Wesley Barnes graduated from the prestigious Los Angeles High School for the Arts and thought he would attend an arts conservatory to nurture his rare performing gifts. Instead, he chose CUI and is enjoying a well-rounded college experience in an atmosphere of faith. One day he hopes to return to the struggling neighborhood he came from and establish a school of the arts for kids who need an opportunity, like he did.
“I think I have gained something here that I never thought I needed, which is the loving environment Concordia offers,”
Barnes says. “People believe in the same things I do, have the same morals and are a close-knit family. You feel that a lot more than anywhere else.”
Barnes, a sparkling singer, dancer and actor starred in Footloose at CUI this spring, and is part of a dance company, two choirs and Concordia’s drama ministry, Acclaiming Christ through Theatre and Service (ACTS).
“You talk about if someone has ‘it’ — the talent, the intangibles, the sense of stage presence,” says Professor Lori Siekmann, chair of the theatre department. “When people who are naturals get on the stage and start performing, you can’t stop watching them. Wesley has the ‘it’ factor. He is the triple-threat: he can sing, dance and act. When he’s onstage you just want to watch him and like him. He has a career ahead of him.”
Performing for a living first occurred to Barnes in middle school where he won awards in theatre competitions. But he wrestled with where to attend college. Few in his family have gone to college, so the path was new.
“My faith was always real to me, but I realized it most during high school,” he says. “I turned to God and asked for guidance. People were always telling me to pray, so I prayed night and day, ‘God, if you open doors for me, I know you can make it possible for me to go to the right place.’”
Siekmann remembers hearing from Barnes by email and inviting him to a fine arts preview day. He auditioned for theatre and choral scholarships and “blew us away,” Siekmann says. “Dr. Busch and I happened to run into each other and said, ‘Did you see a kid named Wesley Barnes?’ We knew we needed to get him here.”
Barnes arrived in the fall of 2011 and immediately made an impression on campus. He played the mute in a stage presentation of The Fantasticks, for which he was nominated to participate in the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival. He also had a major role in a performance at CUI’s annual Gala of Stars fundraising event.
"He sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and people were in tears,” Siekmann says. “You could hear them gasp and say, ‘Who is that kid?’ Wesley has discipline, works extremely hard and is humble about it. He’s not a ‘Hey, look at me’ kind of guy. He doesn’t need the spotlight, but you are just drawn to his personality. He’s honest and genuine, and that’s rare for people who are told they are good."
The Gala helped raise money for scholarships, a goal that is close to Barnes’ heart.
"Scholarships and financial aid are part of my being here,” he says. “I work on campus in the mail and copy center, which keeps me sane. I have a theatre scholarship, a music scholarship and am compensated for being a resident advisor, which goes straight to tuition. If it wasn’t for the scholarship and jobs I have, it wouldn’t be possible for me to be here."
Barnes says that as an RA he gets to positively influence people’s lives just as he does through performance. He enjoys giving a listening ear to freshmen going through transition trouble.
“Working in student leadership has been really good for me,” he says.
“Like theatre, it’s something I can do to help affect other people. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
He also enjoys Shout, the weekly student-led worship service.
“Shout is a great time for students to come together to sing and hear a message from another student,” he says. “I really appreciate that. Until you experience it you don’t get the gist of it completely. I like that after the message they turn off the lights and you go to a common area with friends to pray about whatever you need to pray for. We talk about whatever is on our minds or hearts and we pray about it. It’s an awesome experience.”
Barnes is also part of the Black Student Union. His ultimate goal, he says, is to open up a performing arts center for inner-city youth.
“I have been blessed with opportunities that shaped me along the way,” he says. “I could easily have been another statistic, being at the wrong place at the wrong time or getting mixed up in the wrong activities. Having a hand in helping people who could be one of those statistics is something I would really appreciate. Being in the arts has opened so many doors to me. I want to share that.”
Concordia, he says, has been “the best place possible for me. God really showed me that my prayers have been answered and He’s always there.”