Why every design schools should have international exchange programs?

The best part about my undergraduate and graduate education was the international exchange programs.  

During one semester of my undergraduate education, I studied in Rome, Italy, as part of the Cornell Architecture School curriculum.  

The Coliseum, Rome, Italy by U.S. Department of State is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Living and studying Architecture in Eternal City was my most memorable undergraduate experience. Seeing the old photographs of those times reminds me of the unforgettable moments of my life.

My lucky streak of experiencing study abroad continued in my graduate school. Although it was only 2 weeks of visiting Bosnia (right after the Bosnia War) to study the aftermath of the Bosnian City, Mostar, the impact of that short trip was forever ingrained in my (and my classmates’) psyche. 

There were many extraordinary moments in those short two weeks; witnessing bullet holes, leftover skeletons of many buildings, and even seeing the actual bullet wounds on some of the Bosnian university students left my classmates and me the indelible mark.

These two international study exposures during my education years formed the foundation of my architectural training.  

Studying in foreign countries can be beneficial to one’s general education. 

However, one discipline with the most obvious benefit would be the Visual Arts/ Environmental Design education, such as Architecture, Urban Design, Landscape Design etc.

The way I got to see the “backyard” of my Rome Program classrooms through the world-famous public square, Piazza Navona, or witnessing the remnants of the Bosnia War by walking along the frontlines of some streets are such examples of the visual learning that can only be done through actually “being there.” 

Looking at those same images on computer screens could not produce the same emotions or impacts I felt on that day I had in Mostar, Bosnia.

Visual learning rules….especially for design students

The one question I get the most when I interview high school students for Cornell Architecture School admission is about the Rome Program. Some of these high students selected the school because of the Rome Program.  

Their enthusiasm for the program was palpable:

  • How extensive is the program?
  • Can any Cornell students apply to the program and also get accepted?
  • Where in Rome the school locates?
  • Can you travel to other parts of Europe while you are in Rome?
  • What was your experience like studying in Rome?

The last question, my experience in Rome, can sum up as ONE experience: walking. I do not remember much of classroom settings or even lessons, and my memories of the Rome Program had to do with walking, lots of it.

I was always “going out” from classrooms or even the apartment I was staying at

With my daily uniform of jeans/tee shirts with different jackets/coats depending on the weather and carrying the essential everyday items (wallet, map, camera, sketchbook, pencils, pencil sharpener), I was in forever search mode.

Taking photographs of the world-famous Trevi Fountain, sketching the scenery of the outdoor market while enjoying the “real” Italian gelato, or even marbling the Italian women’s walking ability in high heels on cobblestone streets, there was so much to take in.

Looking back at those ancient times of my life in Rome, some of the moments (and my thoughts) are forever ingrained in my memory, even though I do not remember much of what I studied in the classrooms.  

In the last few years, we experienced the most “closed” classroom settings due to the pandemic. We had to get used to learning differently, and we somehow got through the unthinkable: learning designs through computer screens.

I must admit the outcome of screen learning in design education was not as bad as many of us anticipated. There were even some benefits for a specific type of classes (accommodating an unlimited number of students for big seminar/lecture type classes, allowing more sleep for ungodly 8:00AM classes, etc.); however, studio-type design classes definitely suffered.

Being able to observe students’ work on tiny screens or lack of connections among students were some of the glaring drawbacks in studio classes. 

In many environmental design educations (architecture, interior, landscape or urban design), one fundamental element dictates how to design: context.

Without understanding the existing context (surrounding area, location, site), any design work would be meaningless. To design something new, one has to understand what is already there, the existing context.  

With the understanding of the existing site/condition/context, the design work can begin.

My education in Architecture and Urban Design, particularly in the area of historical (Rome) and geopolitical (Mostar, Bosnia) context, were bolstered due to me actually “being there.”  

International school connections in the post-pandemic era

Due to the pandemic and the popularity of free video chats, connecting with old and new contacts has never been easy. 

Last year, I conducted all my office project meetings on zoom calls like everyone else in the world. Even though there were many hiccups along the way learning the new technologies and the newly formed etiquettes (ex. Raising hand with not actual hand raising, but by clicking the hand button), we got used to and even loved the new ways of communicating.

Now after a year(?) into the post-pandemic, there are many discussions about this new communication method, least of all, elimination.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Recently, I had a chance to connect with one of the professors at Hongik University (well-known art and design school in South Korea). With 14 hours time difference, we had to get creative in coming up with an ideal meeting time. 

We discussed various ways of establishing international exchange programs between his and my school, OCAD University.  

Watching each other through the screens to pick up verbal and nonverbal cues without the constraints about time/cost helped us feel comfortable.

As we get used to communicating digitally, there will be more opportunities to collaborate internationally in every facet of our lives, including education.  

Speaking with the architecture professor in Korea gave me new insights into their curriculum and also to reflect on ours.  

Reaching out to international universities and finding common ground to form an exchange program for both schools would be beneficial and necessary in promoting schools to students worldwide.

With our globally connected world, collaborating with international universities through exchange programs should not be a “nice to have” aspect but a “must have” element in globally focused education.

Canada’s global standing in education

University International exchange programs benefit the country.

This point may not be apparent on individual student levels.

Still, from a broad global perspective, having international students coming to Canada, even for short university years, the benefits are enormous. These students benefit not only in education but also in cultural and social understandings of visiting countries.

Lately, we have heard much news about the conflicts/misunderstandings between Canada and other countries. (ex. China).  

Photo by Andre Furtado on Pexels.com

I am sure some disagreements arise due to focusing on each country’s own interests. However, some “other” disputes could come from the lack of cultural/social understanding between the countries. 

The US government’s effort in increasing the university exchange program to increase the understanding /awareness between the US and other countries is such an example of promoting comprehension.

Final Thought

University international exchanges are not new programs. They have been around for a long time at various schools, including Canada.

With the pandemic, many things, including the exchange programs, stopped utterly. However, they are necessary curriculums in one’s university or graduate education.  

The significance of these international exchange programs has become more paramount, especially in visual and environmental design education. 

Looking back on my old university Rome days, I realize my education was happening “outside” classrooms while looking for “another” gelato store in Rome. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s