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Alumni Stories

Emily Canosa (BA '06)


From arts & ideas to farming & sustainability: how one alumna
applied her liberal arts education to a career in sustainable living.

Assistant Director of Sustainable Living Experience, U-M

Lecturer in Liberal Arts College for Creative Studies
Board Member The Agrarian Adventure

History of Art
Double Major:
Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (Residential College)

Japanese Studies

For many people, the path from college major to dream job is not a straightforward, linear one. Along the way, there can be twists and turns, starts and stops, and even a jump or a pivot. By threading together an array of acquired experience, and keeping an open mind alumna Emily Canosa created her own path as she proceeded from a double major in History of Art (LSA) and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities (RC) to a career in farming and sustainability. In the course of an interview with her, it emerged that Emily has come to feel that the major and the career need not necessarily align, but that a liberal arts education makes many things possible. In her case it was her UM training as part of a  multi-faceted journey of self-discovery, which involved experiential education, informal, learning and co-curricular opportunities, that led ultimately to a deeply satisfying career.

How did Emily move from a liberal arts B.A. to her current role as Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience at UM? One of the earliest steps came when she enrolled in a basic introductory survey, Renaissance to Modern Art, taught that year by Rebecca Zurier. Here Emily was surprised to learn that the study of history of art fostered the investigation into complex social structures and political movements. It was not just a matter sitting in a dark classroom looking at slides of pretty pictures; close analysis of works of visual art provided revelations about social change over periods of time and across cultures.  She enrolled in more art history courses, not only because the content and subject matter were interesting, but also because the coursework was intellectually challenging. She remembers with pleasure learning about the impact artists and writers had on society in Howard Lay’s seminar Baudelaire’s Paris. It was inspiring to follow the ways in which works of art could shift the terms of social dialogue and effect political change.

After graduation, Emily decided on the path of adventure. She traveled to Japan where she taught English as a second language. It was during this period that she began to discover and cultivate her passion for sustainability while working on a permaculture farm. She fell in love with farming and when she returned to Ann Arbor, she continued this work, although in a different capacity, by participating in community garden projects and doing youth programming at Avalon Housing.  Simultaneously she kept up her work with the visual arts and secured a position at UMMA as a graduate researcher for the Asian Arts curatorial team. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in the M.A. program in Japanese Studies at UM. It was then that the “twist and turn” came, but from Emily’s point of view, the switch from liberal arts study to farming was not as great as it might appear. Work on sustainability and issues around agrarian history and the supply of food enabled Emily to engage directly with topical concerns, involving her in social movements around ecology and community and allowing her to maintain her deep interest in effecting change.  While working on her M.A., she returned to Japan to study the sustainable food movement in the Kanto region. Upon her return, she managed to keep up her dual interests. After completing her graduate program, she moved to Detroit to teach Asian art history at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and there found a working urban farm on her block. Her time as a farmer-owner at Singing Tree Garden – where she worked alongside a small group of her neighbors and RC graduates – ultimately led Emily back to her present career in Ann Arbor. 

In 2014, Emily accepted a newly created position at UM as manager of the Sustainable Food Program, where she acted as the organizational lead working with 13 student organizations, to monitor the activity of several campus gardens and the Campus Farm, thereby ensuring that knowledge would not be lost in the shuffle as students graduated. She served in this capacity for three years before being selected as the Assistant Director of the Sustainable Living Experience on campus which “strives to function as a microcosm of diverse students whose actions have generative and innovative impacts on the development of a more just and sustainable world.” In addition to this role, Emily continues to teach at CCS, is co-founder of The Hive, a sustainable living cooperative, and a board member of The Agrarian Adventure, a local non-profit that works with K-12 students to connect food, environment, community and personal health.

At a time when the liberal arts are under siege and people frequently question the relevance of degrees in precisely such subjects as History of Art or “Arts and Ideas,” Emily defends her training. She points out that even though she only teaches art history part-time, she utilizes the core skills she developed as an undergraduate on a daily basis in her sustainability work. History of Art provided the context in which she was able to strengthen her abilities in critical thinking, analysis, and communication: the rigorous coursework and classroom discussions honed her powers of observation and taught her how to articulate her own ideas and defend her arguments. She left the program with a strong ability to focus on small details without losing sight of the big picture. As any organizational leader or project manager can attest, these are crucial skills for success. On the surface, the steps along Emily’s path may seem to be somewhat tenuously linked, but she herself is acutely aware of the common denominator: the skills and ideas acquired through her liberal art studies and her history of art coursework. 

-Jennifer Lewis

From arts & ideas to farming & sustainability: how one alumna applied her liberal arts education to a career in sustainable living.