Kendra Woodglass

The magnitude of the moment and the magnificence of the public mural suddenly struck Kendra Woodglass and 13 other Dominican students in the summer of 2012 between West and Greenwich streets in New York City.

They had finished scrubbing, repainting and restoring “Alice On The Wall,” a 70 x 8-foot land mural located just blocks from Ground Zero combining historical elements of New York with fantasy to create a world of hopes and dreams for a peaceful future. Woodglass, a junior majoring in Humanities, and her classmates were in their own dream sequence, understanding the importance and influence of art while stepping back to the curb to admire their work in helping bring a piece of it back to life.

And then it hit them.

“We got to leave our mark on Wall Street,” Woodglass says.

They were 14 Dominican students who, along with two faculty members, had traveled to New York City, yet they came back with more than souvenirs and snapshots. They returned with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose, and a learning experience that showed them ways that they can make a positive difference in the community.

It was a three-week, grant-funded, service- learning expedition for a class called “Urban Community as Canvas for Social Change.” What it wasn’t was just a big vacation in the Big Apple.

True, they visited museums and took in the ballet and Broadway shows and saw most of the sights, yet Dominican’s sight-seeing trip was focused on helping CITYArts and cleaning and repainting murals. They brushed up against the best and unrest of New York City, communicating with children and working people in famously less glamorous neighborhoods. They spent more time in P.S. 328 than 30 Rock and were thankful for that. They chronicled their experiences in sketchbooks and blogs.

“New York City has a lot of surface and a lot of depth. The non-profit organizations, the artists -- all of the people we worked with and visited who are working for social change on one level or another were deeply inspiring to me, Lynn Sondag and our students,” said Julia van der Ryn, Director of Dominican’s Service-Learning Program and assistant professor of Philosophy.

“The resilience, energy, and the capacity to keep evolving in a city that is such a mass of color and contradictions was evident in the organizations that we visited and all the people who kindly shared their time with us.”

What the Dominican students discovered was there is a lot more to New York than Manhattan. They stayed in the residence halls of Parsons The New School of Design, but were most touched by their experiences in marginalized neighborhoods and the cultural, social and educational awareness and awakening it presented as they explored and surveyed city life daily.

This included a visit to PS 328, which ranks 1,127th out of 1,279 middle schools in New York. Fourteen percent of the students there are homeless, many live in public housing, and a few teachers voiced concerns about the effects of second-hand crack smoke on their students.

“Before the trip, the thought of going to New York City was definitely romanticized in my mind,” said Marie Kneemeyer, a senior majoring in graphic art with a minor in art history. “But it was like a different country.”

In east New York, Dominican students primed the wall for a future mural and connected with middle school students, thumbing through magazines with them to seek, cut and create images to paint for the new mural. They sympathized with the plight of inner-city youth who lack after-school programs and community projects and are often stuck in a cycle of poverty. That can lead to the temptation of gangs and destructive graffiti, such as the black spray “tags” Dominican students cleaned off a Harlem mural to restore the beauty of the original images.

“They are trying to get their ideas on the walls because they feel stifled,” Kneemayer says.

Dominican students heeded the creed  -- “If you teach them to create, they will not destroy” -- of Tsipi Ben-Haim, Executive Director of CITYSArts, who offered inspiring and motivational messages on how arts can help shape minds and society in the ghetto. Ben-Haim was impressed with the community spirit that Dominican displayed in efforts to clean murals and mosaics such as the Pieces of Peace Wall in Harlem and Alice On The Wall near Wall Street.

“Each day there was opportunity to learn about the public face of the arts, how a community supports art and artists, and art and artists support community,” said Lynn Sondag, chair and assistant professor in Dominican’s Department of Art, Art History and Design.

“Our senses and perceptions were heightened while working on community murals, learning about grassroots community organizations, viewing artwork in museums and galleries, visiting artist studios. We were exposed to multiple ways that art fulfills us, and how creativity, expression, and imagination are valuable tools for leading positive change and designing strategies for marginalized individuals to be empowered.”

The impact the New York City trip left on Dominican students was life changing. It was an opportunity to engage and influence.