Graphic design program creates space, opportunity for BIPOC community

Comma PDX
Miles Johnson and Naomi Likayi | Photo by Patric Simon

After months of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and a shift to virtual teaching, faculty in the College of the Arts looked for ways to provide support and community for Portland State’s Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community.

“It was all a catalyst for us to move quicker and provide real support for the students,” said Precious Bugarin, senior instructor in the School of Art + Design.

Support came in the form of listening sessions to receive feedback about curriculum, marginalization, microagressions and different forms of anti-racist work. A new mentorship program was also developed in partnership with the student group Comma, to provide graphic design students with an opportunity to connect with professionals in their field. Comma, which formally launched in 2019, broadly aims to amplify BIPOC student voices and create a space to connect and share experiences. Bugarin and Stephen Lee serve as faculty advisors for the group.

The mentorship program launched in Fall 2020 and partnered students with professionals from Nike North America. 

“We have this mission to really support this community and do this anti-racist work,” said Lee, assistant professor in Graphic Design. “Mentorships are one arm of it, but we’re working on all these solutions and interventions we can do to try to do the best we can.”

Naomi Likayi, a junior in the graphic design program, first joined Comma because she wanted to be more active in the program and her community at PSU. She participated in the Nike x Comma Mentorship Program as well, and worked with Miles Johnson, who works in Global Brand Creative for Nike. 

She learned about the fundamentals of freelancing and how to better calculate rates, how to present her professional work, pathways post-graduation, insight about the industry she’s working in and gained confidence in sharing her portfolio.

“I wanted to make sure I get as much as I can out of this mentorship,” Likayi said. 

Students were able to design their partnership with their mentors based on their individual needs, whether that was talking about industry access, receiving feedback on their projects or discussing design concepts. Likayi and Johnson are still talking regularly, working on projects together and using each other as a sounding board.

“I almost feel selfish, to be honest, because I think I sometimes learn more than the students do,” Johnson said. “I hope it’s the other way around, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bounced around ideas or shared experiences with them only to have new viewpoints I’d never thought of come right back to me.”

Before launching his career, Johnson said he was fortunate to work with a number of mentors who helped him understand the boundlessness of the creative world.

“Having a mentor relationship with a creative professional that doesn’t include any outright expectations or required accomplishments, I think is an incredibly beneficial way to be there for someone in whatever way they need,” Johnson said. “To offer your time and knowledge in whatever amount the student is seeking is paramount.”

Comma is continuing into Spring 2021 with a new partnership with Obvi, a California-based design firm led by a woman of color. 

“For students who want to do the mentorships, my hope is that you make the best out of it,” Likayi said. “The keys are right in front of you and you can choose to do whatever you want with them.”

In Winter 2021, Comma also became a formal class under Bugarin’s direction. The class focused on expanding students’ professional networks as well as providing outreach to local high school students and examining the challenges of under-represented groups in creative industries.

“I think a class like this is really necessary to provide a space for BIPOC students and allies, to really center their experience,” Bugarin said. “Above and beyond the mentorship program, we've been intentionally and actively creating opportunities for our students where they are really the center of the conversation.”

To get involved with Comma, connect via Instagram or To help support Comma and its students, donations are accepted by the Portland State University Foundation.