The Many Faces of Gifted: Alexandra

November 28, 2012

By Carole Rosner

Every gifted person has a unique story. The following story is part of a series of posts depicting the many faces of gifted by highlighting gifted children and adults we have found through IEA programs. IEA’s Apprenticeship Program – mentioned in this story – links gifted high school students from across the country with mentors who advance each participant’s skills through the application of knowledge and exposure to real world experiences.

Alexandra Balcazar
IEA Apprentice at The Huntington Museum in 2001
Outside Professional Assistant, Victoria and Albert Museum

“IEA does not take intelligence for granted; rather, it fosters and develops it. The Apprenticeship Program made me more confident in my abilities and opened up many new possibilities for me. Having a program like IEA was invaluable, and I feel very lucky to have participated,” Alexandra Balcazar, a 2001 Apprentice, explained.

Alexandra was in 11th grade when she found out about IEA’s summer Apprenticeship Program from her Pasadena high school biology teacher.

“Since I enjoyed and did well at biology and had been considering going to college for it, my teacher thought the program in botany at The Huntington Museum would be a good match for me. I also liked the idea because I had always enjoyed The Huntington as a visitor, so it was exciting for me to be able to go behind the scenes to intern there. Also, I was pretty shy, so I thought it would be a good way to meet other like-minded people,” Alexandra went on to say.

She worked with Mentor Jim Folsom, The Huntington’s chief Botanist. “The main project was to study the chemical and biological mechanisms of the Venus Fly Trap. Our group conducted several experiments with the plant to measure how quickly the fly trap would respond to stimuli and whether it would respond differently to various types of ‘bait’. We also did some studies in perceptions of real versus fake flowers, asking visitors about what they saw and what made them think a flower was real or not.”

A few experiences from Alexandra’s Apprenticeship stick out in her mind. “I’m never going to forget the moonlit garden tour of The Huntington and the overall feeling of being part of a team that helps the museum and gardens function. Having the opportunity to meet so many experts in their fields was inspiring and encouraging, because they were so down to earth and easy to talk to. My Mentor clearly loved his job, and he passed that excitement along to the Apprentices.”

“From a social perspective, it was one of the best experiences I could have had in high school. We stayed in Occidental College dorms, and we had a couple of incredibly fun residential supervisors who kept us busy and entertained when we were not at The Huntington. I think it was the first time I was around kids from many different educational backgrounds, and it was simultaneously comforting and thrilling to meet other people who were friendly, ambitious and very, very intelligent.”

Alexandra went back to high school with a new perspective after apprenticing at The Huntington. “The program gave me hope to find similarly intellectually stimulating environments and people in college and beyond. It also dissolved some feelings of intimidation I had about working in a professional, research-driven place with lots of brilliant people (brilliant people are nice and normal too!). I went to an under-privileged high school in Pasadena, and while there were some excellent, dedicated teachers and a handful of kids who worked hard academically, the standard for the overall student body was set low, with few expectations for students to go on to higher education. As an Apprentice, I was given proof that working hard academically, and being a conscientious, aware person can offer rewards, and it made me more determined than ever to do well in school and apply myself to new projects.”

Alexandra currently works in London and lives in the seaside town of Brighton, England. She describes her post-high school journey as a long and winding road. “After high school, I took a turn from biology and realized that I loved art history. I ended up being an art history major and medieval studies minor at Smith College, in Massachusetts, and did my junior year abroad at St Andrews, in Scotland. While at Smith, I started interning at the college’s art museum as a tour guide, and during the summer, I interned at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, MA. I loved art and museum work, but in the last semester of my senior year, I took an introduction to costume design and fashion history course and became hooked on the study and design of costume.”

“After graduating in 2006, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a costume and textiles curator or a costume designer, so I tried out both, while doing substitute teaching on the side. I interned at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in their costume and textiles department and worked on the accessioning and cataloguing of 18th and 19th century garments, which eventually formed the basis of LACMA’s ‘Fashioning Fashion’ exhibition from 2010. I loved interning there, but in reality, one generally needs at least an MA to do curatorial work, and I just wasn’t ready for that yet. I put museum and costuming work on the back burner for a while and decided to get my California Teaching Credential instead. However, just after getting my credential, an opportunity arose to become a costume/wardrobe assistant for short films and TV, and I jumped at the chance. At that point, I was a qualified teacher, but my earlier costume aspirations were revived. I also worked as an apprentice at a shop in L.A. called reVamp, which makes period-accurate fashion reproductions from the first half of the 20th century. I learned pattern-making, cutting and sewing, which was all helpful in learning more about the technical aspect of fashion.”

“In 2011, I decided finally to go for my Masters. I went to the University of Sussex in Brighton for my MA in Art History and Museum Curating. Sussex has a link with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), an incredible design museum in London. It was through that link that I began my involvement with the V&A.”

Although Alexandra started out as an intern, she is currently an Outside Professional Assistant (or OPA) at the V&A. “As an intern, I started the archiving process for a recent V&A exhibition of digital art, researched fashion designers who use digital technology in their clothes, and assisted with public events put on by the Contemporary department. As an OPA, I am continuing as an assistant for museum events, which includes setup, installation and de-installation of art, facilitating public activities and liaising with artists who are involved with the events.”

“I just finished my dissertation, which was about digital art in museums, so that is a new area of interest for me. I still love costume and fashion history, and so I am actively pursuing curating jobs in that area, too, but to be honest, I have no idea what I will be doing in ten or twenty years’ time. Maybe go back teaching? Curating? I am completely okay with not knowing where things will lead, but I just want to be able to enjoy what I am doing, so that enthusiasm is reflected in my work. Last May, I got married here in England, to a lovely Brit who is getting his PhD at Sussex, so while he finishes the degree, we’ll be here for a least a few more years.”

Alexandra still keeps in touch with some people from IEA and hopes to catch up with fellow Apprentice alums soon. “I did actually run into Jim Folsom, my mentor from The Huntington, while visiting the gardens a couple years ago. It was wonderful to see him again, and it was really nice to hear that he remembered me and the work I did while I was there. He is so knowledgeable and such a nice guy, so it was great to catch up with him and his work.”

Applications for the 2013 summer high school Apprenticeship Program are now available. For more information and applications, please visit the Apprenticeship page of our website or contact us.

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