Sharif was with us for many years, and before he was finished he proved himself to be one of the best ceramics students we’d ever had. And we weren’t the only people who thought so. In his senior year, Sharif received scholarship offers from the art departments of three different colleges. He eventually enrolled at Slippery Rock University, on a full scholarship, where he earned his B.A. with flying colors, then a master’s degree in fine art. While in graduate school, his talent and academic achievement earned him a Fulbright Scholarship. With his M.F.A. in hand, he went on to Penn State, where be earned a Ph.D. in arts education. Today, Sharif is an assistant professor of fine arts at Winston-Salem State University, and director of that school’s arts education program.

Recently, I heard from Sharif. “I might have looked uncommunicative, almost reclusive, when I showed up at the Craftsmen’s Guild,” he said, “but you have to understand, at that point in my life, I’d never even had a conversation with a white person. In the studio, my teachers were white, there were lots of white kids from neighborhoods I’d never been to. Some of them were from affluent families. Some of them were Ivy League bound. I didn’t know what to expect from them. I wasn’t sure how to behave. My teachers were telling me I was capable of more than I thought, and making it clear their expectations were very high. That was disorienting. I’d never had any context for interacting with people who treated me like that, or thought of their own lives that way. But the studio gave me the context, the clay gave me the context. It took me a while to get it, but eventually I saw that all the kids in the class—white, black, Asian, Hispanic, whether they were rich or poor—had moved beyond the superficial characteristics that made them different, and were relating to each other as fellow artists through the creative work they were doing. When I started working, I shared that rapport. Suddenly I had something to talk to them about; differences became unimportant, as the art became a bridge that led me out of my narrow experience and opened up my world. Each success I enjoyed at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild gave me reason to believe that more successes were possible. More than anything, it was that belief in my own potential that allowed me to build the life I lead today.”

I’m immensely proud of Sharif’s accomplishments, because his story captures, in an especially dramatic form, the kinds of successes we see at Manchester Bidwell all the time. Every time I think of him lecturing his classes, passing on his love for art and beauty to his students, I can’t help thinking of that shy, skinny kid sitting in his chair in the corner, staring into space, and the remarkable distance that young man was able to travel once someone gave him reason to believe he could.