In high school, Ethan Scholz was involved in FIRST Robotics competitions, was a freelance graphic designer for student organizations and enjoyed drawing and painting in his free time. These activities inspired his research into career paths in art and engineering.
“When I found the industrial design major at UW-Stout, I knew it would be the perfect mix between both fields,” he said.
Scholz, of Brookfield, joined UW-Stout’s School of Art and Design’s pre-Bachelor of Fine Arts program during its pilot year in 2020-2021.
The pre-BFA program is not a major but a gateway, preparing first-year students to apply to the fine arts program of their choice. Faculty, staff, campus partners and professionals provide guidance for first-year students, introducing them to the various BFA programs, minors, related degrees, art and design careers, student organizations and study abroad opportunities.
The program eliminated the need to submit a portfolio when applying to the university. Instead, students build their portfolio over the course of their first year and submit it when they apply to their desired fine arts program during the second semester.
“Equity and access are important facets of the pre-BFA program, creating an even playing field for all students interested in creative career paths,” said Program Director Tamara Brantmeier. “All applicants take the same courses and have equitable resources from which to draw upon – the array of course projects, advising and coaching, and help with their portfolio and essay.”
By eliminating a prerequired portfolio, the number of enrolled first-year art and design students jumped from 200 in 2019 to 350 students in 2020 and just over 400 in 2021. Scholz was among the pilot cohort. Now a sophomore in industrial design, he reflected on his first-year experience.
“The pre-BFA program was extremely helpful in preparing me for the fast-paced world of industrial design,” Scholz said. “It not only starts students with a strong understanding of art and design foundations but pushes students to develop professional habits in work documentation, portfolio creation and time management.”
Building a community and portfolio
Pre-BFA students take the same classes, including drawing, art history, 2D and 3D design. The classes transfer across all SOAD programs, building a foundation in the liberal arts and fine arts, with a balance of design and theory in the studios and labs.
Because of the pandemic, many of Scholz’s first-year classes were online or socially distanced in-person classes, with limited studio hours. He struggled with the delivery method at first, but as the year went on, he connected with his peers and professors.
“While the pandemic still affects our daily lives, I feel I have shown great resilience throughout my first two years of college. I have made the most of my experience so far by getting involved on campus and pushing myself in my school work,” he said.
Scholz feels the experience creates an amazing artistic community on campus. While not all of his classmates were working toward the same major, “We all shared a creative mindset, and that connected us all,” he said. “Working alongside peers with different creative interests fundamentally changed my view of my field of study and opened my eyes to new opportunities within art and design.”
This was Scholz’s first time building a creative portfolio, and he was nervous at first. But industrial design Program Director Jennifer Astwood gave him insightful critiques related to his major, identifying his strengths in sketching and visual communication and helped him select portfolio-ready work.
“After meeting with her, I felt confident in my foundational skills and my ability to apply them in my major-specific classes,” Scholz said. “The guidance from my professors and peers throughout the process made the creation a really exciting and valuable experience. I continue to use these skills as I begin creating my professional portfolio, which I will use to apply to internships.”
As Scholz reviews his work from his first year, he realizes how much he’s improved. “I came to Stout with a love of drawing that only grew as I honed my technique and became more confident in my work,” he said.
This summer, Scholz will study art and design abroad for six weeks at Accademia Italiana in Florence, Italy. He’s also looking forward to applying his skills in future internship and co-op opportunities as he plans for a career in color material finish design, user research and usability testing.
Pre-BFA students have two opportunities to apply for their desired BFA degree after their portfolio review. If a student is not accepted, instructors and mentors guide them to another program aligned with their talents, interests and career goals.
SOAD has six Bachelor of Fine Arts programs, each with unique skillsets, including animation and digital media, game design and development, graphic design and interactive media, industrial design, interior design and studio art.