to meet diverse people from all over the world. Fluent in English, she has picked up some Korean and wants to learn Spanish. She joined a group of four, some of whom were interested in practicing Japanese—and were also interested in the culture, for which she was happy to serve as a resource. Daetchen Reljic, an American-born daughter of Serbian and Dominican parents, was seated with young women from Turkey and China. Speaking English, they, too, found the experience a great opportunity for learning about other cultures. Hang Wang, a fashion design student from Hangzhou, China said it best, I thought, when he simply commented that language “allows you to know a culture better.”

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What a treat it is to experience the many visually stunning, large-scale exhibits on our campus.

Right now, the “Pink” and “Fashion Unraveled” exhibits at The Museum at FIT beckon to passersby on Seventh Avenue, as does the newly opened Gallery at the Fred. P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center—with its soaring glass façade—which is hosting “The Future of  the Human Experience,” a show featuring figurative work by FIT students, faculty, and alumni.

And all this is occurring amid the flurry of activity on our exterior walls as this year’s “Chalk” exhibit, a 300-foot-long, street-level mural, is literally being chalked in place along Seventh Avenue and West 28th Street by our illustration majors to great neighborhood interest and enthusiasm.

But along with the large-scale exhibits on display all over campus, we are fortunate to also host many that are smaller in scale. One that particularly captured my attention is on display in the corridor outside of the Great Hall. Called TRANS: ID, it is no less intriguing and fascinating than our larger productions. The show includes the work of FIT students, as well as students from Manchester Fashion Institute in the UK, and Bunka College of Fashion in Tokyo, Japan.

Participating students were asked to develop a visual interpretation of a word with the prefix “trans.” The response from this international group of students was remarkable. I was especially impressed by the variety of “trans” words that they chose (ie: transpose, translate, transgender, transformation, translucent, transit)—and the way the words were visually interpreted through photography, illustration, graphic design, fashion design, jewelry design, and toy design. One of my favorite features of the show, along with its international reach, are the brief, written explanations by the students that explain what motivated their choice of words and approach to the images. These provide a glimpse into the thought processes behind the images, which I found to be both fascinating and thought-provoking.

The exhibit was co-curated by Professor Melanie Reim, acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design, along with colleagues from Manchester Fashion Institute and Bunka College of Fashion. The team selected 50 images, of which 13 were by FIT students. The poster for the show was created by Jose Martinez, a freshman in our Graphic design program.

The show runs through November 2. I’ve included some images from the show, but I hope you will have an opportunity to enjoy it in person.

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The Streets of Chelsea

When I talk to groups of prospective FIT students, I always mention our location in the heart of New York City, because I know that the city is a big part of our draw. As the creative capital of the world, we have incomparable museums, art galleries, theaters, and night clubs; dazzling shops; and restaurants. But here, in my little corner of Chelsea, on 27th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, I think New York’s fabled excitement and dynamism—its energy—spring not so much from those celebrated establishments, but rather from the busy, buzzy, bustling side streets abutting FIT, each one a teeming marketplace—a continuing spectacle of excitation, to borrow from E.B. White.

In fact, if New York is home to about 90,000 small retail and wholesale businesses, as the statistics claim, it really feels like you might find 89,000 of them on 24th through 30th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues—and at least half of their 80,000 employees as well. At least it seems that way to me. The action is so intense—sidewalks so packed with food carts, people, racks of bargain-basement clothing, the detritus of constant construction—that you can be forgiven if it takes you a while to actually notice the breathtaking array of idiosyncratic little shops and businesses surrounding you. The streets themselves are bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, taxis, bicyclers—all contributing to the roaring cacophony. But if you walk slowly and focus, you will find a proliferating potpourri of commerce: wholesale and retail; tacky and elegant. The businesses rub up against each other creating that quintessential New York City buzz. Cell phones, perfumes, wigs, window treatments, picture frames, dry cleaners, 99 cent stores, pottery studios, thrift shops, linens, crystals, lingerie, fortune tellers, camera equipment, baseball caps, jewelry, leather goods—both knock-off and artisan, veterinarians, antiques, bicycles, home lighting, carpeting, lunch counters of every ethnic description, restaurants, wine bars…and that’s barely scratching the surface.

With all the variety, there is precious little to suggest the streets’ proximity to the
Garment District or even to FIT. A fur shop here and there, remnants of the now faded
fur district—a few mannequin businesses. The flower “district”—28 th Street between 7 th
and 6 th —has shrunk from its glory days, but each side of the street still overflows with
greenery of every description—creating a narrow, colorful, zig-zagging pedestrian

Aside from 28 th Street, with its floral imprint, the streets are walking
advertisements for the extravagant diversity of New York’s commercial marketplace.
And each outlet— with its hand-made cigars, halal foods, baby t-shirts or cosmetics—–
represents a kind of enterprising optimism that I think is the heart, soul and very fuel of
New York. So if you are in the neighborhood, and are so inclined, stroll down these side
streets and be prepared for an eye-opening “spectacle of excitation” and a jolt of real
New York City energy.

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Congratulations to FIT’s Class of 2018

Commencement is my absolute favorite event of the year, and what a pleasure it was to return to Radio City Music Hall for the ceremonies this year. With its gorgeous art deco interior and sweeping scale, it is as elegant—and appropriate—a venue for these milestone celebrations as one can imagine. FIT last conducted commencement ceremonies here in 2010. At that time, we held one exercise only for the entire graduating class, and because of the space limitations, the number of guests per graduate was limited, and the graduates were not able to walk across the stage. Despite all that, because of its elegant ambiance, we would have happily returned each year, but Radio City began renting its space to Circque du Soleil in 2011 and remained unavailable to us until now.

And so here we are, eight years later, back at Radio City, and because we have a larger graduating class and more students choose to participate, we conduct two ceremonies. Two ceremonies means that students can have additional guests. Our students always wanted to walk across the stage and have their names announced—and who can blame them? It is one of the great rites of graduation. So, with two ceremonies we can accommodate that request.

At commencement, everyone is happy—it is a wonderful, festive occasion. Bouquets of flowers abound, the audience is filled with cheering smiling families and friends. The graduates are excited and applaud at key moments, even at the exchange of colors, that unique FIT ritual at which the graduating class turns over the flags of the United States, the State of New York, the City of New York and FIT to next year’s class. That ritual is a reminder of the significance of the occasion—a significance that is not lost on anyone. And that would be true no matter where commencement is held. But to me, being in this beautiful, quintessential New York environment, elevated the spirits even more. I am pleased to share with you some images from Commencement 2018.

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