Class of 2014 | Portraits Of Success
Meet three of the extraordinary Georgia State students who will graduate in May: a soldier, a world traveler and an acclaimed artist.
By Jeremy Craig
Moving From Soldier To Social Worker
Theresa Banks spent 11 years in the Army with tours of duty in Korea, Bosnia and Iraq. Her experience left her with the kinds of wounds other people can’t see.
At first, the transition to civilian life and the demands of college were daunting because she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It often leaves its sufferers on constant edge, in a state of hyper-vigilance that can make it difficult to function.
“It was very difficult for me to even come into class, or go to certain towns,” she recalled. “It was difficult for me to drive in traffic.”
Banks, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work, struggled at school and found herself on academic probation.
“It really was difficult for me, for many, many years to be inside of a classroom, for example, without windows or without a door open,” said Banks. “I’m always very much aware of my surroundings. It’s something I think you can work on but it never really leaves you.”
But Banks, who served as a non-commissioned officer, is not a quitter.
The self-described type-A personality went to see Shelly-Ann Williams, director of the Office of Academic Assistance at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, to talk things through.
“I was on academic probation, and I remember meeting Shelly-Ann, and remember crying in her office,” Banks said. “I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to make it. I can’t.’”
Banks shared her story with Williams, who helped the former soldier get back on track.
“She is very typical of what we face with students who have so many outside factors,” Williams said. “But even with those challenges, those students can be successful. Theresa really came from behind.”
Banks said she always knew she’d graduate with her bachelor’s degree in social work. But she thought she’d need to take a break from school.
Williams persuaded her to push ahead.
“I think it was because of Shelly-Ann saying, ‘Don’t break. You can’t break,’” Banks said. “At that time, she believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
Banks now has her sights on a master’s degree in social work. She wants to use her education to improve care for female veterans suffering from PTSD. In her experience, she found that much of the support for soldiers with the disorder is structured around the needs of men.
“I think we should have the option to get just as good of care as a male soldier,” she said. “We’re just as important. We were there as well. No one has made it happen yet. That’s what I’m here for.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
Embracing A New Language And Culture
Ben Bradfield has always been fascinated by languages. As a high school student in Columbus, Ga., he took up the challenge of learning Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in the world.
He taught himself the first 100 characters of the language in a few months, but he realized without any real-life contact with other Mandarin speakers, he’d never truly grasp it.
As an undergrad at Georgia State, Bradfield participated in two study abroad programs in China and got to know Chinese students studying in Atlanta, building personal relationships that can bridge cultures.
“We might come from different cultural, linguistic and personal backgrounds, but if you can meet someone at a human level, that type of understanding is not something that you can communicate in an academic sense,” he said.
Bradfield, an Honors College student who is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in applied linguistics and economics, began to grasp the Chinese concept of “moqi,” sharing an understanding with someone without speaking it in words.
“It almost kind of implies that if you speak it in words, it falls apart or that the further you try to elaborate on it, the further you get from the truth,” he said.
When Bradfield served as an unofficial ambassador to a group of Chinese students visiting the university last summer, he made sure they ventured beyond the classroom to get a better understanding of the United States and its people.
“I invited a couple of them back to my house, we had dinner, we went to the lake and did some fun activities,” Bradfield said. “I introduced them to my family so they could see some real people as opposed to just a bunch of people who have extensive education in linguistics, language and intercultural communication.
“I wanted to introduce them to the non-academic side of a country, that most of us are really just down-to-Earth people.”
After graduation, Bradfield wants to return to China, where he wants to run his own business. He hopes to take over an existing private English school and work to expand it.
“I really want to have an integration of my life and my work,” he said. “I want to be able to look back in three to five years, step back and say ‘this is my creation,’ seeing how far I’ve come and being able to enjoy that.”
Forging A New Path As An Artist
Kojo Griffin was an internationally acclaimed painter by his mid-20s, producing works that explored the worst aspects of human nature, especially the hopelessness and sadness he saw in the human condition.
But as he’s matured, Griffin has expanded his views to include broader reflections on humanity, culture and existence. He came to Georgia State to further his growth as an artist, and he will earn his master of fine arts degree in studio art in May.
“I’ve received exposure to a lot of new concepts, philosophies and methodologies, plus other people’s practices,” Griffin explained. “It’s allowed me to expand on the way I do things.”
Griffin is a native of the Boston area. His mother is a doctor and his father is a communications professional who teaches cultural sensitivity. Griffin came to Atlanta in 1989 to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Morehouse College.
“I wasn’t much of a student, and I was lucky to get into Morehouse based on an interview,” he said. “Brookline (Mass.) is a racially diverse area, so I thought it would be interesting to go to a historically black college.”
With his psychology degree in hand, and the passion of youth, his time as an artist was spent exploring the negative sides of humanity. Griffin’s work was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial 2000 at the Whitney Museum of American Art and in 2001 at The Studio Museum, both in New York. On the international scene, his work has been exhibited in London, Munich, Milan and Stockholm.
Now 42, married and with three children, Griffin’s work is evolving with his life experiences to embrace a fuller view of the human condition.
“With my thesis, I am trying to pursue a broader spectrum, things to be celebrated and enjoyed in life, without a narrative of what we shouldn’t do,” Griffin said. “I want to give both sides of the coin.”
Griffin is in constant motion and has suffered from insomnia since his adolescence. He has worked at an adolescent psychiatric treatment center while pursuing his master’s degree, harnessing the energy of his insomnia with coffee and a creative spark.
Sometimes, he is awake for 24 to 36 hours with short naps in between.
“Late at night, there is the quiet, the solitude, that allows me to get into the work,” he said. “Working overnight, you can be assured of no interruptions. I get ‘into the zone’ at night.”
Griffin wants to teach undergraduate artists one day, and he said his three years at Georgia State have helped him expand as an artist.
“I have an increased focus, or better definition, of where my work needs to go from here,” he said. “I’m the type of person who spends a lot of time in the studio, always creating.”
For more about Spring 2014 Commencement, go to http://commencement.gsu.edu/