A few weeks after Jenisha McDonald received word that she would be the next Katherine Dunham Fellow, she walked into the Fireside Lounge at the University of Missouri–St. Louis confident but still trying to comprehend the news.
“When I got the call, I was like, ‘What? Me? Oh my gosh.’ It was really humbling,” she said as she took a seat in space on the second floor of the Millennium Student Center. “When people congratulate me, I’m still like, ‘Oh my gosh. I got it.’ I’m so excited because it’s a really great opportunity.”
She doesn’t expect that feeling will fade.
During the spring semester, the College of Business Administration student will work with the Arts and Education Council thanks to a fellowship that advances aspiring arts leaders. The program, which was named after acclaimed dancer, choreographer and activist Katherine Dunham, aims to provide students with experiences and connections in the arts administration field.
“Jenisha is an exceptional young woman whose commitment to the power of the arts and arts education to shape a more vibrant community aligns with A&E’s mission,” the organization’s President and CEO Cynthia Prost said. “We are thrilled to help her in her journey to become one of our community’s next generation of arts leaders.”
Through the 16-hour per week fellowship, McDonald will participate in fundraising, corporate relations, database management and board activities. The fellowship was first awarded in 2011 to UMSL alumna Antionette Carroll, who went on to become the founder, president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab.
“I first heard about the fellowship through a family friend, and the more I researched the Arts and Education Council and Katherine Dunham, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is phenomenal,’” McDonald said. “For them to put the fellowship out there is amazing. It doesn’t matter who gets it, you’re going to learn a lot. This is a grand opportunity for anyone whether it launches your career or you just learn something new.”
While McDonald has a longstanding interest in the arts, she’s mostly kept that passion to herself.
For years, she told no one that she had scripted several plays as a creative outlet to express a wide range of emotions. But when members of her church youth group expressed interest in performing a play for their congregation, McDonald finally shared her talent.
The group has since performed two of McDonald’s original works.
“Of course I love music and dance, but playwriting is really cool to me,” she said. “Some of the emotions that I write for the characters come from past experiences, so I put a little bit of myself into my writing. Other times, I write about situations that I know will hook the audience.”
McDonald’s artistic passions have also expanded since accepting a part-time job at the Fox Theatre two years ago. She works as an administrative receptionist, through which she’s developed an appreciation for the many business elements required to run the venue.
“I had been to the Fox a couple of times as a kid but had no idea there was a business part to putting on a big production,” she said. “You go to a concert, see the artist and then you leave. You have no idea that you need a marketing team, an accounting team, a human resources team to make it all run. Since taking the job, I’ve realized what it takes to effectively manage a company, gained a lot of knowledge and come to love the Fox even more.”
As she juggles working at the Fox with her new fellowship, McDonald will maintain a full class schedule this spring. She hopes balancing all three will strengthen her skills as a student, professional and artist.
“UMSL is an awesome business school,” she said. “The instructors all know what they are talking about, and they have actually been out in the field. I’m able to apply what I learn from school to the job I have now. When people use certain terminology, I know what they are talking about. It’s been great.”
Upon her anticipated graduation in May 2020, McDonald plans to pursue fundraising and development work – hopefully for an arts nonprofit.
“I feel like sometimes people just need opportunity, and that can come from funding,” she said. “That’s where I plan on going. That’s my focus right now. I also feel like kids and people, in general, need more exposure to the arts. By working with an arts nonprofit, I can make that impact and let people know that the arts are awesome. It’s for everybody, and the things you can do, the people you will meet and the experiences you will have will be tremendous.”