From Shillington to the Peace Corps—Meet Gabriella Miyares

Previously a publications manager, Gabriella Miyares studied part-time at Shillington New York and landed a design job at a stationery company straight after graduation. But eventually she took a big risk, followed her heart and found her way to the Peace Corps in Guyana! Throughout her journey she kept an amazing blog, Letters from Guyana, tracking the experience and the amazing people she met.

Read on to learn more about her fascinating story, including her extra efforts to run design workshops for her fellow teachers and students. We’re especially loving her blackboard Shillington-inspired lessons.

What were you doing before Shillington? Why did you decide to study design?

Before Shillington, I was working as the publications manager at a small play publisher in New York City. This meant that I was doing a lot of copy editing and text layout, along with some copy writing.

I had always loved creating art (I took several art courses at university) and really missed it once I left school—I had been volunteering at a printmaking museum learning to do letterpress, and even built my own relief press. In addition to that, at work I realized my favorite part of the job was using InDesign to create really clean, aesthetically pleasing text layouts.

I realized I could blend my love for the verbal and the visual by studying graphic design, and Shillington was by far the best option for me. I could keep my job while studying in the evenings.

You just returned from the Peace Corps. Tell us about making that decision, and how you felt when you first arrived in Guyana. 

After Shillington, I got a job working as a print designer at a stationery company. The work was really fun and I learned a great deal, but something felt like it was missing. I wanted to use my skills in a way that felt more rewarding on a large scale. I looked back at the previous decade-or-so of my life and realized that volunteering was a constant thread, specifically in the field of literacy education. I spent a summer in rural Mississippi helping kids learn to read by doing arts-based activities, and it was one of the best experiences I’d ever had.

So, I looked at my current life in NYC—it was wonderful, but I was single, relatively young, and ready to challenge myself. So, I decided to sign up for the Peace Corps. At that time, you could not choose where you were going (the process has since changed). I told them of my experience and they were definitely intrigued by my design background.

In places where language is a barrier and/or literacy levels are low, a lot of communication has to happen visually, and graphic design can be an immensely helpful skill.

When I stepped off of the plane to begin my 27 months of service in Guyana, I definitely had a moment of “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” But looking back, I would absolutely do it again.

You kept an incredible blog throughout your experience. Looking back at it now, what were your biggest takeaways from the experience?

My blog started as a way for me to communicate to family and friends back home what my experience was like, beyond the short form of a Facebook or Instagram post. It was very personal, but I tried to explore themes that would resonate beyond just me and my small circle, and give anyone reading it a peek into this incredible community I was privileged to be a part of for two years.

It really is an amazing and priceless gift to come into a place as a stranger and leave it as a part of the family.

I had posts on everything from Guyanese transportation, to Creolese, to why NYC is more like Guyana than you’d expect, but my favorite posts delved into some deeper issues where my perspective was really changed forever. One thing is how much we take for granted — especially when it comes to things like clean water access or medical care. Another is the experience of being “the other”. This was the first time I’d experienced that for a sustained amount of time, and it’s no walk in the park.

During your service, you led a workshop for schoolteachers on the basics of design and an intro to design course for other young adults. Tell us more! What was it like teaching design, and how did everyone respond?

Teaching design was more than a bit humbling (I have new respect for my Shillington teachers!), and also immensely rewarding. The schoolteachers in my village worked extremely hard and had extremely limited resources. Most of the teaching aids were made completely by hand. Because that takes up so much time, they wanted to learn how to make them in a way that would be very lasting and effective. I went over the basic design principles with them (balance, alignment, repetition, contrast, and hierarchy) and showed how to practically apply those principles to everything from alphabet posters to test papers. Over the two years I served, I noticed teachers moving away from classroom decoration for decoration’s sake and more towards consciously choosing to make their teaching materials look a certain way, and be displayed in a certain way, to assist with learning.

It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but it was really great to see teachers realizing that good design could actually help their students.

After that, some young adults in the community approached me—they had access to a computer lab and wanted to build skills in digital design. I had no access to Adobe software for the lab, so it was a learning experience for me, too! We ended up using Microsoft Publisher, Word, and the free photo-editing software GIMP. I had them do “briefs” (mimicking my time at Shillington) for things like a fake Guyana tourism campaign, a locally produced item they created packaging for, etc. Most of the projects were more about the journey than the destination, but they certainly had a better grasp of basic design principles, computer savvy, and typography by the end of my time there. I’m so proud of them!

Tell us about some of the other design projects you worked on while in the Peace Corps. 

I was the lead designer on a volunteer-run publication called “Gaff” (slang for “chat” in Guyanese Creole)—the first few issues were digital magazines in PDF, and we moved to an email newsletter/online format while I was there. It was a way for volunteers to share things they were doing in their communities with one another and with a wider audience. Peace Corps Guyana also had many volunteer-led groups that needed help with branding. I created new logos for our HIV-AIDS task force, our ICT/IRT task force (having to do with tech stuff), and a logo and shirt design for Camp GLOW Guyana. GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is an annual camp that brings together young women from across the country to help them build self-confidence, educate themselves on everything from careers to reproductive health, and create new friendships. I so enjoyed working with them that I also did the design for a handbook of education/career resources they developed for Guyanese youth, and led arts-based sessions at the camp itself.

What’s your #1 piece of advice for a new Shillington student?

Have fun with it, and go above and beyond! My favorite projects at Shillington were ones that allowed my own personal interests/styles/personality to shine through (while still completing the brief, of course!). When you can connect a passion to the project, it really shows in the execution.

Also, because the pace of Shillington is so intense, there’s not really time to delve into a lot of design history—I decided to do a little bit of self-education there, and I’m so glad I did. It gives you a richer understanding of why certain things instinctively feel right (from color palettes, to evoking certain time periods), and makes you a better designer.

How has Shillington affected your career trajectory and life in general?

Shillington has completely changed my career path and from the moment I graduated, opened up future possibilities.

Since returning from the Peace Corps, I have started a graduate program in Media Studies at The New School. It’s a very multidisciplinary program; I’m working to build out the skill set I developed at Shillington to move into things like data visualization, motion graphics, even VR/AR. I’m taking courses in computer programming and digital filmmaking this semester, and design helps me in nearly everything — from a trained attention to detail, to framing shots in ways that lead the eye of the viewer. Additionally, I have found graphic design to be an ideal fit when searching for part-time work to finance my studies! Even if it’s not a strictly design position, many companies look for people with multifaceted skills—everyone loves someone who can not only send out the company email newsletter, but also make it look amazing. Shillington is, without question, one of the best investments I ever made in myself.

Huge thanks to Gabriella for sharing her Shillington story! Watch and read more Shillington graduate testimonials on our website.

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