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Smithsonian Folklife Festival Provides Collaboration Opportunity for Music Student, Professor

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Music professor John Spilker and music education major Kaitlin Beck traveled to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in June as part of a collaborative research project.
Kaitlin Beck will present her collaborative research at the Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities.

When Kaitlin Beck arrived at Nebraska Wesleyan University, she worried about her classes, her grades, and getting enough sleep.

Four years later the music education major has fewer worries and is getting enough sleep, despite packing her schedule full of experiences. Participating in the University Choir and its international and national tours, serving as president of Nebraska Wesleyan's chapter of the National Association for Music Education, and creating her own student organization on campus are only some of Beck's many accomplishments since beginning her collegiate career.

"At NWU, you get to write your own story and create your own experience," said Beck.

One of her most rewarding experiences came last summer when Beck pursued the opportunity to collaborate with music professor John Spilker.

While taking Spilker's course on world music cultures, Beck learned about different musical cultures around the world and their impact on identities. One of these influential music cultures the class examined was the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Beck became instantly intrigued, and eager to learn more about it.

For the past 49 years nearly one million people across the globe have gathered in Washington D.C. to showcase their native cultures, and learn about others firsthand. For two weeks members from other cultures — coined cultural ambassadors — are invited to showcase their cultures through crafts, music, cuisine, celebratory rituals, and explain the meaning behind them.

Beck approached Spilker and proposed they attend the festival together. Spilker agreed, and suggested they design and conduct a collaborative research project to study the festival and the cultures invited to participate. They applied for the university’s Student Faculty Collaborative Research Grant (SFCRG) to receive funding to attend the festival and to complete fieldwork through firsthand participation and observation.

Upon receiving the grant, Beck and Spilker set off for Washington D.C. At the festival, the research team studied the interactions between cultural ambassadors and festival guests, and the exchanges within their own groups.

"It was cool to see people so passionate about their culture; they were very willing to share with everyone attending the festival," Beck said. "Everyone was very warm and welcoming. It felt like you were a part of the family."

Beck will present findings from her research collaboration with Spilker in November at the Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities at Wartburg College.

Studying and becoming immersed in other cultures was not Beck's and Spilker's only collaborative project. While planning the research project, Beck asked Spilker about collaborating again — this time as Archway Seminar instructors. Beck introduced Spilker to Brené Brown's research on vulnerability. Inspired by the scholar's teachings Beck wanted to create a first-year course that encouraged new students to become open, connected, vulnerable leaders.

"Anyone can be a leader; it comes from what we believe in." said Beck.

The music professor agreed to co-design the course with Beck, and worked hard to ensure she took a primary role in creating the class.

"I wanted Kaitlin to take a leadership role in our collaborative project," said Spilker. "She is highly motivated; she goes out and creates opportunities for herself."

Spilker said the opportunity for faculty to collaborate with students provides ideal learning experiences and outcomes for both parties.

"It's rejuvenating. Through collaborating with thoughtful, dedicated students I've learned so much about improving my course design, assignments, teaching, communication, and thinking skills," Spilker said. "It's very exciting to learn a lot through working with motivated students in your courses and collaborative projects."

Beck and Spilker were able to see their course design in action this fall as co-instructors of the archway seminar, "Courage, Compassion, and Connection: Creating an Open-Minded and Meaningful Life Journey." The course is offered to first-year students as they transition into their college careers, and from working with the incoming students, Beck has learned a lot.

"I am blown away by my students," said Beck. "It is evident through their engagement in class that each of them are digging deep and utilizing the skills we are learning to inform how they approach their first year of college. I hope that the material we are learning in class will help them to inspire their friends and family — they've already inspired me so much."

Beck has come a long way since her first year, to which she credits NWU for providing a space where she can truly thrive.

"There's not a day that goes by where I'm not thankful to be attending Nebraska Wesleyan University,” she said. “I honestly can't see myself going to any other university. I can truly say that you're not going to get opportunities like this anywhere else."

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Story by Quinn Hullett, Public Relations Intern