Matthew Harrison Tedford: How I Got to CCA

This is the first installment of what will be an ongoing series of first-person "How I Got to CCA" stories by students and alumni.

My first day in San Francisco began at about 6 a.m., when my Greyhound bus crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland and pulled into the Transbay Terminal. I disembarked, along with all my worldly possessions -- two Army duffel bags, one filled with books, the other filled with clothes and books -- and set out to start my new life on what I remember as a foggy and cold summer morning.

I was exhausted from the 12-hour ride, but excited to explore San Francisco, a city I'd visited only briefly in the past.

I did not yet have a smartphone in that bygone era known as 2009, so in my pocket was a hand-drawn map of downtown San Francisco and a list of SROs. (For the uninitiated, SROs, or "single room occupancy" buildings, are like boarding houses, or what your grandparents might call a flophouse.)

I figured none of the managers were going to be awake that early in the morning, so I killed some time at a popular Seattle-based chain of coffee shops, growing increasingly bored and impatient, and finally set out in search of the first SRO on my list.

As luck would have it, they had space, and by 9 a.m. I was Chinatown's newest resident. It takes an unsurprisingly short amount of time to unpack and decorate in a room the size of two double beds, especially when half of that space is occupied by a double bed. The mental settling-in time was fast as well; soon enough, I felt as if I had lived this life for years.

I hadn't, though. Just days earlier I had been a milkman, ensuring a healthy supply of calcium and vitamin D to the greater San Diego metropolitan area. Prior to that I'd worked for my community college's groundskeeping department and held a job installing air conditioner ducts on a luxury condominium high-rise in Los Angeles.

Once completed, these condos would become the homes of some of Hollywood's wealthiest (Candy Spelling bought the penthouse for $47 million), and while I did feel honored to play a part in providing them with superior air circulation, I was getting up at 3:30 a.m. every morning and returning home covered in dirt, blood, cement, and microscopic shards of steel.

Dangling 400 feet above streets with such brash, celestial names as Galaxy Way, Constellation Boulevard, and Avenue of the Stars, I had few opportunities for pensive pursuits. Daydreaming while on fire watch for the company welder was the only access I had to the intellectual life I wanted, the life I needed. Finally I found the resolve to pursue my true interests. I began researching graduate programs -- hundreds of them, on multiple continents.

I'd gotten my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the comfort and enchantment of the redwoods. I majored in philosophy. It made a lot of sense at the time. Why study mechanical engineering or hospitality management when I could be mulling over hypothetical moral dilemmas all day?

But eventually I began to sense that something was missing. I felt a lack of connection to the real world, a woeful absence of engagement with its problems.

I enrolled in my first art history class -- "Surrealism to Postmodernism" -- on a whim. I had never studied any art history at all before, and my assumption was that it was mostly concerned with color theory and techniques old dead men used to paint frescoes in Italy. But this course seemed like it might be different than the caricature I'd conjured, and, sure enough, the first lecture floored me.

The professor, Dr. Jennifer González, united what I found exciting and rigorous about philosophy with the political and social concerns of painters, video makers, conceptual artists, and photographers. It wasn’t long before I realized that by entering the field of contemporary visual culture I could both learn about and comment on the state of the world.

Dr. Gonzalez told me about this school in San Francisco called California College of the Arts, which had a graduate program -- Visual and Critical Studies -- that aligned quite well with my interests. I looked into the course syllabi and reading lists.

They were the confluence of everything I was excited about. I saw this field as my outlet, my way of interacting with and creating culture. I applied to many graduate programs all over the world, but CCA stayed at the top of my list.

And so, when I finally got that phone call inviting me to become a member of the class of 2011, I headed straight to the Army surplus store, bought a couple of duffel bags, and crammed them full of my books. It was time to go.