Alumni Spotlight

We feature an alum from the Department of Communication and Visual Arts as a way to help our students identify with various career paths this degree can take them. If you know an alum who should be featured, please email us!

Alumni Spotlight:

Naomi Strom-Avila and JP Avila

A little about Naomi and JP: 

JP was raised in southern California and Naomi in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. They met at Valpo in 1996 – both vividly remember the very first time they met at The Beacon office, which at that time was located upstairs in the old Student Union. They started dating in September 1998, after several years of working together at The Beacon and taking some art classes together. They married in August 2000 at Ogden Gardens in Valpo surrounded by friends and professors who shaped their Valpo experience. After that, they lived in Valpo for a year where JP worked for the Valpo Admissions Office and Naomi taught in Chicago before moving to Rogers Park in Chicago. Naomi continued to teach for various non-profit organizations across the city and JP attended grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2004 they moved to Tacoma, Washington when JP was offered a job teaching graphic design at Pacific Lutheran University. They have lived in Tacoma now for 17 years and have a daughter, Eva, who is in eighth grade. 

1) Where are you both working now?

Naomi: I am the Funding & Cultural Programs Manager for the City of Tacoma’s Office of Arts & Cultural Vitality. I develop, implement, and manage several funding programs to support artists and organizations and oversee community programming including Tacoma Arts Month, the Tacoma Poet Laureate program, and a TV show called artTown.

JP: I am a Digital Communication Specialist for the Capital Region Educational Service District 113. I support several regional school districts by providing web, design, video, and podcasting services. 

2) What were your majors? Year(s) you graduated?

Naomi: I received my B.A. in Art with a concentration on Photography in 1999.

JP: I graduated with an Individualized major in Design and Communications in 2000. 

3) What were you involved in at Valpo?

We were both heavily involved with The Beacon and it’s how we got to know each other well. Jp initially started at the Photo Editor and then became the youngest editor of The Beacon in his sophomore year. Naomi served as a photographer from 1995-1999, covering everything from sporting events to residence hall photos. 

Naomi co-hosted a radio show on WVUR for several years with her roommate and Jp served as chair of the student media committee and MLK Day celebration. 

4) What were your favorite classes while at Valpo?

Naomi: My favorite classes were all of my photography classes – there was such camaraderie between the art students; we spent countless hours outside of class working together in the darkroom. We became family and I still keep in touch with many of those people. 

JP: I agree with Naomi, the art classes were the places where we build friendships and community. I also really valued my Independent Study classes with Dr. Doug Kocher, former chair of the Communication Department. He helped me understand the value of visual communications. 

And I can’t forget my German class where I met my dear friend to this day, Professor Liz Wuerffel. I never did grasp German, but I appreciate that Liz and my roommate, Todd Ernst, both helped me survive that class. Even though he wasn’t in the class, Todd might have learned more German than I by the time the semester was over.

5) What are your favorite memories or things you learned at Valpo?

We still reminisce and laugh about our shared experiences – everything from photoshoots at the Indiana Dunes, to songs hummed or words said to each other as we worked in the pitch-black dark room trying not to run into each other, to a photo conference Professor Tomasek took a large group of students to at Burr Oaks State Park.

Our college years are a time we look back on fondly. Both being from the West coast with no ties to Indiana and infrequent trips home, we learned to be independent and how to build a family with friends.

6) Was there anything/anyone that created a lasting impact on either of you while at Valpo?

Naomi: Professor Aimee Tomasek’s enthusiasm, high expectations, and dedication to supporting students who were serious about their work has made a lasting impact on my life. She shared her own photo practice with us, creating alongside us, so we could tangibly see learning in action. She treated us as adults and expected us to think and act as such. She also infused a lot of humor into the classroom, making learning fun and memorable. Another experience that was pivotal in my education and transition to post-college life was spending the last semester of school living in Chicago and taking part in the Chicago Arts Program (which no longer exists). I moved into an apartment near downtown, took classes with other students from around the midwest, attended dozens of arts experiences across all artistic disciplines (everything from jazz at the Velvet Lounge to a poetry reading by Gwendolyn Books to a world premiere piece by Philip Glass), and worked at an internship at the Hyde Park Art Center where I learned about arts education as a career field. This experience was formative in my career trajectory and I ended up staying in Chicago post-graduation and continued working with the Hyde Park Art Center and four other non-profit arts organizations, teaching art in under-resourced Chicago Public Schools.

JP: Besides the friendships with my classmates, the single most important person was the late Professor Bob Sirko. He saw my potential, pushed me, and kept me seeking a life of creativity. I felt lucky to have been able to follow in his footsteps by spending the last 15 years as a college professor. His drive and curiosity were passed on to me, and in turn to my own students. I was lucky enough to spend a semester teaching at Valpo, fulfilling a bucket list item to one day replace Bob. While it was short-lived, it was a thrill to help nurture and inspire students and to teach in the same building and room where I learned design. Another large influence on me was Barb Lieske from the Office of Admissions. Barb is an institutional icon. I interned with her and then worked with her right out of college. She taught me a strong work ethic, the value of building relationships around campus and with students, and most importantly, to be a positive influence in people’s lives. Barb Lieske is a true unsung hero to many students she recruited who have turned to her when they were in school for 4 years, come back to visit, or to bring their kids into the Valpo family. That type of support and inspiring spirit is something that I try to keep in the forefront in my work with students and community members.  

7) What advice do you have for current Valparaiso students?

Naomi: Take advantage of every opportunity that sounds interesting to you – even (and especially) if it sounds out of your comfort zone. What you try doesn’t have to be your calling in life or even aligned with your major but you’ll learn more about yourself, meet people who will expand your understanding of the world, discover your strengths, challenge your weaknesses, and build your confidence. 

JP: Don’t let fear or worry about a grade stop you from learning. As a former college professor, I saw this a lot; students are afraid to try something different because they worry that it might be the difference between an A and an A-. Don’t be afraid to take a class that you are curious about. As I’ve told students in the past, no one has ever asked me what I got on my second test for my third communication class; what people care about is that I have the knowledge gained from that experience. I am often reminded of a quote from Adam Savage: “Failure is always an option.” To me, that means you should always put yourself out there to try something. It might not work, but you will never second guess yourself later in life about missing an opportunity. Some of my best memories are about the things I tried and that didn’t work. I learned some valuable lessons from those failures and have grown. Don’t let your fear of being wrong stop you from being great.