Alumni Therese Graf on Merging Good Design and Social Impact

By October 25, 2018 Blog

In our latest alumni interview, we catch up with Therese Graf, who completed our program in 2015 and was recently hired at MASS Design Group in Kigali, Rwanda. A graduate of Environmental Design and originally from Milwaukee in the US,  Therese tells us about how her diverse work experiences since graduating from our master program have led her to appreciate good design and apply those skills to public interest projects at the Kigali-based design studio.

What have you done since graduating from our program?

After completing my thesis for the master, I interned with the Center for Public Interest Design in Portland, with Sergio Palleroni and Todd Ferry. We worked with the Northern Cheyenne Native American Tribe in Montana towards the development of a Resilience Plan after a fire devastated the community in 2012. Once the internship was over, I continued working with the center to help lead the curation of their first public exhibit and the engagement of a youth group toward the development of a park design for an underserved Portland community. After that, I meandered back towards traditional models of practice to further develop design skills and understand the systems that influence design implementation, which took me to Minneapolis, MN to work with Coen + Partners on the Dorothy Day Homeless Shelter in St. Paul, which provides temporary and transitional housing to people that have struggled with homelessness. I then went on to work for Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, I worked primarily on the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center that will help to revitalize one of the most prominent underutilized areas in the downtown core.

What lessons did you learn from those experiences?

Working for major design firms provided rich environments in which to explore how to create good design. For design to be impactful, it needs to be successful in many ways, one foundational component being the design itself. Harnessing essential skills and learning how to use the range of tools used in the design process takes time. I’ve been very fortunate to have great mentors within each of these settings that can navigate how a project functions across scales and in relation to diverse contexts and influences. Working on projects in major cities led to a deeper understanding of public process and how evolution and growth are managed. It’s been quite a journey between working for firms focused on traditional design practices and others on public interest. While the two can be quite disparate in their motivations and are often seen as conflicting, I have found inspiration in their convergence. How we can best leverage design to serve the people it impacts in part with advancing inspired articulations in the built environment, is a question that is applicable in all contexts and unique to every project.


Above photos: Therese Graf (second from left) in Kigali, Rwanda.

You just started working with MASS Design Group in Rwanda. Tell us a bit about the job.

I’d been following their work for a few years and greatly appreciated their balance between pushing innovative design and pursuing work that seeks to create social impact. As part of the Landscape Architecture team, my work is dedicated towards the design of the land and the creation of healthy environments for humans, animals and plants. Our team coordinates with the architects, engineers and designers in the office to create cross disciplinary solutions on a variety of projects ranging in nature from academic to health to research.  One of the great things about the office is the accessibility to critical conversation and the range of experiences that everyone brings with them, both personal and professional. It is a fun and vibrant environment that fosters inspiration and creative problem solving across projects and on an interpersonal level.

A view of Kampala in Rwanda.


A view if Kigali, Rwanda. 

What was it like arrive in such a different context than you were used to in the US?

The move to Kigali that accompanied this professional pursuit was a big jump; it was my first experience in Africa other than a short visit to Morocco four years prior. There was definitely some uncertainty around the decision but thankfully, it has already been very rewarding. Rwanda is beautiful and inviting, with so much to explore. It’s an exciting time to be living here. Following the 1994 genocide and a period of recovery, the country is experiencing growth which has fostered new businesses and generated a momentum towards creating a shared vision of how to shape things for the next generation. A few examples of these exciting prospects includes the revision of Kigali’s master plan and a dedication towards expanding public transportation and green space.

What difficulties have you had?

The experience of working here has already been very rewarding by expanding my understanding of development practices. As an outsider, there is a lot that I don’t know. It can feel a bit overwhelming at times and is a test of the integrity of my understandings. Talking with coworkers both from Rwanda and similar backgrounds, as well as community members has been the best help in navigating these new conditions. It has no doubt impacted my approach towards this work. One of the most daunting tasks that I’m slowly working on is picking up some Kinyarwanda, which has to be one the hardest languages to learn; especially for someone that is very limited in the language realm (English and a bit of Spanish). There is still a lot for me to learn about Rwanda and East Africa. I’m especially interested in exploring the treatment of the landscape and public space as well as how it is being managed. Landscape Architecture largely doesn’t exist here, so the potential for its formation is exciting.

Tell us about a specific project you are working on.

I am working on the design of a Rwandan Institute of Conservation Agriculture  here in Rwanda. Dedicated towards expanding access to healthy food, the institute will train the next generation of Rwandans in sustainable agriculture practices. Rwanda’s population is growing and the amount of arable land is decreasing, so the question of how to increase food production without depleting resources or degrading natural resources, is in a critical moment. This will be the first university of its kind in the country. The unique central concept of “One Health,” which is that human, ecological and animal health are inextricably linked, is at the core of the campus’ design.


Render of the future Rwandan Institute of Conservation Agriculture, MASS Design Group


Site construction of the future Rwandan Institute of Conservation Agriculture, MASS Design Group

In what ways did the master program influence your professional life? Did your internship, for example prepare you for your future roles?

It was a great jumping off point into open exploration. Architecture and development professions can be difficult to navigate. They are competitive and diverse with many potential paths of work. Finding the one that fits you best often comes down to luck. The master provided me a level of exposure to break out of the mold.

Are there any mistakes you have learned from?

I’ve learned from many mistakes…still learning! Thankfully they’ve mostly been minor to this point. The common underlying theme when I first started working was feeling insecure about asking for help. Negotiating when to push beyond your comfort zone and when to seek assistance has often presented itself in a similar manner. And openly acknowledging that you don’t necessarily have all the answers can be hard. But getting over that initial fear has helped me learn so much. The learning curve feels never ending, but that’s the beauty of this work and the reward of working with other talented people with a distinct set of experiences and training.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job or of working in development in general?

The challenge that continues to be most daunting to me, is the understanding and recognized value of Landscape Architecture. Landscape Architecture is still a developing profession. It doesn’t exist in many places in the world and even in those where it does, it often isn’t viewed as necessary or isn’t fully understood. When I first heard of the profession, I myself didn’t understand it. I think I told my parents they were crazy to suggest it!

What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?

Find what interests you in our realm of work and don’t forget it. Let it evolve. Try and contribute towards it. Talk to people that have attempted to shape it. Things can get chaotic and feel obscure when you’re working in this profession so holding onto inspiration and the reason why you came here in the first place can be really helpful.

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