New mural inspires sense of belonging at UWM

A blank wall is an inspiring canvas for artistic creations.

When the TRIO Student Support Services program, based in Mitchell Hall, acquired a large multipurpose room with an inviting blank wall, students and staff saw decorating possibilities.

The result of their efforts was a mural, unveiled last month, focused on the theme of belonging.  Students Sierra Osowski and Karen Rico Flores, who have since graduated, recommended a mural. Both were both participants and staff members in UWM’s TRIO Student Support Services office.

Artist Tia Richardson (right) and Andreea Vasi, program assistant, unveil the mural in the TRIO Student Support Services program multipurpose room. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

“This was important because the space is to be used for students,” said Osowski, who is now a law student in Chicago. “I know when I was in undergrad, I preferred being in a space that felt good, not a boring, bland space.”

Community mural artist Tia Richardson created the work, with input from students and staff, according to Karen Parrish Baker, project director of the Student Support Services office. UWM and the federal office that supports the university’s seven TRIO programs approved the project. Since many of the students in the program are the first in their families to attend college, the focus on belonging was a good fit with what the programs are all about, Baker said.

“Right now, in higher education, much of the literature about student success talks about how that sense of belonging is so important,” Baker said. “It makes the difference between whether the student stays or whether they go. It makes a difference in terms of their commitment to what they’re doing. If they really feel like they belong, that is a tremendous support to them being successful.”

Karen Parrish Baker welcomes guests to the mural unveiling. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

The team chose Richardson after then staff member Sarah Peek saw a profile of her and her work on a Sunday morning show on CBS58. The Milwaukee-based artist, who was honored as artist of the year by the City of Milwaukee Arts Board in 2018, has created more than 60 murals in collaboration with nonprofits, K-12 and post-secondary schools, businesses and local government. (Her art, films and a children’s book can be viewed on her website.)

After receiving approval from the university and the federal TRIO funders, Richardson led small groups of SSS and other UWM students from diverse backgrounds in exploring and sketching out their ideas about what it meant to them to feel they belonged at UWM. The students shared the challenges they’d faced and reflected on their journeys, especially as first-generation students.

“There was a family pressure to do well, but not leave them behind… balancing what their family expects and the needs and demands of striving for higher education,” Richardson said.

Their conceptual ideas, developed in October, inspired the initial design. In November, Richardson invited TRIO students and staff to paint the base coating to help promote ownership of the artwork. The mural was done on three stacked panels, at the university’s request, rather than being painted directly on the wall.

During UWM’s winter break, Richardson completed the mural, with some touch-up help from students. It was then installed on the north wall of Mitchell Room 133, the new multipurpose room.

Rico Flores, one of the students who suggested the mural, is pleased with the way it turned out. She had worked at the SSS TRIO office from her freshman year until her December 2022 graduation and helped with the early stages of the painting.

“I think it’s important to always remember what the program provides and who makes it as well,” she said. “I, like many others, will be forever grateful for SSS. Hopefully the mural provides a sense of support and belonging for future generations of college students.”

The process of collaboration in creating the mural was important to the theme of belonging, said Richardson, the artist.

“Hearing students talk about their different backgrounds and being able to do that in a room together… To me that’s where belonging comes in. It’s affirming to be able to have one common space where people can share and acknowledge their different backgrounds and still have the same common goal.”

Here are some of the staff and students who contributed to the mural: Natalia Ornelas (from left), retention specialist/coach; Karen Parrish Baker, director of TRIO SSS; Maram Odeh Badad, junior IT major, SSS scholar and peer success assistant; Andreea Vasi, economics doctoral candidate and SSS program assistant; Demond Stewart, SSS senior advisor/coach; and Tia Richardson, artist. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

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