Design Diaspora: Architecture Graduate Students on Summer Internships

Fanning out from California to Ghana, students interned in a host of settings, from traditional architecture firms to fabrication, construction, design-build, museum and university venues.
By Timothy Parker, 
Assistant Professor | School of Architecture + Art

October 22, 2014

Studying architecture while nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont has many benefits. Students may more readily focus on their work without the numerous distractions inevitably present in any urban environment. Cold winter months may further nourish the sense of common cause and solidarity that the studio setting seeks to manifest. And the palpable presence of nature in its seasons and textures may inculcate an awareness of how the real poetry of architecture remains rooted in the material richness of the earth.

But these sources of concentration, community and consciousness may also become instruments of isolation. After all, architecture is a complicated endeavor. Responsible conception and creation of the built environment involves comprehension of its global, interdependent and ever-changing nature. And an architectural education entirely limited to the academic studio culture is insufficient. This is why Norwich architecture students are encouraged to pursue study abroad opportunities, field trips are routine and a great portion of curricular activity is oriented toward providing the broader perspective that a fully formed architect needs. This is also one reason why incoming graduate students are required to spend a summer working in a firm within—or closely related to—the architecture profession.

The summer internship is more than mere work experience. For concurrent with their work in a firm, students take a six-credit course that ensures they are not only receiving practical experience but also reflecting upon it in critical, productive ways. And this all happens through NUoodle, in an online course largely designed by Michael Hoffman, associate professor and director of graduate architecture. The aim is, as Hoffman puts it, “to develop a bridge between their academic experience and professional practice.” The course brings students together in small groups for online discussion, guided by faculty prompts yet open to topics of interest as they may arise. The course requires substantial weekly written responses to readings that range across the historical, theoretical, economic, political and cultural aspects of architectural practice.

I had the privilege of teaching the course with 15 students this summer, and the educational benefits were evident. The weekly readings and writing assignments fostered a culture of research and critical reflection as complimentary to the daily routines of professional practice. Students approached all aspects of the work environment in their writing, including project delivery, financial management, legal and managerial organization, marketing and more, in light of assigned readings and their own research, in order to take fuller ownership of their own education. And they frequently addressed the relation between their academic studies and the work they were doing—or hope and plan to do in the future. Katherine Anderson saw familiar elements included in the workflow while interning at New World Design Builders in Clifton, New Jersey. “It [was] reassuring to see that academic-related activities have seeped into the work environment, or vice versa,” she said.

Beyond these valuable lessons, however, the students mirrored in microcosm the rich diversity of architecture-related professional practice. Students interned at different kinds of offices and were scattered broadly. Several remained in the northeast. But others worked in California, Texas, the District of Columbia, and as far away as West Africa—Accra, Ghana, to be precise. Many employers were more-or-less traditional architectural firms. But students also served internships at fabrication, construction, design-build, museum, university and drafting-service venues. Their size and complexity varied greatly, from sole proprietorships to multi-office, multi-industry corporations.
Students experienced certain common threads during their internships, including some surprise as how much responsibility they were given from day one. The sheer amount and variety of projects under active development concurrently, day after day, was also an eye-opener. The varying kinds of organization and the variety of management approaches in practice across employers, however, meant that each student was also presented with unique challenges and opportunities to make the most of the internship.

For Alyssa Shramek, who interned with Hudson Design Group in North Andover, Massachusetts, consultation and collaboration were highlights: “I think that working with the engineers at my firm was the most useful skill I learned. It was interesting to learn about what they look for in designs and how to explain design concepts to them and work together to achieve the design you are trying to create.”

Jayson Sterba, who interned with MulvannyG2 in Washington, DC, found a chief benefit of the course to be the writing assignments. “I really enjoyed the depth this class went into and the multitude of ideas and prompts we had to criticize and write about. It helped me hold a critical stance to this firm and the field and kept me on my toes always thinking about how the company is serving me at the same time I am serving them.”

Rachel Opare-Sem, who interned at Modula Group in Accra, Ghana, perhaps took the broadest view of all: “I think as a designer the internship was useful, because it made me aware that there are many factors, outside of merely designing on a daily basis, that contribute to successfully practicing architecture. Business management, economic climate, culture and even politics affect the profession, and I think that it is important for an architect to balance all these, and others, in order to be successful.”

And for my part, I am now able to work with all of these students again as they pursue their own research topics and, this semester, develop and complete the written portion of their year-long thesis projects. I am encouraged by their maturity in tackling complex problems, seemingly incommensurable discourses or otherwise advance their own critical thinking about their project, their field and their future profession. I am eager to see where they go from here.