The SENSES project teaches self-expression, creativity through music and podcasting

In the basement of Steele Hall is an incredible resource that is making a difference in the lives of many university students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Enter the Office of Support Services (OSS) – home to two Opportunity Programs: The Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and TRIO Student Support Services (SSS)– and you will see a sound lab with recording studios equipped with the latest audio editing and mixing technologies.

Students create their own music and learn to express themselves in the sound laboratory of the SENSES project.

Several floors up, on the third floor of Steele Hall, is a state-of-the-art podcast suite featuring six microphones, six headphones, and a mixer, perfect for hosting guests for the assortment of podcasts produced during the college year.

This space is much more than just recording spaces and a podcast room. It is a safe space. A diversity and inclusion project that serves as a creative outlet while supporting the mental and emotional well-being of these students.

The Studying an Environment that Nurtures Self-Exploration in Students (SENSES) project enables HEOP and SSS university students to create hip hop and electronic music, create their own beats, and host their own podcasts in a collaborative environment.

Here, students can feel free to be who they are, express how they feel, and engage in meaningful dialogue about current events.

Rolando Custodio

Rolando Custodio

“I started using the spaces as an escape to learn how to express myself, because there aren’t many spaces on campus or many people you could really be real with. Thanks to the SENSES project, I was able to start writing my own songs, producing my own music and hosting a podcast. It’s thanks to Amy. She’s the heart of this whole program, and I know there are a lot of students who are positively impacted by this program,” says Rolando Custodio, a finance and information management technology specialist who recently released his own extended play (EP) disc under the artist’s name. “Young Roley .”

Focus on mental health

The idea began when Amy Horan Messersmith, Associate Director of SSS, attended a free webinar, “Music, Wellness, and Mental Health,” on December 7, 2020. A dynamic duo of educators from Texas State University, Raphael Travis and Ray Cordero, shared how Texas State HEOP and SSS students became more confident, learned to express themselves, and saw their mental health improve thanks to an on-campus recording studio .

The SENS project

The SENS project

Messersmith pitched the idea to OSS Director Craig Tucker, outlining his vision for what would become the SENSES project – using a recording studio to help students learn about community building and self-expression while enhancing their education – and Tucker and HEOP associate director Marieke Davis immediately saw the value.

Messersmith, Tucker and Davis collaborated with David Knapp, assistant professor of music education at the Setnor School of Music with a dual appointment at the School of Education, and Joanna Spitzner, associate professor of studio arts at the College of Visual and Performing Arts on a Collaborative Grant for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE).

Their proposal received nearly $24,000 in CUSE Grant funding, and in the summer of 2021, the SENSES project was launched.

Amy Horan Messersmith

Amy Horan Messersmith

“Our students use this space to work on their mental and emotional well-being, and it’s an opportunity for students to get to know each other in a way that’s different from your regular classroom.” We have found that many students, especially those from marginalized populations, may come and feel like people will see them for who they are. We have a creative community where students connect with each other in a particularly meaningful way because when you create something, you share an aspect of who you are,” says Messersmith.

Focus on the process, not the product

In the recording studios and sound lab, students have the freedom to experiment with their projects, play around, try out different sounds and make mistakes.

Nick Piato is pursuing a Masters in Music Education at the School of Education and is also the Sound Lab Coordinator. While Piato assists each student with their project, instead of focusing on producing a perfect track or song, Piato quickly emphasizes the mindset of the process rather than the mindset of the product.

Nick Piato

Nick Piato

“If you come here with the goal of making a perfect masterpiece album, we will work with you to get you there. But really, it’s about the process of creating something, learning from your mistakes, and growing from those mistakes. We really emphasize the importance of getting better every time, and I think those are lessons that can be applied to all aspects of life,” says Piato.

When the SENSES project opened in the fall semester of 2021, Hannah Gonzalez started creating electronic music. Soon, she was developing a theme song and musical transitions for a podcast and learning to play the guitar, which Gonzalez admits is on her to-do list.

“Amy and Nick are my SSS parents. This place is really cool, and I come because I really like the community. I don’t come from a musical background and started with very minimal knowledge. But Nick taught me how to play guitar and I can play the G chord and I’m very proud of that. I’m also working on launching a podcast this summer,” says Gonzalez, a junior English student at the College of Arts and Sciences.

Growing up in New York, Edwich “Eddie” Etienne never thought he would set foot in a recording studio due to the cost of renting the space, but when his guidance counselor, Chris Davis , told him about the SENSES project, his curiosity was piqued.

Edwich "Eddie" Etienne

Edwich “Eddie” Etienne

After only two stints in the recording studio, Etienne, a first-year student at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was hooked. In collaboration with Piato, Etienne produces rhythm and blues tracks that incorporate melodic rap. In addition to creating his own music, Etienne’s time in the studio has helped him develop more confidence, and he says he has become more comfortable with who he is.

“I’m really lucky to have this opportunity to create music and create my own sound. I may be in the studio writing music, but I’m a really quiet person. The fact that I’m being able to create music, it’s like my voice is being heard. It’s really an outlet and a great escape for me,” says Etienne.

Visit the SENSES project online and listen podcasts produced by the SENSES project on Sound Cloud.

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