Campus & Community

Building stories: GSD helps some come true

4 min read

Program offers students a chance to engage in design projects

This summer, Ming Thompson learned a few things about telling a story.

The main character in her story was a long, narrow parcel of land in Boston’s Chinatown, once home to hundreds of urban residents. An entrance ramp to the Central Artery obliterated the neighborhood in the 1950s, causing mass relocation. Years later, the Big Dig sank the roadway below ground, opening up the parcel for new housing construction.

“Every building project has a story,” said Thompson, a master of architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). “When you’re negotiating with so many different stakeholders, you need to be able to tell your story in a clear way.”

Thompson spent her summer helping the nonprofit Asian Community Development Corporation develop affordable housing in Chinatown. Her stipend of $7,000 for 10 weeks of work was paid by the GSD’s Community Service Fellowship Program, which offers students the opportunity to involve themselves with design projects that address public needs and community concerns at the local level.

Launched in 1993, the fellowship program supported 12 GSD students this year, seven who worked during the summer in the Greater Boston area, three who worked at other locations in the United States, and two who used the fellowship to work on projects in other countries. In each case, the communities benefited from the students’ skills and enthusiasm, while the students learned valuable lessons about how the knowledge they gain in the classroom and studio fit into the real world.

Thompson used her training in a variety of ways — conducting site research, drawing maps, building 3-D computer models to show how different design options might look, producing informational literature, and designing brochures.

“I was the only person there with graphic training, so I ended up doing a lot of different things,” she said.

Because of the variety of tasks she tackled and the independence she enjoyed, Thompson felt she learned more from her summer job than she might have working at a commercial firm. The experience also provided a welcome complement to her class work.

“In school, the process of design can be very closed off, but this experience was extremely contextual. We worked with neighborhood groups, with city government. It showed me how incredibly complex the network is on each site.”

Angel Williams, a master of urban planning student, learned similar lessons in her summer job at Just-A-Start Corporation, a nonprofit community development group in Cambridge. Williams’ responsibility was to review applications from prospective owners of the 13 affordable condos that Just-A-Start developed on Columbia Street in East Cambridge.

“A lot of it was paperwork, but beyond that, I did a lot of talking with people on the phone, trying to get the nuances of their situations that you can’t get on an application,” Williams said.

After the stack of applications was winnowed down, Williams continued working with the qualified families, who then faced a lottery to determine which ones would get the coveted condos.

“I really got attached to some of the families. You take them through the whole process, and then at the end you give them the key to the front door. A lot of them are recent immigrants who want their share of the American dream, and they realize they could work all their lives and never get their own home. They just need a little push.”

For Williams, the fellowship program not only allowed her to put her skills to work for a local community, it also offered her the chance to see how knowledge acquired in the classroom could make a difference in the lives of real people.

“It’s been a really valuable experience,” she said. “Everything I learned in school — real estate skills, map making, data collection — I got to apply in some way.”