Strategic visual communications intern, Haley Sandell (H), sat down with Jessi (J) and Marshall (M) Stringer, a sibling duo pursuing degrees at the Gibbs College of Architecture to talk about their experiences at Gibbs. Though they are studying in different programs, both students are graduating this semester! Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast.

H: Can you both start by telling us a bit about yourselves?

J: Hi! My name is Jessi and I’m a graduate student at the Urban Design Studio at OU Tulsa, and I graduate this week! I’m getting a master’s degree in Urban Design.  

H: That’s awesome, congrats! 

M: I’m Marshall Stringer, Jessi’s brother. I am a senior, about to graduate from the Environmental Design program at OU 

H: Congrats to you, too! Jessi, when you decided OU was the place for you, what made you want to study Architecture? 

J: Originally, when I went to OU as a freshman, I was really interested in film, performance, and dance, and that’s what I was really focused on. My parents encouraged me to try everything and see what I liked, but by the end of my spring semester, I realized that wasn’t really a sustainable major. At least for me, I realized that in art-based majors, you have to be the absolute best. I had to be really honest with myself which was hard to come to terms with, “I’m really good, but I’m not the absolute best, so what’s another great way I can express myself and still get to practice creativity but make a difference in this world.” Lots of people encouraged me to try architecture, and some people approached me saying “you look like an architecture major. I didn’t even know what that was, but as a sophomore, I went into the architecture program and just fell in love. Architecture found me, and I’m really happy it did. 

H: On top of that, what made you want to pursue a graduate degree in urban design? 

J: In my last year of architecture school, on a whim, I took an urban design class with Shane Hampton, and I immediately fell in love with urban design. This idea that I could do large scale architecture, work within communities, make a really big difference in people’s lives, and create projects that would outlive me and even my children was really attractive to me. So I started talking to Shane after classes and asking him “is there more I can do with this.” He recommended the masters in urban design at OU Tulsa and encouraged me to look into it. From that point on, I knew that was exactly what I’d be doing after graduating with my bachelor’s in architecture. 

H: That’s so cool. Was it a big transition going from Norman to Tulsa? 

J: No, it really wasn’t a big transition going from undergrad to grad school. The summer after graduating from architecture school was actually my first summer without summer school in eight years. So really the transition from summer to grad school and transitioning from working 8-5 and having night classes, that was a little tough because, after 5 pm of sitting in a chair and drafting all day, I had to go right into class. That was probably the hardest transition, but now that I’m at the tail end, I can definitely say it was well worth it.  

H: Wonderful. So, Marshall, what made you want to study architecture and Environmental Design? 

M: I went undeclared my first year at OU, and I took some classes at OCCC during my last few years in high school. I was focused on seeing what I was interested in because I wanted to make sure I made the right choice. I jumped all over the place from engineering, theater, education, I was all over the spectrum, and I decided to give urban design a try because Jessi talked to me about it. I ended up loving it; it was the first place that everyone seemed excited to learn something. Everywhere else, it seemed like each college was competing to be the most grueling. But Shane and Ron were proud of the program they built.  

H: Nice! I find it interesting that you both seem to have interests outside of architecture, but you both ended up in architecture.

J: Yeah, we’ve talked about that a lot. It was interesting because I lot of people assumed that my brother just followed the same path I did, but we are both lucky that our parents encouraged us to be independent and follow our own paths. Maybe it was our upbringing but we both have led similar lives so far

M: I think it’s our love for design that brought us here, and architecture is the best way to show that love and passion through a career. 

H: On such a large scale, too. What’s it like to have a sibling in the same college as you? Do you see each other a lot? 

J: Unfortunately, in my fifth, final year as an undergrad in architecture at OU, my brother was still going around, figuring out what he wanted to do, and experimenting with different majors. Then I graduated and went up to OU Tulsa, and that was around the same time he joined Gibbs. We just missed each other, and we didn’t really get to spend that much time with each other, but a ton of professors from Gibbs come up to OU Tulsa to participate in Design charettes and listen to us present certain projects, and it’s always so heartwarming to walking and they immediately start talking about my brother. It’s like we’re still connected. 

H: I think that really speaks to the family aspect here at Gibbs. 

Image credit: Jessi and Marshall Stringer

J: Yeah, it’s so nice. When two professors, who were a part of my jury that reviewed my final defense for my professional project as a graduate, we realized that I had known them for nine years, almost a decade. It really is a family here at Gibbs. Now I’m friends with my professors on Facebook, and they’ll reach out and we’ll go get coffee and talk about my career. I wasn’t really “in” any other colleges so I don’t really know if other colleges are like that, but I like to think that Gibbs is special. 

M: Yeah, one of the first classes you’re required to take at Gibbs is about collaboration with other career paths in Gibbs college. You think you understand at first, but it takes a lot of group projects, frustration, and success to learn how to collaborate with people who work differently and think differently. 

H: Definitely, I know that first hand from Visual Communications—it’s an experience.  

J: Yeah, and being forced into somewhat uncomfortable environments where you’re working with people who you don’t necessarily…

M: Or working with equipment you’ve never used before 

J: Yeah, working with people or things that are unfamiliar. Gibbs has created such a positive, open environment where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions, and it encourages that sense of curiosity where it’s okay if you don’t understand things. It forces you to communicate with one another, which is so vital in our profession. Communicating with others to create a successful project. Just in architecture, there are so many factors between the contractors, subcontractors, clients, investors, owners, vendors, and in architecture, you play the role of being the maestro. If everything falls apart, the architect gets sued. But communicating, being able to admit that you’re wrong, and remedying your mistakes is so vital in the profession, and I’m realizing now that I’m in the profession that Gibbs was instilling that ability in us right there in school and I appreciate that.

H: It’s real-world experience. This is a broad question for both of you: what’s your favorite part about Gibbs college?   

M: I’d say the faculty stand out from other colleges. 

J: I’d 100% support that. That is exactly what I was going to say. I’ve taken the gen-ed courses and professors announce their office hours, but they have very strict hours, their doors are always closed, and it’s very formal and rigid. In the college of architecture, I would take the long way to class just to walk down the faculty hallway, just to see who was playing what music, what professors are in their office, and their doors are almost always open. 

M: Yeah, there were many times where I could just pop into a professor’s office unannounced and ask for help on a program I didn’t know how to use, and they pull it up on their computers and show us then and there. 

J: They’ll majorly go out of their way to make sure you feel comfortable. I don’t think one professor has ever said, “come back, it’s a bad time.” Even if it was a bad time, they’re always so accepting. 

M: Not just professors, advisors, too. Erin does a great job at advising. 

J: Yeah, we have a really great advisor in our college, Erin Tyler, is awesome. Even down to our maintenance staff, Jerry. He’d not even a professor, but I’ve learned so much from Jerry. He’s the nicest guy, and he’s always checking in on our mental health. 

H: That’s really cool. I assume that’s from long hours in the studio, and they come and say hi? 

J: Yeah, they just understand. I think most colleges don’t have that. 

H: Yeah! For a quick change of pace: what projects are you currently working on? And before the coronavirus stuff, what were you working on? 

J: I just finished up my professional project which was a year-long project. It was a community-related project. It started when a stakeholder group here in Tulsa invited me to solve some community-related problems. They live in a historical area that’s been forgotten—no one knows it’s historical—and they want to celebrate it. I worked with the stakeholder group for about five months, and I started to get really irritated because they continuously avoided the community or having community events.

Despite my advice, they continuously dismissed anything involving the community which really bothered me because I knew they were going to peddle in place for a really long time. Had this been a job, I would have persevered and stuck with them despite their dismissal to invest in their own community, but because I had to graduate and present something to my jury in less than six months, I actually turned back to my original roots of film-making, theater, and performance. I used those skills to recreate my professional project. I actually ended up filming a documentary about community engagement, and the documentary explains why community-engagement is so important, why it is so stable, and how when you start talking to community members, you learn that lots more of them are on the same page than they’re not.

Even if there’s this animosity within a community, you learn that likely the community engagement won’t result in chaos. Most of the time, people get along. I created a documentary displaying just that so future urban design students and possibly even other stakeholder groups can learn from my video, and it will hopefully save them a lot of time and anxiety in the future. So, that was the project I just finished up last week. 

Image credit: Jessi and Marshall Stringer, Jessi recording for her documentary

H: That’s really awesome! It’s really awesome that you were able to combine your past skills to create that. 

J: Yeah, it’s kind of a miracle 

H: Yeah, good for you! How about you, Marshall? 

M: I have two projects that I worked on at the end of this semester. This semester was more about filling in my schedule because I am a senior, but before that, I had my capstone and all the ending courses of Environmental Design. For my capstone, we worked with a group in Chickasha, and it was focused on adding things to make the community more engaged and boost the city’s economy by getting people more active. Our project was adding dog parks around the community.

We got to go out there and talk to a lot of residents, business owners, and map out the city. Another project I worked on was for Shane Hampton’s Practicum course. Brendan Summerville and I worked in the wood-working shop for days. That’s one of those things where I didn’t think I’d ever need that knowledge, but simply working with a classmate taught me so much. We worked with GIS majors in making a historical map of Norman that would help people who aren’t from Norman, who are moving in to become closer to the community. We put together a map and a pamphlet of what makes Norman, Norman. We had a huge wooden project which, as far as I know, is still displayed outside the Gibbs gallery.  

H: Nice! You’ve left your mark! Between the two of you, it sounds like you’ve made some pretty cool stuff! 

J: Thank you! I like to think that we’ve been given so many unique opportunities. 

M: Yeah, there are so many tools that are just ready, the technology is crazy. 

J: Even getting a bachelor’s degree at the Gibbs College of Architecture is like getting a Ph.D. You can really make it what you want. If you walked up to a professor and said,” I’m really interested in getting dog parks in the city or celebrating a city in a certain way,” they’ll jump through hoops to make it happen for you. They’ll help you study literally anything you want to study, and if you want to craft your own major, they will make it happen for you. I love that flexibility and the hybrid-model to assist students in bettering themselves in exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. 

H: I’m a big believer in the philosophy of “it’s not work if you’re having fun,” and that’s how it sounds for y’all! You sound very passionate. 

J: I agree completely. I’ve dedicated so much time and so many hours to this documentary project, but just the reactions I’ve had from my jury, my professor, and the director of my program, and how elated they were to see all of my work and even encouraging me to turn it into a Ph.D. (which gives me anxiety) is so exciting and it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like you’ve made a difference in at least one person’s life and inspired them to be a better person because of it. And you’re right, at that point, it’s not work, it’s just doing your part.    

H: Yeah, it’s a passion project. From there, what are the next steps for you both, since you’re both graduating soon? What are your plans for after graduation? 

J: I actually want to continue my project a little bit and expand on the documentary and conduct more interviews. Because of the COVID-19 issue, a lot of interviews got canceled, and I still made my documentary, but I would like to finish that. I don’t like leaving things incomplete. Right now, I work at an architecture firm and it has been a wonderful experience, but I have all the hours I need to qualify to take the ARE exams. So, while I’m studying to take those exams, exams that you have to take in order to become a licensed architect, I’d really like to work in a community engagement position—working more in urban design and less in architecture, though I love architecture. I really want to work in communities, that’s where I’m happiest. 

M: I am going to take a break from school and work, but hopefully in the future, my plan was always to do the master’s program in Landscape Architecture, and that’s been my passion and my drive the whole time. But I’m taking a break from school for now.

H: Nice! That’ll help you be more refreshed.  What advice would you give to prospective Gibbs college students? 

J: It’s going to be really hard 

M: Yeah, you’re going to pull all-nighters…

J: A lot. Not just during finals week, but I think it’s worth it.

M: Yeah, just know that that’s normal. You’re going to be alright in the end.

J: I will say, the college of architecture is really tough, and it goes back to what Marshall said earlier. When you’re looking at other colleges and deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life and figuring out which major to declare, it does seem like other schools are fighting to be the toughest, but the college of architecture doesn’t advertise that at all. They don’t act like the toughest, but in reality, I think it’s one of the hardest schools to stay in. They really push you and the faculty, staff, and professors are always there for you, but they also expect you to do your best at all times.

M: Also, you have to be able to take criticism and look at it as someone pushing you because they know that you’re capable of more and not. I’m sure art school is identical, but you can’t take it personally. You have to look past it and see that the professors see more in you even if you don’t see it.

J: That’s true, in my experience, the students who struggled the most are the ones who would argue with the professors rather than accept their reviews because in reality, when you’re dealing with clients in the future, you can’t argue with them if they criticize your work. Argue your point briefly, but you can’t fight tooth and nail for something that, in the grand scheme, doesn’t really matter. But students who had the toughest time and didn’t enjoy themselves were the ones who would butt heads with the professors rather than realizing that they have a lot more experience than us and they know what’s best for us and we can learn from everything they have to share.

H: I think that’s one of the most valuable things about college; you get that constructive criticism. Though it’s not always fun to hear, you grow from it.

J: Absolutely. And when issues do arise in the real world (and they will), no matter what your job or profession, what sets you apart is the fact that you can roll with the punches and keep moving forward despite the setback. The Gibbs College of Architecture definitely teaches us to so that and to do it as gracefully as possible.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.