By Greta Chiocchetti
In early March, when Alyssa Wong’s beloved city of Seattle became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., she didn’t panic. In fact, the pragmatic Academy of Art University design student saw the statewide shelter-in-place order as an opportunity to make her portfolio as pristine as possible.
“It’s not like I’m balancing a social life at this point,” Wong said with a laugh. “I’m a perfectionist, so I’ve been staring at this thing for weeks on end, finding the smallest details that need reworking.”
Wong, who also works for the data visualization software company Tableau, is rounding out her final semester in the School of Graphic Design M.A. online program at the Academy. As she prepares to graduate during one of the most uncertain times in recent history, Wong spoke with Art U News and reflected on the impact of COVID-19 has had on her academic journey—and some unexpected silver linings.
How has your current role been impacted by the pandemic?
I’m a Project Management Coordinator on the Development Team for Tableau, which was actually just acquired by Salesforce. I’ve been with the company since December 2018.
At this time, we’ve been going through harmonization, blending the companies together. That’s been quite interesting, really exciting. We just released 2020.2 yesterday. Our team has been working really hard, and it’s really impressive that we released on time.
I’m one of the fortunate ones for the fact that I work in the tech industry. When COVID hit Seattle, all the major tech companies automatically took action. I think that made a huge difference. We started seeing all these different companies sending employees home. I also think it helps that the governor has been doing a tremendous job on educating and encouraging through this time.
What has it been like to shelter in place in what was once the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.?
I personally wasn’t super worried since I live alone, so I couldn’t give it to my family members—I was more so frustrated with the surge buying that happened in most places. People have made light of it and made fun of it over the internet. Like, why do you need that much toilet paper? Right? Like, why do you need to buy all of the soup?
So really, I’d say one of my reactions is fascination. I’m fascinated with humans and their reactions and how there’s this primal I-need-to-take-care-of-myself mentality that hit just instantaneously. That’s the thing—people react out of fear. And so, in my response, I felt that the best reaction was to stay calm, stay logical in my actions and really be more supportive. We didn’t know what was happening, so obviously reaching out to my family—my older family—like my grandma and making sure she was okay, trying to educate family members on what’s happening and how they should be responding and acting.
What do you miss the most about your city?
Well, if you’ve ever been to Seattle, or even just the Pacific Northwest, the summertime is the time where everybody comes out of hibernation. Getting out on South Lake Union, going kayaking or floating, just even sharing a beer with somebody at a local brewery—the simple things are what I really miss. Human interaction would be great.
Everybody’s saying, “I just want to hug somebody.” Sadly, I think that’s something that’s definitely going to change once Washington has a phased approach for reentering society. I think it’s going to take a long time for people to be able to hug their friends.
What made you decide to get your M.F.A. at the Academy?
I graduated with a B.A. in international relations and affairs from the University of Colorado. And from there, I meandered through some legal positions, and quickly found that I needed to use the creative side of my brain. I’m very process-oriented, but I also need some creativity in my life. So, I started my own photography business and from there, traveled. Once I got back from extensive traveling, I wanted to blend those two worlds together, where I had that client and customer interaction, working collaboratively with people but also problem-solving in my own space—really finding those elegant design solutions. So, I decided to go for my master’s.
One of my biggest things was that I needed a program that was completely online and that I could manage my own schedule because I need to work full-time to survive. Seeing the work and opportunities coming out of the Academy, along with the fact that it was in San Francisco which has such a robust design community really drew me in. Also, the instructors have real-life experience. I think it’s crucial to learn from people that have actually been in the industry. There are so many great little nuggets of wisdom that come from people who have been there and can guide you.
How has the shelter in place impacted your workflow?
It’s kind of crazy, because I work all day, staring at a computer screen, and then I hop online and stare at the computer screen again, for school. That’s where the day can kind of blur together. I’ve really been just working on school [work] as long as there’s nothing else to do. You know, I might as well make [my portfolio] as perfect as possible.
I’m taking one class this final semester, so just fixating on one is helpful. There’s also no fear of missing out hanging out with friends.
How are you staying motivated to finish out the semester through all of this?
I’ll actually be quite sad when it’s over. It’s the one thing I have during the weekends now. I’m like, “Oh I can watch Netflix… or I can work on school stuff.” [Laughs]
But I’m checking in on my portfolio basically every day after work. I’m excited. I understand that we’re going through a pandemic and people are panicking about jobs, and opportunities—it’s tough. People are not hiring as much. But it’s kind of the same idea of, you can’t live in fear and there’s a space for you out there, somehow. How can you make a difference? I’m just getting myself really motivated to make a difference in my community and in the design world.
I also re-watched my commencement speech from undergrad as an inspiration since we can’t walk this year. I was really spoiled—we had Julie Andrews as our commencement speaker. And even now, seven years later, everything that she said still resonates.
What’s next for you after graduation?
That’s such a daunting question to ask a graduate! [Laughs] I’m very fortunate to already be working with a company I love, so my next task is to find a way to stay with that company.
The fact that we were acquired—I’m very fortunate in the fact that it opens up those doors. Salesforce is a huge company and I’m hoping that we’ll become HQ. My goal is to stay with them and I want to be able to use the skills that I’ve acquired and really find my own little niche.