My Time at CAA: An Undergraduate’s Story of the Annual Conference

Que Dios me la bendiga y la proteje,” said my mother as we stood hugging next to the bustling TSA lines of Orlando International Airport. Not caring that lines were filling up fast with travelers, I hugged her tighter and tighter until she let out a soft chuckle warning me not to break her espalda in the middle of the airport. I gave her one last kiss on the cheek and replied “I love you mami, te llamo cuando aterrice.” She grinned and waved her hand as a final farewell to me. Trying to control my emotions, I made my way through TSA, towards my gate, and finally boarded my plane headed to JFK International Airport. This wasn’t the first time I was traveling alone. In fact, I had gone on several trips without my family, but this trip meant something different. This trip to New York City to attend the College Art Association’s annual conference meant that I could gather and collect new tools to pave my future. I hoped that by attending this conference I would meet scholars who could show me alternative programs and opportunities besides the graduate track. To be frank, I have considered attending graduate school and would like to eventually; but given my current financial circumstances, I cannot put myself in a situation where extended academic study would leave me in overwhelming debt.  

After flying for two hours, I was greeted by the bone-chilling 23ºF weather compared to my usual 80ºF degrees in Florida. I eagerly disembarked, claimed my luggage and finally met my cousin who would graciously be housing me for the next 7 days. I purposely arrived three days early so I would have dedicated time to visit museums. My first stop was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and oh my God, I was surprised at how many times I cried! I mean, I knew I was going to cry, but I didn’t know I was going to cry that much! The opportunity to finally see art I’ve been studying all these years was so surreal. Over the next few days, I navigated New York’s public transportation system to the Met Cloisters and the Museum of Modern Art, both equally as emotional as my first visit to the Met.

On Tuesday evening, I convinced myself to go to CAA’s meet and greet, so I wouldn’t put those late night YouTube sessions on “How to Network” to waste. Looking around the bar area, it seemed like I was one of the few people in in my age group. I have become used to this feeling after attending many exhibition openings and gallery talks at local museums and gallery spaces in Florida. By the end of the night, I had managed to begin several conversations with professors, and even some graduate students, who were also curious to know what CAA was all about. By 10 p.m. I was back in my cousin’s apartment feeling all sorts of feelings, but ready to take on the next morning.

My itinerary for day one began with “The Art of Failure” followed by a tour of Sotheby’s Auction House, and “The Future is Latinx” workshop. I had filled my conference schedule with lectures related to my academic and personal interests, particularly about Latinidad, identity, feminism, performance art, and fashion. After the first couple of lectures, I found myself getting lost within these elaborate statements and arguments. Don’t get me wrong, some lectures were phenomenal, but in others,  I felt so detached I thought about skipping the rest of the day to visit another museum. Feeling a little discouraged about my own knowledge, I couldn’t help to but to think “Why couldn’t they just say it with more colloquial language?” I dismissed this thought because certainly all those other people in the room most likely knew exactly what the speakers were talking about.

I moved through the following lectures with the same question lingering in the back of my mind.  I hold much respect for the speakers who put in the time to research extensively and build a solid argument, but it is incredibly difficult for someone who wants to translate this scholarly language to others unfamiliar with academic theories or the premise of these ideas. This dilemma had been festering in my own life ever since I started college. My mom who was incredibly orgullosa that I was attending a four-year institution would often ask me about my homework assignments and ask lo que yo estaba estudiando out of curiosity. I’d try my best to explain these concepts to her but she’d still say things like “ay, tu sabes que yo no entiendo esas cosas. Nunca fui buena para la esceula. Pero me allegro que usted le fascina. Entonces pa’de lante Alejandrita.

As the conferenced progressed, I felt more and more discouraged, and began to question the value of my own accomplishments. Introductions could be especially uncomfortable. Whereas I was simply “Alejandra Cervantes from the University of Central Florida,” the people I met often included their professional title, recent publications, and affiliations, making me self-conscious about my academic status. I understood coming to a major conference alone would be challenging, but I didn’t expect to  feel so isolated. Nevertheless, I resolved to push through the last days of the conference until lunch on Friday when someone completely transformed my experience at CAA.

After an exhilarating roundtable conversation on “Fashion in the art museum,” I decided to skip a lecture and grab lunch. With my shawarma plate from a food vendor in hand, I quickly scanned all the tables on the third floor and chose a relatively empty one where one man was using his laptop. Hoping the smell of my shawarma didn’t disturb him, I quietly opened my plate and started my lunch. After a couple of minutes, three people (also with bags of food) walked into the area. I looked at them with inviting eyes, hoping they would join me, but instead they sat down at another table. I turned back to my shawarma, when a voice politely asked if the seat next to mine was reserved. I looked up and recognized  a young woman from the fashion roundtable. I excitedly replied, “No not at all! It’s yours!”

As she unpacked her meal, she said she’d enjoyed the conversation at the roundtable. I agreed how exciting it was to having a seat at a table with distinguished scholars in fashion and that I found the field captivating. After formal introductions, I learned her name was Michelle and that she also identified as Latina. I was beyond stoked! Finally, a young Latina like me, someone who had found her way to a job as the collections and education assistant for The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We talked in Spanish and realized we shared Colombian backgrounds–and get this, from the same city in Colombia too! Small world. Speaking with her was so refreshing. My conversation with her in Spanish honestly made me feel like I was back home, and was so encouraging. I felt my sense of hope and pride in myself return. Speaking with someone with whom I could identify helped me picture my own future and even redefine my ambitions within the field.

Ultimately, I am grateful for the chance to meet so many inspiring scholars and artists at CAA. But, while the conference seems a wonderful experience for emerging professionals and established professionals, it offers very little for undergrads. At Saturday’s open forum on diversity and inclusion at CAA, there was much talk about how to strengthen the ‘pipeline’ from visual arts and art history education at the undergraduate level toward graduate study and professional entry into the field. My question is how can you strengthen a pipeline if it’s broken–or may not even exist for students from low-income households like myself?  I hope that CAA will soon add to the conference program workshops and other events geared to address the concerns of undergraduates, as well as sessions where we can present our own research. The “pipeline” needs major work, and reaching out to involve undergraduates is one way that can help get it done.

Editors’ note: We want to thank Alejandra for her willingness to share her story. Because AHTR thinks it is important to include the voices of students in conversations about teaching and learning, we hope this will be the first of an ongoing series of posts by undergraduates reflecting on their education, their learning experiences, and their thoughts on how faculty can better support their professional pathways and career goals. We encourage students and faculty to contact us at info@arthistorytr.org if you have ideas about possible contributions. Collaborative posts are welcome!  

4 responses to “My Time at CAA: An Undergraduate’s Story of the Annual Conference”

  1. Jessica Stewart says:

    Thanks, Alejandra, for this perspective! Looking forward to more posts in this series.

  2. Heather Pulliam says:

    Thanks Alejandra for lovely post that raises a number of complex questions and answers. It brought back the memory of being totally lost decades ago as a first gen undergraduate when profs would rattle off French and German terms, titles and authors along with theories and philosophies I’d never heard of–and the horrified look of my lecturer when I made the mistake of asking if he might spell them for us so I could look them up. I’d just heartedly recommend the FB group ‘blue collar scholars’–so much support and advice.

    • Alejandra Cervantes says:

      Heather,
      Thank you! I am thrilled to share my experience with readers and relieved that someone out there has been through (or is going through) what I am going through! I have looked into ‘Blue Collar Scholars’ on Facebook and it appears like the perfect group for my situation. Thank you for the recommendation.

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful and reflective post, Alejandra! I really enjoyed reading it and wish that I had a chance to meet you at CAA. I share similarly frustrated feelings about academic jargon and strongly believe that we would do better as academics to make our work more accessible and easily understandable! Thank you again for taking the time and energy to share your wisdom with us.

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