Weitzman News

Posted August 31, 2022
  • Photo: Lou Caltabiano

I Was There: New Student Orientation 2022

In a new series for Academic Year 2022-2023 that draws on faculty and student voices, Dan Mangano (MSHP’23), a student ambassador in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Weitzman, reports on New Student Orientation. Organized by Associate Director for Student Support Kayla Richards, the daylong event was held on Friday, August 26.


This fall the Weitzman School of Design welcomes its newest cohort of students from around the world to master’s and PhD programs in architecture, fine arts, historic preservation, city planning and landscape architecture. Incoming students were greeted in a morning virtual session by Matt Kenyatta (who goes by Dr. Matt), director of the School’s Justice and Belonging Initiatives, known as JXB, which strives to be “an advocate for inclusion ...to create an inclusive culture that celebrates difference and is strengthened by contributions from people of all races, religions, countries of origin, genders, ages, sexual orientations, physical abilities, learning differences, and socioeconomic backgrounds” (design.upenn.edu).

The morning’s presentations emphasized the critical nature of justice and belonging within a diverse and global community not only as a part of the school’s culture but also for the practices of artists and designers, informing and inspiring the work students do during their time here and beyond. To conclude the morning’s virtual presentations, Susie Wise, author of the book Design for Belonging, produced in collaboration with the Stanford d.school, introduced incoming students to the power of belonging not only as a feeling but as a spatial phenomenon.

Wise encouraged students to consider belonging as an opportunity for design and provided a range of anecdotal examples emphasizing the power of belonging and how a deep engagement with it is essential for designers. She shared the example of an award-winning designer of medical technology who put himself in the mind of a frightened child undergoing medical treatment so he could understand a critical knowledge gap in his process, which allowed him to revise his designs and increase their efficacy for pediatric care.

Wise also spoke of the power of co-designing, involving children or those not traditionally part of the design process to play a role in informing the environment that is built for them. She advised the incoming students not to be content with the result of their design process unless there is evidence of a deep engagement with belonging.

Upon arriving on campus for the afternoon sessions, each student was offered a copy of Wise’s book, which she described as a tool kit for understanding how to work through belonging as a design problem.

To complement Wise’s talk, Dr. Matt brought Justice and Belonging home to Penn with an in-person tour which presented the “hidden histories” on campus. There is little on campus today that suggests how dramatically Penn’s relationship to West Philadelphia has changed. The University was once much more integrated within its urban surrounds. Locust Street (presently Locust Walk) bustled with public life before it was closed to street traffic. West Philadelphia’s trolley cars once moved up and down Woodland Avenue (presently Woodland Walk) before they were moved underground. Dr. Matt emphasized many of these changes that separated the West Philadelphia community from the University were motivated by Penn’s desire to elevate its academic reputation.

The content and presentation of the tour challenged future architects, landscape architects, preservationists, planners, and artists to think about the power of place. The tour took new students beyond the plainly obvious to the hidden, and at times troubling, legacies of the setting where they will study and form themselves as designers.

Dr. Matt said, “if we are really serious about inclusivity, we must understand the place where we are coming from by addressing the legacies there.” He went on to speak to the importance of tours like it: “(The tour) is an attempt to be rooted in place…Justice is the big why of it.”

As students move through campus, it is important to unearth these kinds of hidden histories that surround us and might change our perception of spaces we inhabit. We assume we know how to read a place, but often there is more than what meets the eye, and, if we don’t know the reality of a place, we cannot move past it.

On the tour, Dr. Matt highlighted stories behind prominent campus buildings, landscapes and public art, including the controversy which once embroiled Meyerson Hall, a building whose construction was protested by students and faculty in the 1960s for eliminating valuable green space with its footprint.

The day’s conversations about justice and belonging, about being critical of conventions which may hold within them hegemonic, exclusionary practices, and the plea for students to boldly engage with these issues in their work from both Wise and Dr. Matt felt to me like an important introduction to critical nature of the work that is done at the Weitzman School and a fitting welcome to the Penn community.