Art and Design at Hampton University: A Personal Account

October 3, 2018

Hampton University, often called the “Home by the Sea” on the banks of Virginia’s southern peninsula, has molded several of today’s black art and design luminaries. The name Hampton is even included in conversations about the best HBCUs to attend for those interested in careers as artists, graphic designers, web gurus, and the like. While the specifics of the program are best known by Hampton’s alumni, let’s delve into what makes this department such a sterling example among HBCUs.

Hampton’s design program, officially titled the Bachelor of Arts in Fine & Performing Arts, consists of three concentrations: comprehensive arts, graphic design, and theatre. According to Hampton, the graphic design emphasis is to “provide students with the unique opportunity of developing their career potential as visual artists and communicators within the dynamic environment of a Historically Black University.”

As a part of this program, students take a range of classes such as “Understanding the Arts”, “Concepts of Color”, and “Principles of Graphic Design” to enrich the soil upon which their talents as designers may flourish. Classes take place primarily in Armstrong/Slater Hall, and the arts program itself is smaller in comparison to other majors offered by the school. Data from College Factual shows that Hampton produced only 13 arts graduates during the 2016 – 2017 school year, compared to 151 graduates from its business program and 100 from its communications program.

Source: Hampton University

According to Jason Blue, a 2008 Hampton graduate, the small size of the art program creates the kind of environment that can draw out any student’s innermost ingenuity. “It was the lack of resources that forced us to be creative. We all had to work together. Since we were such a small, tight-knit group we were all pushed to succeed by being surrounded by incredibly creative people.”

Camaraderie like that tends to last post-graduation. For alumni of Hampton’s design program, it forms the foundation for strong peer networks that can provide a heads-up on job opportunities, a sounding board for ideas, and a consistent source of creative inspiration. It’s one of the design program’s lesser-known perks, and likely wouldn’t be as much of an asset if that familiarity between students wasn’t as powerful.

Beyond the intense coursework and supportive peers, though, Hampton’s demanding professors serve as an additional incentive to strive for greatness. I should know—as a graduate of Hampton (also in 2008), I know firsthand the rigors it entails and the excellence it produces. Though my emphasis was comprehensive arts, photography specifically, I had plenty of design theory mixed into my courses. With the exception of a few classes, my work was nearly identical to my design-oriented peers and I shared all of the same instructors.

Sculpture, illustration, and printmaking at Hampton University.
Source: Hampton University

The professors expected refined technique and the kind of creative expression that pushed boundaries. More than that, though, they were highly involved with both the program and their students on an individual level. Not content to simply clock in and clock out when required, they put in long hours and spent more than their fair share of time in their offices and studios fielding just about every art-related question under the sun. Without their influence and their willingness to go the extra mile, I doubt students’ skills would have blossomed as they did.

Of the many lessons those professors imparted, one stuck out among the rest: how to break the rules of art and design successfully. After teaching us all the basics, they’d challenge us to “do it differently”—to develop a unique style that showed an understanding of the principles but wasn’t afraid to deviate from them. It was no easy feat, but one that most from my graduating class was able to accomplish because of the guidance and motivation we received from our instructors.

While my personal portrait of the university’s graphic design program is from years ago, it seems that Hampton is still continuing its tradition of excellence, fueled by a passionate faculty. It’s tied for 3rd (along with Morehouse College) on US News & World Report’s list of the best HBCUs in the country. Said list graded the enrollment, tuition costs, and academic performance of some 80 HBCUs across the country, but those aren’t the only areas in which Hampton continues to shine. The student-to-teacher ratio is an impressive 11:1, and according to a poll by Niche, 78% of students say professors are passionate about the topics they teach, while 73% of students say professors care about their students’ success.

Students and visitors in the Armstrong-Slater Gallery.
Source: Hampton University

In Hampton’s current art and design program, the role of passionate professor is played by dedicated faculty members like assistant professor Christopher Kozak. In his opinion, going the extra mile to challenge students is par for the course, and the students Hampton attracts are more than ready for any task imaginable:

“As an educator, I believe that the faculty exists to serve the student body and expand their understanding and intellect. A proper instructor’s mission should always be building a bridge in whatever shape or direction necessary to reach their students and guide them to becoming the adults they were meant to be. The students at Hampton University are some of the brightest that I have had the pleasure of knowing. They are supportive of each other throughout discussions and critique of their art. Each of my students has shown great fortitude and optimism through their assignments. They are ready for the challenges of higher education and meet their trials head on with grace and creativity.”

Those trials include entering the real world of art and design, something Professor Kozak is confident the students will be able to tackle with ease thanks to Hampton’s intense, hands-on approach and proposed educational programs that will give students the knowledge they need to stay competitive in an ever-changing world:

“I actively seek out real world assignments for my students to complete—from working directly with clients to learning more about the entrepreneurial world of freelance design. I am also in the process of developing a Game Design/Animation Major with an emphasis on the emerging markets of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. These programs (and others) will be built hand-in-hand with donors and sponsors from both local and national companies. I believe these programs will help propel the Hampton University Arts Program into an even brighter future that lies ahead.”

On the whole, Hampton’s design program, and the University in general, provide a rigorous but rewarding experience for students who put forth the effort. For students looking to study design, this often translates to a well-rounded tutelage in creativity and the visual arts at one of the country’s most respected HBCUs. Thanks to the University’s tireless professors and forward-thinking approach to their educational offerings, HU’s future art and design students might have a better chance than ever before of leading the pack on design’s cutting edge.

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