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SENSES Amplifies Student Voices

This inclusive audio lab creates space for building community and pursuing dreams.
Samantha Vallejo in a podcasting studio.

The SENSES Project provides students with the equipment, instruction and space for self-exploration through audio production. Its goals are to enhance students’ sense of belonging, help them build marketable skills and foster a more inclusive community.

Heading down into the basement of Steele Hall, you’ll find students coming and going from Room 001. Some are gathered in a lounge area, one likely controlling the aux on a TV, while others are in DJ or DIY recording booths or working on computers equipped with digital audio workstations. It’s the SENSES Project, a music and podcast production space intent on creating a more inclusive community around creativity.

SENSES (Studying an Environment that Nurtures Self-Exploration in Students) launched in summer 2021 as an initiative to teach sound recording to Syracuse University students in the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and TRIO Student Support Services (SSS). These programs—part of the School of Education’s Center for Academic Achievement and Student Development—serve underrepresented and first-generation students. Now open to all students regardless of major or experience level, the audio lab is led by Amy Messersmith, HEOP/SSS associate director, and Nick Piato, SENSES program coordinator.

A “SENSE” of Belonging

The group involved in the SENSES project album release.

Members and leaders of the SENSES lab at the release party for their Valentine’s Day album, HEART/BREAK. They have also produced three other thematic albums since launching the lab.

“The SENSES lab has been a home away from home for me—a place where people can come in and be their true authentic selves and explore any and all artistic interests,” says Samantha Vallejos ’25, a member of the lab.

Vallejos—a triple major in law, society and policy; political philosophy; and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs—came to Syracuse as a first-generation student from Colorado with the intention of going to law school and becoming a defense attorney someday. “I’m passionate about rehabilitation over incarceration,” she says, “and I’ve been able to integrate that into my education.”

She joined SENSES her first year and since then has helped the lab become a registered student organization (RSO) and created a few podcasts, one where she talks with other first-generation students about their shared experiences as students of color or students from low-income families.

“It has really helped me to find a sense of belonging here,” Vallejos says.

Through helping SENSES become an RSO, Vallejos says she’s learned skills that will help her with her future goals. “I’ve learned a little bit more of the bureaucratic process, how to get things done through the right channels, how to submit budgets,” she says. “And being able to learn these skills and still have the space to grow is important.”

Trying New Things

Marie-Elise Ambroise ’25 agrees with the sentiment that SENSES is a place for growth. Ambroise, a sound recording technology major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, discovered the audio lab when trying to gain experience in the world of music production. “My major is more focused on sound engineering and technical aspects, so SENSES gives me a creative outlet,” she says. “I’ll go into the lab, sit at this one computer I like, and I’ll just stay there for hours making beats.”

Marie-Elise Ambroise playing a piano.

Along with her major, Marie-Elise Ambroise ’25 concentrates on classical voice in the Setnor School of Music and uses SENSES as an opportunity to learn new skills. “I will always recognize SENSES as what started me as a producer and as the person I wanted to be,” she says.

Ambroise is an intern and lab assistant at SENSES where she troubleshoots issues with equipment and workstations and helps ideate projects with Piato and other members.

One project concept she came up with was their Valentine’s Day drop, HEART/BREAK, a split album with side A featuring songs about love and side B featuring songs about loss. Ambroise produced the song “Be My Partner” for the album.

“I always knew I wanted to produce, but I never pushed myself to do it,” she says. “And since I started working at SENSES a year ago, it has pushed me in ways I didn’t even think would be possible—being more creative and trusting my own creative intuition. So, now I’m taking advantage of spaces like SENSES that are helpful and resourceful and outlets for students. And I’m building from there.”

So far, the SENSES lab has produced four collaborative albums where they’ve picked a theme, but there’s no limit on genre and students aren’t confined to any specific style—from drill beats to indie music, it’s all welcome.

Emotional and Creative Outlets

Rolando Cabral Custodio in a music studio.

Rolando Cabral Custodio ’22, now living in New York City post-graduation, continues to work on his dream of becoming a commercial artist in the music industry.

“That’s the thing about music—it’s always collaborative,” says Rolando Cabral Custodio ’22, an alumnus who studied finance in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and information management and technology in the School of Information Studies. SENSES started during his senior year, and he says it gave him a sense of fulfillment.

The Manhattan native has been in music all his life—from playing violin and piano to learning how to rap—and his introduction to SENSES came the day Piato invited him to an informal class at the lab. When he arrived, they told him they were making a song. He asked, “Can I write the lyrics?” and the rest was history.

“It became an outlet for me,” Cabral Custodio says. “Especially for emotions I had about other things going on in my life.”

Cabral Custodio went on to create an EP for a senior capstone project, titled The Senior Year, and he contributed to their summer 2023 collaborative album, A SENSES Summer. He also produced a few podcasts during his time with SENSES, including one with the Rev. Brian Konkol, dean of Hendricks Chapel.

“I had a background in music, but I never felt like I could be an artist,” he says. “I wanted to be a businessman, the CEO of my own company, but SENSES showed me I could be an artist too, and now I want to create my own media company in the future.”

Support for SENSES

As for the future of the SENSES Project, the students hope for expansion and increased funding for instruments and equipment, and they want to grow their media presence.

“Everything we do here is free to students,” says Vallejos, who has seen fellow students come in with no audio background and grow into experienced artists. “SENSES is such an important and unique space to have on campus.”

And for many students, SENSES is a safe space to learn, make mistakes and do so within a tightknit community.

“Working in SENSES has instilled more confidence in my musical ability,” Ambroise says. “And, most importantly, it has rewarded me with so many meaningful relationships.”

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SENSES is a student focused multi-media lab focused on increasing sense of belonging for students on campus, with a particular focus on first-gen students.

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