Before coming to Virginia Tech, Samantha Pearce had never picked up a paintbrush, let alone considered studying art. She had other objectives in mind: getting her degree in psychology and becoming a clinical psychologist.

While taking an art course to satisfy Virginia Tech’s general education requirements, Pearce discovered the visual arts and society minor, fell in love with a new hobby, and uncovered an inspiring new focus for her career.

“Taking art was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Pearce, a senior in the College of Science from Woodbridge, Virginia. “It introduced me to a creative outlet I really needed as a STEM major. It’s such a refreshing way of using your brain when you’re used to seeing numbers, theories, and research all day.”

Pearce now hopes to use art therapy with patients as a psychologist.

“It’s been extremely therapeutic for me,” she said. “Art therapy is an up-and-coming field and having a background in the visual arts sets me apart from my peers. This is a really awesome way I can combine my passions.”

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Pearce will be among the first students to graduate this spring with the new visual arts and society minor. Launched in fall 2018 and open to students from all majors, the minor has quickly become one of Virginia Tech’s most popular, with more than 60 percent of students coming from STEM disciplines.

James Jewitt, manager of the arts minor and an instructor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ School of Visual Arts, said the minor’s popularity reflects its accessibility, as well as students’ hunger for a creative outlet. It takes only 18 credits (or six classes) to fulfill the minor – and almost half count toward general education requirements for all students.

“Art is for everyone, so it was important to me that the minor take an inclusive approach that was relevant and applicable to students’ lives,” Jewitt said. “Anyone who takes this minor will feel comfortable making art, discussing art, or interpreting art. Students can bring in expertise from their majors to solve open-ended, complex problems and gain transferable skills, like visual intelligence, critical analysis, iterative prototyping, web and graphic design. These are skills you need to have in your repertoire.”

Student presents research at academic conference
Student Samantha Pearce is a psychology major who is pursuing the visual arts minor. She now hopes to use art therapy with patients someday as a psychologist. Photo courtesy of Samantha Pearce.

The minor’s expansive reach reflects Virginia Tech’s commitment to educating well-rounded students, as well as mounting research validating how visual arts education can boost students’ cognitive skills, well-being, and career success. In a 2016 World Economic Forum report on The Future of Jobs, business leaders ranked creativity the third most-important trait for employees and reasoned that “artist innovators” will play a critical role in the future of business and technology. A recent IBM study of 1,500 CEOs pronounced creativity the single most important skill for leaders.

Liz Fiedorek, who earned her degree in animal science from Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1979 with a minor in studio art, offers herself as an example of how the arts provide a practical foundation for any career.

“I wanted to be an artist, but my parents said, ‘We’re not putting you through college if you’re going to be an art major,’ ” she said. “So, I found something else. My passions were art, animals, and nature. I grew up riding horses. So, I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian or an artist. Virginia Tech made it possible for me to explore those passions in-depth. Without the art component, I would not have been happy – and I would have limited myself.”

Fiedorek went on to earn a graduate degree in international trade and economics from Cornell University and enjoyed a successful stint as a trader on Wall Street before becoming an art dealer at some of New York’s finest galleries and her own firm, representing world-famous artists, including Chuck Close, Robert Ryman, and Alex Katz, and the estates of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb.

Liz Fiedorek speaks with faculty at her photography exhibit
Photographer and Virginia Tech alumna Liz Fiedorek ’79 (center) earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science with a minor in studio art. She offers herself as an example of how the arts provide a practical foundation for any career. Fiedorek recently brought her photography to Virginia Tech for “Abstract,” a photo exhibit that invokes her love of nature and abstract paintings. Photo by Emily Roediger for Virginia Tech.

She also never stopped making art. In recent years, Fiedorek has established a flourishing career as a photographer. In October, she brought her work to Virginia Tech’s Armory Gallery for “Abstract,” a photo exhibition that invokes her love of nature and abstract paintings.

“I truly believe in interdisciplinary learning,” Fiedorek said. “College is about expanding one’s mind and learning what one loves. The moral of my story for students is to do what you love because that’s where you will shine in terms of success in your career and personal happiness.”

Pearce agrees, saying the arts minor has opened doors she never imagined. She’s presented her art research at conferences alongside STEM students, become comfortable analyzing and interpreting art, identified a new direction for her career, and “become more open-minded” about societal and global issues.

She has also developed a painting habit that she says will be a lifelong passion.

“It’s been very uplifting to be able to create something and have someone appreciate it,” she said, proudly noting that her paintings adorn the walls of her family’s home.

“It’s great to delve into one of my favorite hobbies while earning college credit for it,” she added. “I would urge anyone with even the slightest interest in the arts to pursue this minor.”

- Written by Marya Barlow

- Video by Ray Meese