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A new Frederick Honors program brings national experts to Pitt

Skyes, Young and Overton

This story was updated in February 2024 to include upcoming Changemakers in Art events.

In August 2023, Nicola Foote, dean of Pitt’s David C. Frederick Honors College, announced the launch of the Experts-in-Residence Program, a partnership between the college and three distinguished leaders in their fields. Throughout the 2023-24 academic year, these experts —Damon Young, writer-in-residence; Morgan Overton, artist-in-residence; and Sherry Sykes, diplomat-in-residence — will offer specialized workshops and events for the University of Pittsburgh and other communities throughout Pittsburgh.

“The goal of the Experts-in-Residence Program is to provide Frederick Honors students with the opportunity to learn directly from nationally recognized leaders and to have both formal and informal opportunities for mentorship, engagement and interaction,” said Foote. “Students will be able to get expert feedback on their own work, and they will have enhanced opportunities to learn across disciplines and move beyond their majors. We are so thrilled by the incredibly talented experts who have joined the Frederick Honors College and can’t wait to witness the innovative collaborations that unfold.”

Meet the Frederick Honors College experts-in-residence during Changemakers in Art events on Feb. 15 and 16.

Accessing your writer side

Young, a Pittsburgh native whose 2019 memoir “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” was named an outstanding book of the year by NPR and won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor, recognizes the enormous opportunity embedded in his writer-in-residence role: “It’s a bespoke position, and from our conversations with the dean, she wants me to be someone who the community can connect with, who the student can connect with.”

Through his residency, Young will host a series of workshops that aim to dismantle some of the barriers to writing that many newer authors experience, especially self-filtering. Young wants students to understand the value of revealing personal truth through words, he says — “even the unsavory parts, the unflattering parts of yourself, too. Because when you do that, you give yourself space to interrogate them and challenge them.”

Young plans to draw from his entrepreneurial spirit and national network of writer colleagues to build intimate writing workshops and collaborative events that Pitt students couldn’t otherwise access.

In addition to addressing personal biases and beliefs through the writing process in his workshops, Young also hopes to inspire more students across all disciplines to see themselves as writers.

Young recently gave a talk at Perry High School, where he asked students to raise their hand if they considered themselves writers. Only a small handful responded. But when he asked how many write Tweets, scripts for TikTok or text messages all day, their hands flew up. Those students, Young explained, are writing more daily than he was at their age, when he was just working on school term papers.

By tapping into the “writer side of themselves,” Young says Frederick Honors students can enhance their thinking and make themselves better citizens. And by helping them do that, he aims to offer them more opportunities to write purposefully, think critically and enact change in the world.

Community through art

Where Young plans to inspire change through writing, Overton, the Frederick Honors College’s inaugural artist-in-residence, sees a similar opportunity in art. A visual artist and community activist, Overton discovered her passion for engaging others in social issues while a student at Pitt.

“Everything that I did was political in nature, so my freshman year I was an Obama for America Fellow,” Overton said. “And I was just so inspired by young people being part of the change in 2008 that by the time I was finally old enough to vote when 2012 came around, I was like ‘Let’s do it!’” In 2014, Overton became increasingly involved in community organizing as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged on campus.

Still following her childhood aspirations to become a neuroscientist, Overton graduated from Pitt and left to work at a neuroscience lab at Boston Children’s Hospital. The Boston she encountered in 2016 was ignited by police brutality, a contentious election cycle and the Black Lives Matter movement. Overton discovered that the artwork she made during her time at Pitt now served as a form of therapy as she navigated being the only Black person in her workplace. Her art focusing on the freedom fighters of the past gained traction when she began  showcasing her pieces on social media.

In 2018, Overton returned to Pitt to enter the master’s program in the School of Social Work and spent her time combining the arts, political organizing and public policy. Over the past several years, she has displayed her art at various exhibitions on the Pittsburgh campus and received an Iris Marion Young Award for Political Engagement in 2019.

Overton says she was excited when Foote presented her with a role that would allow her to wear many hats as an artist, critical thinker and community leader — it represented an opportunity to get students out of their silos and think creatively about what it means to be a Pitt student and a young person today.

Through her residency program, Overton is hosting a series of workshops in which she will invite a subject matter expert to explore a specific issue related to democracy, followed by an art session. Participants will pick a medium of their choice and draw their thoughts and meditations on the lecture. Those pieces will turn the Pittsburgh campus into a canvas, in Overton’s vision, when they’re showcased on the varsity walk outside the Cathedral next April. It’s her hope, she says, that graduation attendees in the spring will encounter this art exhibition and feel “activated to promote change,” whether that change takes place in their academic discipline or in their community.

Bringing international perspective to Pittsburgh

Sherry Zalika Sykes is a veteran diplomat with more than 23 years of experience with the U.S. Department of State, where she most recently served as director of the Office of Environmental Quality. She’ll share her diplomatic experiences with students to deepen their understanding of global affairs. And for students interested in diplomatic careers, she’ll provide mentorship and guidance, help them secure internships and fellowships and prepare them for roles in international relations.

Sykes’ two-year appointment as diplomat-in-residence is part of a University-level effort to strengthen the region’s global engagement and inspire students to explore careers in international diplomacy. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State and spanning Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is designed to support Pitt students while also providing information and inspiration to the local community.

Sykes said her mission is to increase diversity in the State Department and bridge the gap between academia and real-world diplomacy, offering valuable insights into the field and helping students pursue international careers.

"Right now, 1% of all foreign service officers at my level are African American women,” Sykes said. “That’s just not representative of America, so lot of what I’m trying to do with this tri-state area is improve on that so that 20 years from now, the next senior foreign service officer who comes here as a diplomat-in-residence is not in the 1% bracket.”

Sykes’ career has taken her to Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Mozambique and more, and her roles spanned areas from career development to environmental affairs. She also led the U.S. government’s international response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In detailing the experience, Sykes highlighted the critical importance of international cooperation in addressing complex global challenges.

“To protect beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the spreading oil we needed international support,” Sykes said. “We worked nearly around the clock for 87 days to source solutions to urgent and unprecedented problems. Afterwards, we worked with many nations to craft needed policies, such as a policy for Arctic oil spill cooperation, and we gathered counterparts and observers from all over the world to contemplate the lessons America learned from Deepwater Horizon.”

Young, Overton and Sykes each bring highly interdisciplinary perspectives to the creative roles they now fill in the Honors College, and Pitt students and community members are encouraged to work closely with them, regardless of their own areas of interest, to expand their views of the world through art, writing and international diplomacy.

For anyone looking for a sign to pick up a pen or brush or learn about the world, this is for you. Visit the Frederick Honors College website to learn more about the experts-in-residence workshops.


— Terry Rowley and Donovan Harrell, photography by Rowley