Docents from the New York Museum of Modern Art hosted a group of men and women from an assisted living facility last summer, showing off works of art in an effort to educate and, hopefully, spark conversations.

An elderly man isolated himself from the crowd and didn’t appear the least bit interested — a wasted opportunity, perhaps. Then, a docent introduced the next piece, a painting by American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and everything changed. Suddenly, he wanted to talk about Lichtenstein, his work, and even claimed to have known the famed 1960’s-era artist.

One of the docents on hand that day was Dante Fumagalli, a student from the other side of the continent at Southern Oregon University who sought (and was awarded) the prestigious MoMA summer internship precisely because he’s fascinated by this kind of art education and its potential impact. And, though Fumagalli was barely old enough to drink at the time, he had already established a reputation for himself at SOU as thoughtful and empathetic beyond his years.

“That was really interesting to see and motivated me to bring (the program) back,” said Fumagalli, explaining how that man in New York became the unwitting inspiration for a similar program Fumagalli helped implement at SOU’s Schneider Museum of Art. “And he wasn’t going super into detail. It wasn’t this pure magical moment, but you could see something was firing in his head and that was great to see.

“It’s definitely something I’ve been interested for a long time. I came into college wanting to be an English teacher and I wanted to do that for a really long time. But then as I got more into the visual arts, that became something that I realized I could have more of an impact doing because I think for a lot of people the visual arts are kind of inaccessible. And so I think it really helps to have someone show you that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s what I want to do for people. Art doesn’t have to feel as inaccessible as a lot of times it does.”

Fumagalli, 22, will be the student commencement speaker during SOU’s graduation ceremony Saturday at Raider Stadium, where 1,100 students are expected to receive degrees — 866, Fumagalli included, are expected to receive their bachelor’s degrees, 184 are slated to obtain their graduate degrees and 61 will receive degrees from the Oregon Health & Science University nursing program.

The processional is scheduled to begin at 8:45 a.m. and ceremonies at 9 a.m., and the commencement address will be presented by prominent Native American environmentalist and activist and former vice presidential nominee Winona LaDuke, an Ashland native whose mother, Betty LaDuke, was an SOU faculty member for 32 years.

Fumagalli, who was named SOU’s Outstanding English Major, is carrying a 3.9 GPA and will graduate with a degree in English and a minor in Art History. He’s worked at the Schneider Museum since his freshman year and was promoted to its education coordinator this school year, a post he’s relished.

As the museum’s education coordinator, Fumagalli helps organize all its docent tours, trains new docents, organizes once-a-month family days and recently kicked off a program for which the museum brings works of art to Skylark Assisted Living and Memory Care in order to present a sort of make-shift tour for Skylark residents who have dementia or, for a variety of reasons, are not able to visit the museum in person.

Fumagalli, a member of SOU’s Honors College, said he and his staff select about four pieces of art, set them up in Skylark’s open lobby and open up a discussion similar to the docent tours that Schneider hosts.

“It’s very discussion-based,” he said. “So we would ask them, ‘What do you see in this piece? What are you noticing about how the artist put this together? Why do you think they would do that?’ And ultimately, it’s to get at how artwork can bring back memories, it can help them converse in a way that’s different than what you usually get in the assisted living home.”

Fumagalli is excited about the program, but says there is still plenty of fine-tuning that needs to occur. Some of that will have to be handled by somebody else because in August, Fumagalli will be headed back to The Big Apple, where he has enrolled in the Hunter College MA program in Art History. Classes will be held at night, he said, so he’s planning to land a full-time day job at a museum.

But first, Fumagalli, who grew up in San Diego, has a speech to deliver, plus his final assignment — an eight-page paper detailing the influence of gender and religion in the Thomas Rivera novel, “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.” The professor waiting to read that one is Dr. Alma Rosa Alvarez, who still remembers being struck by Fumagalli’s maturity when they first met his freshman year.

“He would always ask these amazing questions and I was actually surprised to find out he was a freshman or a first-year student,” she said. “It was a lower division class, but the questions he asked seemed beyond someone who’s in their first year.

“I actually saw him at the Schneider interacting with a patron who had special needs,” Alvarez said. “He was just so caring and tender. … It’s the same thing that I witness in my classes. Because we’re dealing with complex issues about racism and literature, and he’s always really empathetic and he gets things in some ways way quicker than a lot of folks do.”

SOU senior instructor Jennifer Longshore, who had Fumagalli in classes such as Globalization and Contemporary Art and Activist Artists and Work in Community, has also been impressed with how well-rounded Fumagalli is, both as a student and as a person.

“He can apply and lead people into creativity,” she said. “He’s not like an art major, he’s an art historian, and one who’s bringing art and its values to society and helping people to use it to think about their own lives and to reflect on that.”

Fumagalli said he was a little surprised when he was selected to deliver the student commencement after a selection process that included reading his speech in full before a small committee. He’s edited the “five to six-minute” speech since then and says he feels honored to represent SOU’s Class of 2017.

Fumagalli recognizes that the tired old stereotype associated with small colleges may be considered a bore by many, but he doesn’t care because, for him at SOU, it’s been the reality.

“ I’ve had ups and downs, as is natural for any type of long-term program like this, but ultimately I feel very happy to have been here,” he said. “It’s a cliché at this point to say with the small school experience you get to meet with your professors, but I feel like that’s really true here. It seems like it’s not true at a lot of other places, but to me it’s very much so here. Like the opportunities I’ve had at the museum here. I’ve talked to other people who are at bigger schools, more prestigious schools that have museums and stuff and they’re not doing the same level of work that I and my co-workers are doing. And I just think that’s part of what’s really special about SOU.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.