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Name: Melissa Alexander

Hometown: Dandridge, TN

Undergraduate school/major: University of Tennessee, College of Architecture + Design, B.Arch major, studio art minor 

What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?

I’ve worked in design at many different scales, from graphics and products to furniture, interiors, and architecture. I’ve also worked in several cities, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Detroit, and Brooklyn.

Why did you decide to pursue urban design as a career?

Urban design was the largest scale of design I hadn’t tackled yet, and I thought it would be a good way to augment my previous professional experience.

What made you decide to come to the GSD?

I visited Cambridge for the admitted student open house in the spring. During the program presentations, I literally couldn’t take notes fast enough. The program director and department chair were discussing facets of design I had never even considered. I knew if I was that invigorated at the open house, then the GSD must be a good fit for me.

What are your main interests in urban design?

Over the past year I’ve discovered a range of urban-scale interests, but lately I’ve been most interested in the American post-industrial condition. Other countries in Asia and the Middle East are designing and building new cities at an incredible pace. But here in America, the era of building new cities is largely in the past. So what agency does an urban designer have when the city already exists? How can urban designers play a role in reshaping the city to meet contemporary needs? And what resources can we draw on when our specific systems of economics and governance aren’t producing a city that aligns with our social and cultural aspirations?

Are you involved in any student groups? What have you gained from the experience?

I am serving on Student Forum as the Alumni Relations Officer. It has been enlightening to work with the GSD staff to better understand the role alumni play within the school. I am also fortunate to work with our other Student Forum officers...a group of individuals who feel personally responsible for ensuring a meaningful, productive, and fun studio culture here at the GSD.

What has been the most surprising aspect of the GSD?

When I came to Harvard, I knew I was going to be studying with some of the most creative, talented individuals in the world. Naturally, it can sometimes get pretty competitive. But generally speaking, all that creativity and talent and enthusiasm feeds off itself: it creates a studio culture that is at once demanding and invigorating. I knew I was going to be challenged, but I was (and am) continually surprised at how generative the relationships with my colleagues have been.

What has been your favorite class or project? Why?

I really enjoyed the seminar on the History and Theory of Urban Form. The class examines important urban moments, focusing on the economic, social, and political factors that influenced the production of the built environment. It was great to learn about the larger forces by which our cities are shaped, and to subsequently position the agency of urban design within those contexts. 

What did you do over the summer? How did that add to your education and goals?

This summer I served as a Program Associate at the Design Trust for Public Space in New York City, a position funded through Harvard’s Community Service Fellowship Program and the Harvard Club of New York. The Design Trust is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to improving the design, utility, and understanding of New York City's parks, plazas, streets, and public buildings. Their project-based model brings together neighborhoods, public agencies, and design professionals to identify innovative opportunities within the city.

I worked on two major projects: Five Borough Farm, which looks at New York City’s urban agriculture movement through the lens of community development, and Making Midtown, a report on NYC’s garment district which offers important policy recommendations to increase the viability of urban manufacturing.

What are your career ambitions?

My long term goals involve teaching and research at the university level. Before that, I’d like to practice for a few more years as an architect or urban designer.

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