Global Learning By Design: Iraqi Architect Duo Aspires to Start Own Firm After U.S. Internship

Elation. Gratitude. Pride.

These were the emotions Dalia Raad and Shams Qais, two architecture students from Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, felt when they learned they won the Bridging the Gap design studio competition and earned internships in Washington, D.C. at Gensler, a leading global architecture, design, and planning firm.

It was the culmination of four months of video conferencing, social media, early wake up calls, hard work and collaboration, which paired fourth-year architecture students from Al-Nahrain with graduate students from the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

Global Learning By Design - U.S. Exchange Program Spotlight - Gensler - Iraq
From L to R: Dalia Raad, Katelynn Ziegler-Hall, and Shams Qais at Gensler’s Washington, D.C. offices

The semester-long design studio and competition, sponsored by Gensler, began in the spring of 2016. Students at each institution were challenged to design a project in a place they had never seen within the other’s capital city.

Relying on the help and input of their peers 6,000-plus miles away, the Maryland students took on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, while Dalia, Shams, and their classmates developed projects for the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington.

The program was spearheaded by Zahraa Alwash, an Iraqi-born architect working for Gensler, and Marlene Shade, an Associate Principal at Dewberry Associates. According to Zahraa, the competition was about much more than just architecture. It served as a means to challenge assumptions, and explore the commonalities, differences, and challenges of each city.

“Architecture is an important tool that can bridge the gaps that exist between cultures,” said Zahraa, who herself faced many misconceptions of her country when she came to the U.S. “In many respects, DC and Baghdad are similar cities with similar challenges, which the students had to research and explore to complete this project. Through design, they learned the intimate details of daily life in both countries.”

The Gensler-sponsored semester-long design studio and competition, began in Spring 2016 and paved the way toward internships for the four winners.

The students began to see the world through a different set of eyes. In the process, they developed new skills and grew as young architects.

“This experience reduced the distance between us—bridged that gap—in turn allowing us to find new strategies in the design we had not used before,” said Shams.

The unique follow-on opportunity for Dalia and Shams to see and intern in the city they spent a semester studying helped accelerate this learning and growth exponentially.

Learning the Business of Architecture

Dalia and Shams traveled with the Gensler team to New York City for a site visit to see design under construction on a new building space.

A long-sought dream became reality for Dalia and Shams in September 2017 as they arrived in Washington, D.C. through Cultural Vistas’ visa sponsorship to begin their internships. The program continued cooperation between Gensler and Cultural Vistas dating back to the early 1990s.

The 12-week internships were structured so Dalia and Shams would better understand the design profession and be exposed to experiences they wouldn’t normally have access to. This included learning  new software like Revit and AutoCad. They took to it immediately and were excited to share it with their peers back home. In addition to technical skills, they gained confidence in their abilities as young architects and made impressive strides in their English language fluency.

“I learned to trust myself, set a goal and see it through to completion,” said Shams. “This experience has made me more confident in myself and my abilities. I plan to use everything I learned here when I get back home.”

Gensler’s cross-studio training approach exposed them to different projects, work styles, and team members. As a result, they learned the importance of teamwork and collaboration.

“In Iraq, architects mainly work alone on their specialized projects,” said Dalia. “At Gensler and in the U.S., there was collaboration across all levels of expertise. Everyone helps each other. Everyone learns together. The office was like a family.”

The relationships Dalia and Shams formed with Gensler colleagues extended beyond the workplace, included attending outings, such as the International Interior Design Association’s Cosmo Couture DC fundraising fashion show, and sharing meals, including a special evening when they cooked traditional Iraqi dishes.

The learning and benefits extended to Gensler staff as well.

“Shams and Dalia were able to learn the business of architecture and were very active and involved in all aspects of our team here at Gensler,” said Zahraa. “They had a great willingness to learn and excel. Supervising them was more of a family effort, with so many architects working with them, teaching them new skills and perspectives, and learning from them just the same.”

This sentiment was shared by Sumita Arora, a studio director in Gensler’s D.C. office.

“It was a privilege having Shams and Dalia join our studio this fall,” said Sumita. “They gave us the unique opportunity to experience Iraq through their eyes. We were very impressed by their eagerness to learn, their technical savvy and their ability to become proficient in new platforms very quickly. They brought a wonderful can-do attitude.”

Dalia and Shams’ U.S. experience was a family affair. Outside the office, their Gensler studio colleagues, host family, and friends came together for a traditional Iraqi dinner in October.

A New Family to Lean On

The three-month internships laid a strong foundation for future career success. The young women’s learning experience, however, extended far beyond the workplace. 

A few weeks into their stay, Dalia and Shams  took the unique opportunity to live with local host parents, Tom and Jeanne Clarkson. The six weeks they spent together would enrich their U.S. experience in ways they never expected.

Dalia, Shams, Tom, and Jeanne came together around the dinner table, enjoying both American and Middle Eastern home-cooked meals– and nightly conversations about culture, family, current events, and daily highlights.

“Some nights we spent hours looking through photo albums and talking about life and family,” said Shams. “It was so nice. We grew to love them and will keep in touch forever.”

Host parents, Tom and Jeanne Clarkson, shared their home and served as a second family for Dalia and Shams during their U.S. stay.

Together they took trips to experience the accomplishments of America’s most famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright – including Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania; and went on regular outings to the movies and shopping around the Greater DC area.

Living with Tom and Jeanne exposed the young architects to the intimate details of daily American life, even including what it’s like to live alongside the family dog (Finn), who Dalia befriended after some initial fears.

It was an experience neither the Clarksons nor the young ladies will forget.

“We hadn’t realized how close we had become in the six short weeks we stayed together,” said Tom, recounting their teary airport sendoff. “They were truly part of the family. That is what made the experience so rewarding. If you have the time and the means to be a host, you will gain sons and daughters whom you will remember, and who will remember you for the rest of your lives.”

A Lasting Impact

Dalia and Shams’ time in the States was brief, but its impact on their personal and professional lives figures to be lasting.

“I always dreamed of visiting the U.S.,” said Shams. “I had experienced it through stories from friends and movies. Now, I can say I have experienced it through my own eyes.”

The talented young architects returned to Baghdad at the end of 2017 with sharpened design skills, a newfound confidence, and joint aspirations to start an architecture practice focused on rebuilding their country.

The ‘dream team’ of Dalia and Shams have already taken their first steps toward making that entrepreneurial goal a reality. Their experiences at Gensler helped them each to land full-time design and engineering positions upon returning home.

Shams (L) and Dalia (R) at the Lincoln Memorial. One of their many visits to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.