The Many Faces of Gifted: Thomas

By Carole Rosner

Every gifted person has a unique story. The following story is part of a series of posts depicting the many faces of gifted by highlighting gifted children and adults we have found through IEA programs. IEA’s Apprenticeship Program – mentioned in this story – links gifted high school students from across the country with mentors who advance each participant’s skills through the application of knowledge and exposure to real world experiences.

Thomas Zenteno
2008 Industrial Design Apprentice at Art Center College of Design
Current Student at Art Center College of Design

Thomas Zenteno grew up in Miami, Florida, and came to Pasadena, California, in the summer of 2008 to participate in the IEA Apprenticeship Program at Art Center College of Design. I talked to him about his experience.

“I started the IEA program when I was 17, in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I was lucky enough to attend a visual arts magnet high school called Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), where I was able to study Industrial Design as a focus. My teacher, Ms. Kwiatkowksi, selected myself and three other students from her program to participate in the IEA program that helped shape all of us as friends and designers.”

Even in Florida, Thomas was familiar with the reputation of the Pasadena-based college. “I had met students who had gone to the IEA program in previous years, and all of them came back with exceptional work and much more knowledge both in design and in life experiences. I also knew of the prestigious name Art Center had in the design world and a lot of my favorite product, transportation and entertainment designers graduated from Art Center. I remember Art Center sending a promotional book about the different majors of the school to DASH, and I would spend hours reading through the descriptions of students and looking at the quality of work in those pages, which was key in inspiring me to go to Art Center above any other design or art school.”

When I asked Thomas what he did as an Apprentice, he said, “Stan Kong, my Mentor for the program, had a small class of nine students, and together we were able to work on both personal and class projects. We learned a lot about design thinking and how we could use product design to help improve lives around the world. The class was treated as a studio atmosphere where we would learn from Stan or our T.A.’s K.C. Cho and Wayne Johnson. Afterwards, we would be given an assignment to practice in class as well as homework to bring in the following day. We would pin the work up on the walls and critique projects one by one. Our projects ranged from alarm clocks to devices that safely relocated bats form one area of a city to another. For final presentations, we were required to make a physical model of our design. We learned a lot about time management, discipline and work ethics that I’ve carried with me at Art Center as a student and into my professional practice working as a freelance concept artist.”

Although Thomas studied industrial design in high school, the Apprenticeship Program provided a positive challenge for him. “I believe one of the biggest challenges was to produce the amount of work we were required as well as back up our designs with good research and thinking. Although it was stressful, and many nights I would stay up late working, it was well worth the amount of learning I gained in just three short weeks. The mileage and knowledge I gained gave me a great foundation to start my portfolio to get into Art Center and truly opened up a lot of doors for me.”

Thomas said there was a big change in himself going from that summer experience back to high school. “It was my first time really being away from home, and you could definitely see a change in my drive and direction to focus even more during my senior year at DASH. Many of my friends and classmates got “senioritis,” where they slacked off for their last year of high school, while the four of us who went to the IEA program continued to push ourselves to be the best in our class. As a result, we received some of the highest scholarships in our class. Two of us went to Art Center College of Design, while the remaining two went to College for Creative Studies (CCS). I credit a lot of my work ethic to the IEA program.”

Thomas is currently majoring in Entertainment Design at Art Center. “I chose Entertainment Design because it blends a few of my favorite sensibilities in design and art. At DASH, my foundation was in product and transportation design, but I had a great love for figure drawing and painting as well. Entertainment Design allows me to blend all of those sensibilities– characters, environments, vehicles and props for films, video games, animation and theme parks. I try to be as well-rounded as I can, so Entertainment Design seemed to be very fitting since it has a very broad range of applications. Looking back, though, at the root of it all is the fact that Entertainment Design is all about storytelling, and I think that’s what attracted me to it.”

What are Thomas’ future plans? “I’m still really young, so there a lot of different ways my life could go. I’ve been freelancing as a Concept Designer since 2010, and I really enjoy working on multiple projects from film to animation. I’ve had a handful of notable clients from Bad Robot to an aerospace corporation, and interning at Warner Bros. was an enlightening experience. I would love to work on films and games for much of my life, but in the end, I would really like to give back by teaching and helping the world out in some small way.”

Thomas is still in touch with some of the other kids who were part of his program. “A few of my fellow Apprentices are peers of mine at Art Center as well as others who have gone to other schools. I meet up with them in my hometown of Miami, Florida, occasionally. A lot of the Apprentices are currently in colleges spread out around the country, but quite a few are in Pasadena at Caltech or Art Center. The ones I’ve kept closest contact with are definitely lifelong friends, and we’ll find ourselves at dinner parties or just having a good time out hiking.”

Thomas really benefitted from his time as an Apprentice. “It’s easily a pivotal moment in my life, and I think it really can open up a high school student’s perspective. It’s extremely fun to engage in all the different activities that IEA provides, as well as the more work-focused part of it. I think you always get what you put into it, and in the case of IEA, it’s given me a sort of second family that was crucial to me moving out here from Florida when I was 18. IEA truly inspired me to be a better person, and I met a lot of friends I never would have had otherwise; all in all I’m pretty happy because of it.”

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