A junior-year epiphany leads Miriam Valle-Mancilla ’16 to the Museum of Art—and a career

To view one painting, the Beaune Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, in the 15th-century Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, Valle-Mancilla said, “you needed a magnifying glass but [the room] was pitch black. And then, when they turned on the lights, it was this huge painting that was covered in gold leaf. I was just so amazed by the detail and what it was conveying to people.”

Miriam Valle-Mancillo ’16 discusses a painting with a student at the Colby College Museum of Art.

Miriam Valle-Mancillo ’16 discusses a painting with a student at the Colby College Museum of Art.

Raised Catholic in a Mexican-American family in California, she was drawn to the portraits of saints and other religious images. Amazed at the way the paintings affected her, the French studies major returned to Mayflower Hill and made a beeline for the Colby College Museum of Art. She took a docent training class at Colby and later landed a position as a collections intern.

And now Valle-Mancilla, whose life was changed by art, is offering the same opportunity to others.

As the museum’s staff assistant for access and outreach, she works with faculty, students, clubs, and the community. “It’s not just learning about art,” Valle-Mancilla said. “It’s about how they can connect with the art. I think the activities and events that I create have a lot to do with self-reflection and finding different ways they can connect with the pieces.”

The events she has created include wellness and art-therapy workshops, a watercolor session with students, and a language program to connect native speakers with students learning that language—with the museum as a nexus. “For the museum, that’s us being able to bring in a different audience we never thought we could reach out to,” she said.

“It felt like it was my calling. I’m surrounded by art. I got to see work coming in, uncrated and crated. I got to see the Picassos [etchings from the Lunder Collection]. It was like, ‘What am I doing here? It was so unbelievable.’”

As a first-generation college student, Valle-Mancilla knows about new experiences. Her parents came to Los Angeles as teenagers from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Her dad is a housepainter and her mother is a seamstress and works in a silk-screening shop. Valle-Mancilla, the eldest of three sisters, was expected to graduate from high school. She did that and more, taking every possible Advanced Placement class at Ramona High School in Riverside as part of what she describes as “a nerdy crew” of very high-achieving first-generation Mexican-American students.

Valle-Mancillo, third from right, leads a Community Day activity at the Museum of Art.

Valle-Mancillo, third from right, leads a Community Day activity at the Museum of Art.

They went on to USC, Pepperdine, and other top California universities. But Valle-Mancilla’s path diverged when she met a then-Colby admissions officer, Hung Bui ’94, at her school, signed up for an overnight visit to Colby. She came to Mayflower Hill and fell in love with the campus, the French classes she visited, and the diversity compared to her community at home, which was predominantly Mexican American. And Colby offered the best financial aid package, she said.

There were bumps in the road. Occasionally feeling underprepared academically. The hurt of thoughtless comments and other micro-aggressions. Being the first to leave a very close extended family, including her two younger sisters. Not being close enough to help out when her father was injured and couldn’t work. Trying to explain to her parents that after coming to Maine for college, she planned to stay after graduation.

Graduate school is in her future, she knows, and maybe a return to California. In the meantime, Valle-Mancilla has no regrets, she said. “This is the place where I’m always excited to enter through the doors,” she said. “Ever since I took my internship and then took this job, I’ve felt like this is a place where I belong.”