Helped by a grant, student finds calling in community-engaged design


Helped by a grant, student finds calling in community-engaged design

Passion for acitivism and design is fueled with a grant
Miriam Hossaini

Miriam Hossaini is a 4th-year double majoring in Architecture and Global Studies on the Middle East and South Asian track. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, she wanted to reconnect with her Persian heritage from which she had been disconnected since her grandfather’s passing. UVA gave her an opportunity to rebuild that lost connection through courses in culture, religion, and language.

How did you decide on UVA? What has been your experience here.

Hossaini: I didn’t have too much of a say in where I ended up in college; being a low-income student, I just tried to get to the nicest school for the lowest cost. After coming here, I couldn’t imagine being at a different school. UVA is a daunting place; it carries a dark part of American history and is filled with people ignorant of such history and its connotations. This may have made finding my people harder, but it also made it so worthwhile. I have found a community in people who want to change their communities, our university, and the world for the better.

Early on I found myself in activist groups, joining groups addressing larger domestic and international issues- abortion rights, human rights, etc.  But it wasn’t until Global Studies that I was prompted to rethink how I can change the trajectory of my own education and this university. Global studies not only prompted me to unlearn many of the assumptions and biases I carry as an American, but it also gave me the tools to engage with people in a meaningful way.

While I am extremely content with the education I got due to the majors, I began to reflect on how my design education would not have been the same without Global Studies. This realization has set off a series of meetings and organizing efforts with the School of Architecture administration to redefine the role of community and global perspectives in design and how we integrate it into our education.

How did you decide on your project on Egypt?  Tell us about your project and your experience?

Hossaini: I was originally going to Cairo with a research group directed by Professor Tessa Farmer to work on charitable water fountains, sabils. We partnered with Athar Lina, a participatory conservation initiative. Athar Lina “aims to establish modalities of citizen participation in heritage conservation based on an understanding of the monument as a resource, not a burden”. Run by the Built Environment Collective| Megawra, a twin organization including an NGO and an architecture firm, they use community-engaged methods and co-creation techniques to regenerate the historic Cairo community. This opportunity managed to become the perfect intersection of my Global Studies and architecture studies. I not only would get to learn about another region and conduct ethnographic research, but it would also have design outcomes!

We hit a road bump when the region became politically unstable due to a change in wheat suppliers, a rippling effect from the war in Ukraine. We had to cancel all of our travel plans and I was left without a plan for my summer, a scholarship, and nowhere to travel. This pushed me to pursue and find new ways to use my grant meaningfully, even if I had to make these opportunities myself.

As an architecture major, I did not want to miss this opportunity to work an organization whose mission statement resonates so clearly with my architectural and career goals. I reached out to Dr. May al-Ibrashy, the initiative’s coordinator, and formed a professional connection outside of the research group.

She welcomed me onto her team as a summer virtual intern. Even virtually, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was put on a team working on the regeneration of historic Cairo’s Al-Khalifa Market, a redesign-focused project aimed to reinvigorate a dilapidated cultural hub of the neighborhood. I worked closely with two Megawra employees, the architecture firm, meeting once a week to compile and organize a report on the work done on the project so far.  While the beginning of my internship consisted of compiling all their proposals and history into a single report, I was able to finally offer my real design knowledge when they asked for my help with unique diagrams for the report. I got to analyze the different facets of ethnographic research and site analysis and create new ways of visualizing the data.

This was an amazing experience, even though it was virtual and halfway across the world, I was exposed to many projects, learn all that goes into community-engaged design, and make professional relationships that I will carry beyond my time at UVA. It is such a rare opportunity to find things that meet both the standards for architecture and global studies.

Miriam in Jordan for her J-term study abroad
Miriam in Jordan for her J-term study abroad. Photo credit: Miriam Hossaini

How did the Aigrain grant help you?

Hossaini: Because Athar Lina is a small non profit, a paid internship with someone halfway across the world was not within their budget, but having the Aigrain Grant made it possible to work with them.

As a student on financial aid, looking for work in the non-profit field, finding work experience while also making ends meet has been a challenge –  having a grant like this made a world of difference. Not only did I get an amazing summer internship, but I found a job for the semester and even a professional connection for my post-graduate career. Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been pushed to find alternatives after the cancellation of the trip, nor have the ability to full concentrate on my internship. I am so happy that it made possible for me.

What other global experiences have you participated in at UVA?

Hossaini: I had the opportunity to finally study abroad in Jordan over J-term. Due to covid precautions, the trip had been delayed and canceled numerous times over the past few years, so I was extremely excited to get to go in my final year. We stayed in Amman, Jordan, but took a day trip to Jerash, Petra, and an overnight trip to Wadi Rum. We also got to meet with members of Parliament, visit numerous historical and religious sites, meet the Grand Imam of Jordan, and so much more, all in just under 14 days. This was my first experience traveling internationally, so being able to do so was a dream come true.

How has this internship and other experiences impacted your plans?

Hossaini: My internship has pushed me to seek community-engaged design jobs — I couldn’t imagine doing architecture without it. These experiences have both made me more excited than ever to travel abroad more and hopefully work abroad but also made me reflect on how much work there is to do domestically as well.

All of my experiences have reminded me of all the different pathways I can go in my career and that I don’t have to pick just one.