May 16, 2017

Mount Holyoke: life-changing by design

Rand Abu Al-Sha’r ’17

Featured Image


In a few days, I will walk across the stage of Gettell Amphitheater to receive my degree. Soon after, I will navigate life as a young alumna in Amman, Jordan. To think that for an unspecified amount of time I won’t be at Mount Holyoke, with its shimmering lakes and whispering trees and majestic buildings, is daunting.

In choosing to come to Mount Holyoke, I was expecting to encounter incredible experiences. I don’t think I ever anticipated such life-changing ones.

Shattuck Hall in springShattuck Hall in spring. Photo by Rand Abu Al-Shar ’17.

The setting

At the root of these life-changing experiences? Brilliant professors who have invested in my academic success and genuinely connected to me on a personal level. Faculty and staff members who have challenged my comfort zone in a most supportive way. Classes that have stretched the limits of my learning along with opportunities outside the classroom that elevated my awareness and engagement with the world. Plus wholehearted support, campus-wide, for intersectionality and exploration.

Then there is the peer factor. Having peers who come from every corner of the globe — and who define and embody diversity and tolerance — means our student body engages in difficult conversations and uncomfortable realizations and growth.

There is space for everyone here — Mount Holyoke ensures that. I have learned that life-changing experiences at Mount Holyoke are also rooted in an individual’s freedom to change, grow and evolve.

Upper Lake in spring. Upper Lake in spring. Photo by Rand Abu Al-Sha'r ’17.

Fragments of a journey

During my first semester, my drawing class went to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum for a close-looking interactive session. As we were leaving, Ellen Alvord, the Weatherbie Curator of Education and Academic Programs, asked if I was interested in participating in an upcoming pilot student-guide program at the Art Museum. I’d been recommended to her by my professor, Tatiana Ginsberg.

Terrified by the prospect of having to do public speaking regularly, I hesitated. Yet, knowing that my professor had seen potential in me, I gave a tentative “yes.”

This decision, which sparked an ongoing connection to the Art Museum, has led to the most precious and valuable experiences of my years at Mount Holyoke. I gained the confidence to speak to different audiences about art. I built my own personal-themed tour, drawing on my interests, knowledge and experiences. And I discovered a space where I could retreat and reflect.

Spring blooms frame Williston Library. Spring blooms frame Williston Library. Photo by Rand Abu Al-Shar ’17.

It all comes together

Everything at Mount Holyoke is connected, as I soon found out. During the spring of my sophomore year, I took an environmental architecture class with Professor Naomi Darling that shaped the way I approach architecture. The class focused on creating physical design models, initially of functional solar clocks and eventually of an art school complex in Arusha, Tanzania.

While working on the solar clock project, I used new technologies for the first time at the Makerspace, including laser cutting and 3-D printing. And, through experimentation, I successfully coded my clock to make it interactive — which spoke to my interest in technology.

Art Museum's exhibition of work by students in Architecture 225The Art Museum’s first student-curated show, an exhibition of environmental architecture. Photo by Laura Shea.

The fluidity to take my work in whichever direction I want is built into the structure of the Mount Holyoke learning experience. Interdisciplinary engagement is the default, not the exception. During my final year, I helped design the Art Museum’s first student-curated show, which showcased the work my classmates and I had produced in environmental architecture.

With guidance from museum staff and Professor Darling, two classmates and I produced 3-D renderings of the space to determine model placement and readied student drawings for display. The brand of the exhibition, including the logo and color scheme used across the boards, came from graphics I’d developed in my Five College graphic design course.

A fall sunset overlooking Skinner Green
A fall sunset overlooking Skinner Green. Photo by Rand Abu Al-Shar ’17.

Direction, drive and goodbyes

My senior year, I studied for and passed the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) exam. With my LEED Green Associate credential, I will be able to pursue sustainability within my field of architecture. I also completed and defended my thesis — Rethinking Shelter Design: Zaatari Refugee Camp — with the supervision of my advisor, Professor Michael Davis.

For my thesis, I examined numerous case studies to extract criteria for ethical design, then used my findings to propose design elements for a shelter at a specific camp. These endeavors would never have been possible without the mentors I’ve met here — and the direction and drive they’ve helped me establish.

As sad as I know many of us are to say goodbye to MoHome, I’m ready to witness how we will go out to the different reaches of the world and start implementing change. From graduate programs in so many fields to internships and jobs that span the globe, we are ready to fly. And how fortunate are we, to do so while knowing that Mount Holyoke will always have our backs?

Expect more. Learn More


The photo at top is courtesy of Fatema Ali Asghar ’18. All photos below are by Rand Abu Al-Sha’17. 

  • Abbey Memorial Chapel in spring
  • Adirondack chairs near Abbey Chapel
  • Walkway connecting Williston Library and Dwight Hall
  • Upper Lake in spring
  • Upper Lake in summer
  • Upper Lake in fall
  • A fall sunset over Skinner Green
  • Campus aglow
  • Mary Lyon clock tower
  • Lower Lake in winter
  • Snow blankets campus
Rand Abu Al-Sha’r hails from Amman, Jordan, and is an architectural studies major with a minor in English. Originally a red Pegasus, she has completed an accelerated three-year program and will graduate as a green griffin. After graduation, she plans to practice architecture for two years in Jordan before pursuing a master’s degree in architecture in the United States. Abu Al-Sha’r completed a thesis on rethinking refugee shelter design and is interested in incorporating sustainability within architecture. In her free time, she reads copiously, writes, plays the piano, takes photographs of the stunning campus and gives tours at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
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