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Crossing musical borders
Webster University alumnus Juan Salas found his love for music education where he was born and raised, Colombia. In 2010, he started volunteering in Colombia at a free public music school for underprivileged youth. He now does the same type of volunteer work for music schools in St. Louis.
Time at Webster
Salas went to high school in Colombia and spent two years there at a college preparatory program for music. He said he originally thought he was going to be an engineer or a lawyer.
“I was kind of a nerd in high school and I really liked learning and studying, but I also loved music,” Salas said.
While attending the college preparatory program, Salas decided to continue his education by studying audio production. That is what brought him to Webster, because he said audio production was not offered in Colombia. He found Webster through an online search, saw that it offered a strong audio production program and applied. Salas came to Webster in 2011.
“After doing audio production, I figured out I didn’t want to do that,” Salas said. “I liked it a lot, but I didn’t see myself doing it. I didn’t see a legacy there.”
Salas dropped his audio production major and considered other degrees. He found music education, which he originally did not know was even an option.
“It was perfect,” Salas said. “I love music and I can help people.”
Jennifer Stewart, director of student engagement at Webster, has known Salas since he came to Webster in 2011. While at Webster, Salas worked in the University Center where Stewart supervised him.
“We really felt like Juan was mature enough and capable and interested enough in the position [in the UC], there was just something about him that you could tell he had a good head on his shoulders,” Stewart said. “So we hired him before school even started. I got to see him learn and grow and change a lot.”
Music and volunteering
Salas said his hometown in Colombia offers a free public music school. The school has 24 locations, and there was one in his neighborhood. He loved music, so he walked into the school one day and decided he wanted to learn how to play an instrument. He signed up for cello.
Salas said the interesting thing about the program is that the 24 buildings are placed in the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
“If you go to Powell Hall in St. Louis, it’s like going into royalty,” Salas said. “It’s beautiful, but it definitely gives you the feeling that you’re in an elite space, and to me that’s very troubling with classical music. In Colombia, these schools were in the slums.”
After joining the music program, Salas started meeting people from poor neighborhoods who were amazing classical musicians.
“It lifted them out of their situation of poverty, giving them this empowerment tool of music,” Salas said. “That’s what ultimately made me change to music education.”
Though his primary instrument is the cello, Salas also plays piano and a little of everything else, he said. He interned with the St. Louis Symphony in the education department and helped run the Youth Orchestra. He now works as the orchestra teacher at Rockwood South Middle School.
Salas also began volunteering in 2012 at free music schools in St. Louis. He is now working at a school on Cherokee Street called Pianos for People. The school gives pianos to unprivileged families committed to music education, and the school also offers free private lessons and group lessons to kids in the community.
“Most of the kids are black and Latino,” Salas said. “That’s what I’m going for, to help them learn music. That’s what I focus most of my life on right now.”
Salas graduated from Webster in December with a music education degree and a minor in sociology. He said once international students graduate from a university, they have two months to leave the country under their student visas. However, they can apply for a work permit called Optional Practical Training (OPT) to work in the United States for up to a year in their field. Unfortunately for Salas, there was an issue with his OPT and it was delayed for almost two months.
“I was in the United States with nothing to do,” Salas said. “I mean, I could occupy myself, but really I had no real obligations and I was forced to be in unemployment. A friend of mine mentioned that he was going up to Iowa to campaign for Bernie Sanders.”
A few weeks before that, Salas was talking to his mother in Colombia about the U.S. presidential elections and he told her he liked Sanders, but that Sanders was not going to win the election.
“I was a nonbeliever,” Salas said.
After agreeing to join his friend to campaign for Sanders in Iowa, they got together a group of unpaid volunteers to coordinate themselves to join the campaign. Salas said they took 170 people up to Iowa.
“We went up there and knocked on doors, and that changed everything,” he said. “I didn’t have anything else to do, so I volunteered full-time for the Bernie Sanders campaign for two months. It was amazing.”
Salas began campaigning on Jan. 20 all the way until the Missouri primary March 15.
Salas said one of the main reasons he got involved is that a lot of Latin American countries’ governments model what the U.S. looks like.
“Whatever happens in the United States is going to affect my country. And that’s why I got involved,” Salas said.
Recently Salas received the Webster University Jacqueline Grennan Wexler Award for Humanitarianism and Servant Leadership for the 2015-2016 year. Stewart said Salas’ involvement with the music schools in Colombia and in St. Louis helped him achieve this award.
“I think what really stands out about Juan more than other students is that he really has a sense of purpose about what he’s doing, and he always has,” Stewart said. “He has this long-term goal about spreading knowledge and having music available for anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. That’s something that is a big part of his background. He’s always had that sense of purpose in what he is doing and he’s been able to see the bigger picture.”