When Nan Smith received a letter telling her she’d been nominated for the College of the Arts’ Faculty Doctoral MFA Mentor Advisor Award, she was shocked. She had no idea which student had put her up for the award, but after thirty-seven years of teaching Ceramics in the School of Art + Art History (SA+AH), it was a reminder that all of her hard work and dedication had not gone unnoticed.
“I had no idea it was coming,” Smith said. “I thought, maybe it was one of my graduate students — wouldn’t it be neat if they did that?”
Later, as she began the process of applying for the award, which involved writing a statement and securing three letters of recommendation from current or former students — a task Smith jokes was a total “role reversal” for her — she learned that it was not just one student behind the nomination. Instead, several of her graduate students had agreed that Smith was deserving of the award, and submitted her name for consideration.
To those who have been mentored or advised by Smith, this does not come as a surprise. Smith is an incredibly dedicated mentor, determined that her students in the Ceramics program are aware of the resources and opportunities available to them, both within the College and outside of it. Smith frequently sends emails to a listserv of almost 250 current and former students, ensuring they stay on top of opportunities and news within the Ceramics field. She mentors the leaders of the H.O.T. Clay student organization, teaching them leadership behaviors and helping the organization run smoothly. She helps organize an annual trip to the National Council for Ceramic Arts’ Conference, where students have the opportunity to show their work in a juried exhibition.
Smith describes her mentoring style as “student-centered,” because she is determined to do what is best for each individual student. The culture of success she helped cultivate within SA+AH has transformed the Ceramics department into a nationally recognized and respected program.
“I love to strategize and make sure the students are aware of resources and opportunities, so they can become self-sufficient artists,” Smith said. “When students see their classmates and alumni getting these awards and fellowships and having shows, it shows them it’s all possible. They are really an active community, and when people come into our program, they’re encouraged to be part of the national dialogue around contemporary ceramic art.”
In her position, Smith wears many hats. She serves firstly as a role model — a professional artist who has spent decades actively and successfully producing work. Students who work alongside Smith have the opportunity to witness this, and realize their own potential for success. Smith is an advisor and a coach, determined to give her students the positive reinforcement and trust they need to succeed. She is a strategist, always full of suggestions for what awards students should apply for, or what work they should publish. She’s also a critic, giving the students she works with a constant stream of feedback about their ideas. She is an editor, always willing to read students’ written materials to make sure their writing is exceptional. And she’s a leadership counselor, equipping students with the tools they need to best handle any situation.
“I think it’s good to reflect on your roles, and to know what it is you’re doing to help students,” Smith said. “I’m invested in all of my students’ success, so I always want to make sure I’m fulfilling my roles as a mentor.”
Mariana Baquero (MFA Ceramics ’16) credits Smith’s support as a huge reason she was awarded multiple scholarships and grants during her time at UF, including three grants from the Albert K. Murray Fine Arts Educational Fund to support her material research costs.
“What makes Nan stand out as a mentor is her energy,” Baquero said. “Nan is tireless in her support of students. Even on her longest days, with only a banana for sustenance, and after hours of teaching, she is always one hundred percent engaged and present for each and every student.”
For Smith, this support does not end at graduation. She continues to keep in touch with her students, and encourages them to reach out if they ever need help.
“When students leave, they’re in the process of setting up their whole careers,” Smith said. “Maybe they’ve gone into teaching, or maybe they’re setting up a studio. Either way, they’re going to have questions.”
For Baquero, who is now out of school, Smith is still the important source of mentoring and support that she’s always been.
“I am in awe of her stamina and generosity,” Baquero said.
By winning the College of the Arts’ Faculty Doctoral MFA Mentor Advisor Award, Smith is now in contention for a university-wide award. The large group of students who nominated Smith – as well as all of the students Smith has mentored during her long tenure within COTA – know exactly how well-deserved that award would be.