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ASU Architecture Students Travel to Ethiopia for Humanitarian Design Projects

March 20, 2012

By David Hill

American Architectural Foundation president and CEO Ronald Bogle
Image courtesy Jack DeBartolo 3

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Every April, faculty members at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts meet with graduate architecture students to present options for a half-dozen or so international studio courses. It’s a chance for professors to “sell” their programs, but adjunct professor Jack DeBartolo 3 takes a somewhat different approach.

“I spend most of my presentation trying to discourage students from coming,” says the 42-year-old DeBartolo, who for the last two years has led groups of ASU students to Ethiopia. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to take you to one of the most poverty-stricken places on earth. I’m going to ask you not to complain, and to tolerate whatever we eat and however we sleep. There will be a lot of discomfort, the potential of getting ill, and I’m just going to ask you to go with it and give yourself up for 10 days.’ I definitely try to discourage the weak-minded, the Starbucks-addicted, and anyone who may find American comforts just too good to leave behind.”

And yet, they’re eager to sign up for DeBartolo’s EthiopiaStudio. In 2010, the architect took 11 students to the village of Soddo, about 250 miles south of the capital of Addis Ababa, to design an orphanage. DeBartolo, a principal at Phoenix-based DeBartolo Architects, runs the studio like a professional firm, dividing up tasks and responsibilities depending on students’ skills, interests, and personalities. During their 2010 visit, the students met with stakeholders, studied local buildings, and identified potential builders. When they returned to Tempe, they spent the rest of the semester developing a design and producing construction documents. Construction of the orphanage is now under way.

Last September, DeBartolo returned to Ethiopia with a new group of students. This time they traveled to Shebraber, a remote village about 120 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, where they began the process of designing a school for about 2,000 students. Both projects are partnerships with the 4Mati Foundation, founded by a Phoenix couple, Brian and Keri deGuzman, who have adopted four children from Ethiopia. The organization has raised funds for several community-based programs there and is footing construction costs for the two EthiopiaStudio projects.

The students come back from Africa “as different people,” says DeBartolo. The experience “opens their eyes up to the world. They embrace the idea that design is not just for the one percent of the world.” Many say they intend to keep doing humanitarian design work as professionals.

Next fall, DeBartolo is considering taking students to Haiti rather than Ethiopia. He thought of taking a break altogether, as the trips are intense and tiring, but changed his mind. “It would be hard for me not to do this,” he says. “It’s too special.”

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