Educational study abroad programs allow students to leave their “safety zones” and learn in a different way and in a different place. But when it is not practical to travel to new countries or continents, the same results can be achieved by staying closer to home.

That has been the mantra for Hostos Community College’s Media Design professors Sarah Sandman and Catherine Lewis as they have reinterpreted the study abroad educational model. In the summer of 2011, Professors Sandman and Lewis kicked off the “Hostos Design Lab,” a local field study model designed to enhance students’ urban community college experience. Entering its fourth year, this summer program incorporates landscapes, targeted inquiry, community engagement and collaborative authorship.

Comprised of students from the Hostos Media Design program, year one took the group to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) to answer the question, "What is a cultural worker?" through interviews with members of the Berkshire community. For the second installment in 2012, a new group of 11 Design Lab students traveled to Wassaic, NY, to work with artists involved with the “Wassaic Project.” The artist-run multidisciplinary arts organization focuses on building community engagement and cultural capital and Hostos students participated in its annual summer festival. And last summer, the Lab was in Averill Park, NY, to work with the organization Arts, Letters & Numbers. Students worked side-by-side with students from Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark in various creative workshops.

In Averill Park, the students’ main project was a collaborative video expressing their visual interpretation of the term, “chora.” The video highlighted individual and group work, along with the student's documentation of the workshop's final performance.

“Working with students at Hostos Design Lab has been an experience like no other. I was so proud to see our students jump right into the creative challenge that the environment of Arts, Letters and Numbers provided…They quickly absorbed the ethos of the community we visited - one of sharing and shared responsibility - and they used that mentality to help each other and to contribute to the community we were visiting. Back at Hostos, I’ve seen these students take on new leadership roles in the digital design community, helping their fellow students and bringing infectious confidence and a collaborative spirit that are crucial ingredients for a successful design career, or any other path they may choose,” said Jill Allyn Peterson, one of the Media Design Lab professors.

At Wassaic, professors Lewis and Sandman mixed in a bit of sociology and posed the question: “What is a Gift Economy?” In sociology, a gift economy differs from a barter economy or a market economy because goods and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future reciprocity. A defining component of this economic system is the recurrent circulation and redistribution of valuables within a community.

And at Mass MoCA, there were lessons in intensive fieldwork and research—capturing photography, audio and video interviews with local artists, farmers, photographers, writers, soap-makers, saddlers and choreographers. Workshops introduced students to the evolutionary communication design process from investigation, to innovation, to development, to actualization. For these Hostos students, many of whom were born and raised in urban communities, this trip to North Adams, Massachusetts opened a whole new world. The final result of this research was a multi-media exhibition at the Museumas well as a gallery show back at the Hostos Longwood Art Gallery.

Although the group of students always changes, the mission of the Design Lab is constant: take students out of their urban comfort zone and teach them new skills in unconventional ways.

“I can honestly say that had I not decided to accept the invite, I would still be stuck in my ways and not opened to collaborative work of any kind unless demanded by assignment,” said Hostos alum Shoshone Johnson (HDL 2012, Wassaic). “I was the type of person to take on everything by myself. Working with others showed me that my ideas are not always the best, and sometimes having others there to probe your mind even further is great.”

It is also important to note that students who are selected for the Design Lab are not graded in the traditional sense. Their work is real, but it does not earn them college credits. The experience is rigorous but their commitment is evaluated outside the traditional grading sphere.

“The Hostos Design Lab creates a space for students to explore new communities while pushing their understanding of design. As an educator, I loved watching how the students absorbed these new experiences, paired them with their own, and then returned back to us with a refreshed point of view. In the absence of grades and the institution's walls, students found motivation in the joy of the design process as well as a deeper understanding of true collaboration,” said Professor Catherine Lewis.

“It was imperative for my creative experience that we not be evaluated by letter grades. This presented an opportunity for us as students to become more comfortable with different types of evaluation. After this experience grades became the ‘easy’ way to be evaluated,” said Hostos alum Rocío Rayo.

The work of the Design Lab students doesn’t end when students return. Blogs, such as the one created for the experience in Averill Park, Flickr pages, and other social media sites have been created to document the program and allow students to continue to exchange ideas.

Currently, the 2014 edition is still dependent on funding, but Sandman said she is hoping to raise the $12,000 needed through various efforts before the summer intensive begins in July.

 “It's incredible to see a group of students, who only a week prior were unsure of each other, their surroundings and their purpose, transform into trusting friends engaging in a new community with great confidence,” Sandman said. “Study 'local' experiences for urban community colleges provide high impact learning that can only happen outside of the classroom. As community college professors, I think we owe it to our students to facilitate such meaningful practices.”

Regardless of where the Design Lab travels next, it has shown the ability to expose students to new surroundings and people, while stoking the fire of each artist inside.

“Being part of the Hostos Design Lab has motivated me to keep pursuing graphic design,” said Hostos student Joe Urbina. “After seeing how artists live and how they pursue their goals and continue with their love for art, I now see a part of myself like those artists.”

About Hostos Community College
Eugenio María de Hostos Community College is an educational agent for change that has been transforming and improving the quality of life in the South Bronx and neighboring communities since 1968. It serves as a gateway to intellectual growth and socioeconomic mobility, as well as a point of departure for lifelong learning, success in professional careers, and transfer to advanced higher education programs. The College’s unique "Student Success Coaching Unit" provides students with individualized guidance and exemplifies its emphasis on student support services.

Hostos offers 29 associate degree programs and five certificate programs that facilitate easy transfer to CUNY's four-year colleges or baccalaureate studies at other institutions. The College has an award-winning Division of Continuing Education & Workforce Development that offers professional development courses and certificate-bearing workforce training programs. Hostos is part of The City University of New York (CUNY), the nation's leading urban public university, which serves more than 480,000 students at 24 colleges.