My Students Learn More Outside the Classroom Edit

Interior design student Lindsey Passin learning on the job.


By Trudy Christ

When I first wrote about my Suffolk County Community College interior design students working outside the classroom, I was focused on assessments and equity. I described how turning away from tests and worksheets and more toward the application of skills out in the field, has allowed my students to shine. Involving them in meaningful work that serves our community — in this case, at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence — has engaged them in profound ways.

This approach is also about experiential learning, a powerful approach to education and one of the key strategies in the AFT’s Real Solutions campaign. Hands-on learning like this can have a huge impact: I’ve seen it myself. Relatively quiet students just shine and excel, both within their team and individually, creating new self-confidence and learning pathways.

From worksheets to work sites

In the SCCC interior design program, students are typically taught through a combination of lectures, reading assignments, worksheets and studio. Then they are presented with a floor plan and client profile. They gather information about the site and clients, analyze the data and distinguish client wants versus needs. We ask students to create projects in which they apply their knowledge, and the projects culminate in a visual and oral presentation to the class.

This structure, along with homework and tests, is all that’s expected of me — and of my students. Yet the disconnect between their academic understanding and the real-world environment had me wanting to do more for them; I know what an impact my field can make on the world around us. So I am constantly seeking new opportunities for students to apply their skills in actual physical spaces — and to make a real difference in our communities.

Brighter Tomorrows and Boys & Girls Club

In 2018, an acquaintance on the board of the Brighter Tomorrows domestic violence shelter reached out to me about helping with design in one of their safe houses. I met with the director, and we worked out a volunteer project for SCCC interior design students. I was impressed by the enthusiasm with which students really responded to this project!

That modest project has grown over the years and is now embedded in my Design III course. Over the years, our projects have included designing or redesigning the bedrooms, a children’s playroom and living room at the main shelter, and an entire safe house. We now have a structured partnership with these nonprofit organizations, and it’s one of the students’ favorite parts of our curriculum.

“We had to understand the position of our client and some of the hardships they may be facing emotionally and physically to create a space that can nourish and lift them up.”

Students meet with and interview the clients, take site measurements and establish budgets. Materials are often donated, or sometimes the organization has funding earmarked for these specific projects — the Boys & Girls Club, for instance, had $15,000 for students to work with — and they learn to work within the organization’s specific parameters. Then students research codes and analyze and evaluate their data.

They create floor plans and develop presentations for each organization. Once designs are approved, students obtain all necessary elements that go into their design, such as furniture, materials and accessories. We get creative. For example, when the Boys & Girls Club needed a sofa, I reached out to a showroom I work closely with and they donated one. We look to our industry partners in the interior design field to assist students with fulfilling their design. We’ve also reached out on campus and to colleagues, and they’ve come through with everything from lamps to artwork.

These nonprofits are typically thrilled to work with our students; it represents a significant cost savings to the organizations and creates a well-designed inspiring space for the users.

Developing the whole student

As a professor, I focus not just on creating interior design graduates but on helping the whole student develop. We are creating lifelong learners who will be out in our communities and making a difference in a wide variety of ways. We need to inspire them to make their work meaningful, and we can do that by how we structure our classes.

For example, my students often engage in painting days on-site. As an interior design professional, they will not be expected to paint for clients. Professional painters do that work. However, it is a great experience for them to do this painting so they have a better appreciation of the time and labor that goes into the work they will be specifying.

“I was able to imagine a space where the children could thrive. It meant a lot being able to serve a community and allow their futures to be bright.”

This kind of hands-on, place-based learning also gives them real experience in project management, interacting with a variety of personalities and dealing with unexpected issues that arise. This builds their confidence in understanding all that is involved from concept to completion.

When learning only on campus, they don’t have to deal with the give-and-take that inevitably happens. For example, a student might begin with an idea like “This is a domestic violence shelter room for little girls; I am thinking it should be painted pink,” but speaking with representatives from Brighter Tomorrows, they might hear why it’s better to go with a more neutral color and build in sensitivity to gender fluidity. These kinds of conversations happen all the time on the job.

Students describe more meaningful connections

“Physically being on site offers a higher level of inspiration and connection to the space than any hypothetical project could,” says 2022 graduate Claire Teifer. Other students agree.

“There were several things to account for, including building codes, budgets and client needs, creating invoices and specification sheets,” says student Samantha Intagliata, but “aside from the design portion, there was a human element to the work that could not be obtained in a classroom. We had to understand the position of our client and some of the hardships they may be facing emotionally and physically to create a space that can nourish and lift them up.”

Intagliata found Brighter Tomorrows especially fulfilling because “the staff themselves care so deeply about their community, and working with them was enlightening. The idea that this space can be a new happy place where women and children can finally breathe again made me feel grateful that I was a part of this experience.”

“It was important to me and my group to … create an atmosphere that was cool and welcoming.”

Claire Teifer absolutely agrees. “I felt such a tremendous amount of gratitude to work on this project,” she says. “The women and children are living there during such an incredibly difficult time. I hope these spaces we helped create are a true sanctuary in that time.”

Karina Santander has a different reason for finding it so meaningful. “As someone who left her home country and immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, I understood their needs and what they were feeling. Being in a new place, having their own space where they could feel at ease or at home, I believe it’s essential for someone, in this case these women and children, and being able to help other people to achieve happiness and peace makes me happy as well.”

“I also learned the importance of working in a team,” says Jessica Boyle. “My team and I all found our individual strengths in this project and came together to create a beautiful space that we hope the children and staff will love for years to come.”

As a parent, Susan Gunning was moved by the opportunity to work on the early education room for the Boys & Girls Club. She notes, “This struck close to home since I have two children of my own. The early education classroom meant creating a space where the students would be set up for success. I was able to imagine a space where the children could thrive. It meant a lot being able to serve a community and allow their futures to be bright.”

Nichole Ruggiano was assigned to the teen lounge, an area that had been underutilized. “It was important to me and my group to really do something about it and create an atmosphere that was cool and welcoming,” she says. “My heart was more pulled to this project to find a safe place for these teens that they would WANT to go to. The measuring and presenting was all great for learning, but the reasoning behind it was what moved me.”

This kind of student feedback does not come after midterms and final exams. I believe we all can and should work hard to integrate truly meaningful, purposeful and authentic learning opportunities into our classes. Students understand the importance of being vested in their communities and profession and in making a difference that benefits our local communities.

Trudy Christ is an assistant professor of interior design at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, N.Y., and a member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College. She is NCIDQ-certified and is a registered New York State Certified Interior Designer. This story is adapted from the FASCC website.