Carnegie Mellon University
May 05, 2021

A Mural of Stories

By Heidi Opdyke

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094

Flowers bloom beneath the brush of Elise Delgado. As she paints, they flourish. A poppy, a daisy, an iris, a rose — all symbols of underrepresented voices in the Carnegie Mellon University community.

Step back from the mural, though, and its Delgado's own growth that comes into view.

When Delgado, a senior in psychology with a minor in soft technologies started at CMU, she said she struggled to find a sense belonging.

"I felt very alienated," she said. "I have a Puerto Rican background so I often have been the only brown person in the room in a lot of my classes."

That experience, she said, was not limited to classes. She opted not to return to CMU for the fall semester of her sophomore year. During this break she took courses — including one on mural painting — at a community college close to her home in suburban Philadelphia. After her time away, Delgado returned to CMU in the spring of 2019, resolved to finish what she had started.

A butterfly detail in Delgado's mural
A butterfly detail in Delgado's mural symbolizes transition and hope. Above, facial coverings incorporated into the work were donated by underrepresented CMU community members.

Seeds were planted that first year. Delgado had participated in CMU's Origins program, which focuses on diversity, inclusion and leadership development for historically and socially minoritized first-year students. Through the experience, she met Shernell Smith, now director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. Smith said even then Delgado was thoughtfully contemplating cultural issues and how to navigate challenging situations.

"It's almost like that first year was preparing the ground for her to blossom. Things in the past had to be tilled and turned over to fresh soil in order to plant new ideas," Smith said. "I was not surprised to see her creative nature come forward in the academic setting and in other ways. That first year was a search for self. Now she is a powerful voice advocating for change."

Delgado also participated in CMU's Summer (re)CHARGE Program, which helps support undergraduate students maximize their opportunities and take advantage of everything CMU has to offer.

Chante Cox-Boyd, an associate teaching professor of psychology, was the lead faculty member of the program and taught a course designed in part to address student's feelings of isolation and their experience of imposter syndrome.

"One big goal of the program is to get students to understand these identity threats and to see that all types of students do indeed belong at CMU," she said.

The time away and summer program helped Delgado cultivate her gift in amplifying other people's voices. She returned in the spring of her sophomore year and was active in the SPIRIT fashion show and community service.

Courses part of the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology (IDeATe) network at CMU also provided fertile ground for Delgado. IDeATe allows students to earn undergraduate minors or take courses in fields that merge technology and creativity with interdisciplinary collaboration.

"With her own artwork she's incredibly thoughtful of the work she's making as well as the symbolism," said Olivia Robinson, an associate teaching professor of textiles, who has taught Delgado in several courses. "There's always a story to what she's doing."

During her junior year, Delgado applied for, and was accepted, as a Dietrich College Honors Fellow, an opportunity that provides funds for students to spend the summer prior to their senior year undertaking early-stage research and development of their thesis topics. Delgado's thesis explores how underrepresented and marginalized communities feel at CMU and culminates with a public display of her mural.