After growing up in Honduras and New Orleans, Alejandra Blandin knew she wanted to be a part of two communities when she arrived in Blacksburg this fall, both campus life at Virginia Tech and her future profession of architecture.

“When I got here, I was very nervous,” said Blandin, a first-year student majoring in architecture. “I was far from my family and it was the first time I’d been on my own, trying to make my own social network of friends.”

After spending a summer in Panama and visiting the Biomuseo, a museum designed by American architect Frank Gehry, she knew she wanted to pursue architecture. Having a brother and uncle working as architects in Texas and Barcelona also helped provide a path forward.

But getting started on her academic career felt daunting and Blandin said two things have helped her succeed this semester.

She joined Virginia Tech’s chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects and is taking a new First-Year Experiences course, You Are Here Now, taught by Aaron Betsky, director of the School of Architecture + Design at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

“When I joined the department, I was really enthusiastic about creating this course,” said Betsky. “The idea is to use our campus – its buildings, spaces, landscapes, and objects – to understand what it means to be a Hokie, to be part of a university and community with shared values and beliefs.”

For students majoring in architecture, interior design, industrial design, or landscape architecture, the course is intended to not only inform them about campus resources, but more importantly, to build community and look at those disciplines through the broader perspectives of social, economic, and historical forces.

“We’re learning to look at our community, not just the buildings on campus, in a much deeper way,” said Blandin. “I had never asked myself what community meant until I took this course.”

Betsky has led students on a walking tour of campus that began at the glass pyramids at the Cowgill plaza and ended at the Fraction Family House at Solitude, the living quarters for several enslaved families during the 19th century. Students also visited the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, to tour and sketch the Rotunda and central lawn at the Academical Village designed by Thomas Jefferson.

The course requires students to sketch three times a week. It also features guest speakers such as Kevin Jones, a Virginia Tech alumnus, former-NFL running back, and the CEO of Joba, a Blacksburg design firm.

“Throughout these lectures and field trips, Professor Betsky emphasizes that we’re all in this community together and that we can make an impact on the future,” said Blandin. “That’s what I value most about this course.”

Betsky joined the university in June 2020 and is an internationally known educator, designer, curator, and critic. He is also the author of more than 20 books, including a study of James Gamble Rogers, an American architect who designed prominent buildings on the campuses of Yale, Northwestern, and Columbia universities.

“There was a very conscious attempt as universities were growing quickly during the 1920s to figure out what it meant to gather people from all over the United States and the world to become part of a community with a shared set of values,” said Betsky. “We know there are problems with that history – it’s exclusionary and that’s something we’re dealing with here at Virginia Tech – but to me it’s still the great ideal of the American campus, the idea that an undergraduate can learn how to become a critical member of their community and American society and their culture. The campus itself is a way to learn that.”

First-Year Experience courses are foundational classes that are taught in every college and support the academic transition for students arriving at Virginia Tech. The courses are housed in each department and reflect the strategic direction, mission, and culture of that unit.

This fall, more than 150 sections will support the academic transition of almost 8,000 students who arrived on campus this fall.

Ultimately, Betsky said he wants to lead his students toward an inclusive vision of their chosen disciplines.

“The point is to help our students make a world that will be more sustainable in a deep way and that is open, accessible, and equitable for everyone,” said Betsky. “It must re-use, upcycle, and reimagine the materials all around us, but it must also be beautiful and create relationships between people and the community.”

That vision is at the center of the FYE course.

“First-year architecture really opened my eyes to how we can see the world,” said Anthony Reynoso, a first-year architecture student. “It’s more than just if a building or object is beautiful, design is much more intricate and complex. And architecture allows me to explore that more.”

Written by Will Rizzo

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