Using the Field of Interior Design to Redesign Physical Schools and Learning Environments

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By: Néstor Isaac Ramos Marchena, a Fulbright MESCyT scholar from the Dominican Republic is currently pursuing Master’s degree in Interior Architecture at The University of Texas, Austin.

I studied architecture in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Similar to most of my classmates, I aspired to create huge buildings that provoked awe and admiration. While the architect ego was there since the first semester, ironically, the definition of architecture that I always loved since the beginning is the one that involves the term service. I was somehow more attracted to projects with social connotations.

After my first year in architecture school, I started to feel incomplete. I thought I needed to change my major. There was something missing. My professors convinced me that architecture was MY thing and pushed me to stay for at least two more semesters. I did, and looking back today, I can see what worked: The following semester, the studio worked on a project with a heavy focus on the interiors; the design of a museum that celebrated Dominican-aboriginal culture.

I was instantly attracted. I realized that the interiors is what I was more interested in about architecture. After all, it was the closest space to human scale, and what I love most about design and architecture is precisely the possibility to influence people, making them feel good in a space, improving the way they live and work, therefore, improving their lives.

Presenting Final Project at The University of Texas, School of Architecture

I started then to envision design as one of the most powerful tools for human development. Approaching the end of my undergraduate studies, I was more and more certain that a path in interior design was going to be my next step.

In those days, a new education model had been applied in the Dominican Republic, which added four more hours of class per day, totaling eight hours of class. This was greatly criticized due to the lack of infrastructure and facilities that the schools needed in order for the program to be a success. Moreover, the visual characteristics of these spaces created a generic atmosphere, using colors and materials that not only ignored the local character and heritage, but also yielded an aesthetic similar to prisons.

This motivated me to shape my undergraduate thesis project into research on the impact that good design has on students in their educational environment. My team and I thought it was logical to think that if the students were going to spend more time in the school, then the spaces should reflect and respond positively to this extended stay.

We were excited to substantiate that a well-designed environment can have an enormous effect on the learning process of a student, increasing the chances of academic excellence and social relationships. As a result, we proposed a series of school prototypes, according to the population and weather of the region in which they would be installed, resulting in a positive social response to actual problems.

Convinced that through architectural design I could influence and positively benefit the lives of people in my country, and especially childhood and education, I applied for an International Fulbright Scholarship, that I received months later. Thanks to the scholarship, I went to the United States to pursue a Master’s of Interior Design at The University of Texas at Austin. I understood that by getting a deeper knowledge of interior design, through a Graduate Degree, I was going to be able to design better spaces for people.

As a way of continuing my line of interest and as an extension of my previous study, I decided to shape my MDS (Final Master’s Project) into a community center for rural areas of Dominican Republic, that provides educational programs to all the residents in the community. A prototype that can be replicated and adapted to different settlements, allowing variations of layout and materials and that involves the community as part of the building process to create a sense of ownership, pride and appropriation.

It has been thrilling to be working on this project, that means so much to me on a personal level. Weeks away from graduation, my mind is already bubbling with excitement as it thinks of the many ways I can go back to my country and try to contribute with all the knowledge I have gained here in the United States. And this is one of the purposes of the Fulbright Scholarship: to give back. And it is my intention to give back by doing and teaching.

Doing, through professional practice. I envision myself working to advocate for better designed schools, and better learning environments. It would be my biggest dream to make an impact in my society through design, to not only achieve the aforementioned qualities in public education, but also to demonstrate that designers are not just “decorators”, but activists, agents of change and social development.

And also, by teaching. It is obvious that design and education are both my passions, and there is nothing I would rather be experiencing than the feeling that I am contributing to make our built environment a better place.

Holding the Dominican Republic Flag at the UT Austin graduation

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

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