Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices
Five College Calendar
Smith eDigest
Submit an Idea
News Archive
News Publications
Planning an Event
Contact Us
News & Events
By Eric Weld   Date: 12/6/10 Bookmark and Share

First-Year Accepts Award from First Lady

Michelle Obama on the left, her mentor on the right.

Standing in the West Wing of the White House in late October, it was a moment Fidelia “Kirby” Vasquez ’14 will not soon forget.

Vasquez was asked by Sebastian Ruth, founder of Community MusicWorks (CMW) in Providence, R.I., to accompany him to Washington, D.C. to accept a 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by the First Lady. Fifteen programs nationally, distinguished for their progress and potential in improving the lives of young people, were chosen for the award.

Kirby Vasquez ’14, flanked by Sebastian Ruth (left) and First Lady Michelle Obama, at the White House. (Photo by Michael Bowles)

“Here I am surrounded by these amazing people,” Vasquez recalled recently about the moment she and Ruth accepted the award on behalf of CMW. “I looked at Sebastian and had tears in my eyes—just me and him there representing.”

Before engaging with Obama, Vasquez was instructed by officials on the scene to keep it to a simple handshake—no hugging or obsequious fawning. “But when I came up to shake her hand, she gave me a big hug.”

For Vasquez, it was due recognition for a program—and its founder—that has played a prominent role in her life. Community MusicWorks, now in its 14th year, is an after-school program that brings together more than 100 children in Providence to learn instruments and collaborate in making and performing music. The program was launched by Ruth in 1997 with funding from the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. Students participate free of charge.

Vasquez was an 8-year-old spending afternoons in a local daycare when Community MusicWorks staff members visited to teach children string instruments.

“Someone asked me, ‘Would you like to sign up to play the cello?’” she said. “I had no idea what that was.”

She came to know it well. After dabbling in the instrument for a couple years, Vasquez considered quitting until her cello teacher convinced her to stick with it. Later, at age 15, she began teaching others who frequented the program.

Though she continues to play the cello today, as well as guitar, her artistic focus shifted during her teen years at CMW, when she met documentary filmmaker Jori Ketten, a teacher with the program.

“She’s so important to me,” said Vasquez of Ketten. “She taught me everything about film—interviewing, how to use a camera.” As a result, Vasquez has her sites set on filmmaking as a possible career, perhaps combining youth activism. She hopes to document her extended family—partly in Mexico, partly in the United States—and the sociology of immigration.

Ketten and Ruth remain an important part of Vasquez’s community. She is a member of the CMW board and stays in touch with staff and students there. “The reason I’m here at Smith is because of Sebastian,” she said, noting how Ruth researched schools and pointed her to Smith during high school in Providence.

She can’t count how many hours she spent at the CMW over the years. “I spent more time there than at home,” she said. “It was where I had my first job. And I don’t come from the best neighborhood, so to have something like that was amazing.”

It’s been a good year for CMW founder Ruth. In addition to the award presented by Obama, he is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the Genius Grant), which awards $500,000 to a few dozen Americans each year in support of exceptional accomplishment and promise.

Recalling her week in Washington with Ruth, Vasquez felt honored to be the one accompanying him for the auspicious occasion. She performed with Ruth three times during the week as part of the festivities, and was interviewed by national media. “It was a really intense week,” she said.

And all deserved, she attests, for the program and for a man who became her mentor and friend.

“I owe the world to Sebastian and this program,” she said. “At 8, I had no idea. But this program changed my life.”

DirectoryCalendarCampus MapVirtual TourContact UsSite A-Z