Michelle and Deniz, DFA Fellows for the 2016-2017 school year, reflect on what it’s like to support 36 studios and the nationwide network each and every day.

Deniz: My first day at Design for America was a bit of a blur. Not just because I was jetlagged from a 12-hour flight the day before, but because of the pace with which projects were moving along already. The glass-walled office full of post-its that is DFA National was buzzing with productivity. I was oriented in the morning, and then co-led my first workshop with Michelle that very same afternoon! I was thrilled to dive right in.

What kind of projects keep you busy each day?

Michelle: Deniz and I run the studio support service. We help the 36 DFA studios accomplish goals and overcome roadblocks, and give feedback on projects, while observing and collecting data insights about the network. I work with and get to know all West & Midwest studios!

I also manage the new studio launching process, where I guide students and mentors to set up DFA on their campuses. I spend time on marketing and communications efforts as well – editing and improving our website, blog, social media, print materials, and anything people see, hear, and interact with that is DFA.

Getting some glamour shots of the DFA Process Guide for the website.

Deniz: I work with all East and South schools, iterating and improving studio support services with Michelle. I manage the support for all nationally sponsored projects: from building the timeline for the term, scoping the project topic, reviewing applications, coaching teams and sponsors through the design process, to planning and executing the final expo – this is one of my biggest responsibilities. I’m scoping out our topics for the upcoming projects right now! I also collect information about all students and their projects. I have been learning the programming language, Python, to move them into our database so we can better understand trends within our network.

Deniz visits DFA Rensselaer to do a workshop on testing in service design.

In what areas do you feel you’ve improved since becoming a Fellow?

Deniz: All areas! I’m familiar with giving feedback and teaching from being a grad student, but I never got such concrete and thoughtful feedback as I have during this fellowship. I learned how to receive very detailed feedback; and at first it was a bit hard to accept.

I‘ve gotten better and faster at many forms of communication, while learning to appreciate all the administrative and logistical work that goes on behind the scenes of a nationwide educational initiative.

I’m much more comfortable giving public talks, facilitating workshops, and sitting silently in a video chats with students while waiting for comments to tough questions. I even learned Python from scratch – I still have lots to figure out, but I’m getting there.

Michelle: I’ve learned to prioritize based on an increased understanding of what our main goals and initiatives are at National. I can identify what’s most important to complete in a given time and it’s made me much more productive and efficient. I’ve also been able to expand my understanding of DFA beyond the student perspective…there are so many moving parts, and I’ve learned to empathize with a lot of different stakeholders in the entire DFA community – students, mentors, Northwestern as an institution, community partners and sponsors, etc. It’s really cool to see all of these different people being connected through DFA.

I’ve also gained a lot of confidence! I get to interact with and learn from so many smart, hardworking people, and seeing how I can provide them value in return is awesome.

Michelle providing feedback to early concepts at DFA Pittsburgh.

What do you love most about being DFA Fellows?

Michelle: It’s little moments with students, when they let me know they got a lot out of a one-on-one call, a simple “thanks, this was so helpful,” or just cracking jokes with them in between meetings and workshops. DFAers are the funniest and coolest people I know, and I love the feeling of having DFAmily all over the country.

I also love the looks I get when I tell people that my job is working with inspiring and hardworking college kids every day. It’s usually like, “Woah that’s really cool. Where do I sign up?”

Also, this nugfest I had with DFA WashU changed my life:

Deniz: Visits! I recently got back from a visit at Vanderbilt, where the studio leads organized for me to give a talk at their maker space, as well as facilitate a 4-hour design workshop. I will remember their mentor, Dave Owens, participating as a team member throughout the workshop, the TedXNashville talk that they took me to after, as well as the jamming we did with their studio lead, Jamie Cohen. It was a very memorable experience.

I love getting student feedback, I actually keep some of their post-its on my desk.

“The teamwork (at a national level) behind this project is awesome. I really like the amount of support and resources that we have.”

I also love the final expos we organize for each of the National Sponsored Projects, held at the sponsor’s headquarters. It’s great to see how impressed our partners are with the team’s prototypes, and everyone is just so proud of how much they’ve done in such a short time.

During undergrad, I was the one doodling in my engineering classes, a design major minoring in chemistry. I definitely felt like the odd one out. DFA is so interdisciplinary and welcoming to everyone. I feel like I’ve finally found my kind of people, and that’s what makes DFA so special.


Interested in becoming a DFA Fellow? Apply to the 2017-2018 Fellowship by Wednesday, March 29. Learn more HERE!