Class of ’24: Far from home, Architecture student looks to tomorrow

Class of ’24: Far from home, Architecture student looks to tomorrow

Iryna Olkhovetska stands in front of a series of designs and pictures located on the wall inside of the School of Architecture + Community Development.

Each year, University of Detroit Mercy’s Marketing & Communications department profiles members of the graduating classes. Students chosen were nominated by staff and faculty for their contributions to the life of the University. Click here for more information about 2024 commencement exercises.

“Starting life anew in a foreign country is not an easy task,” said Iryna Olkhovetska. The native of Lviv in western Ukraine will graduate from University of Detroit Mercy May 11 with a master’s degree in Architecture.

Iryna OlkhovetskaOlkhovetska is a first-generation college student, who made the difficult decision with her family to leave their home in Ukraine and move to the United States in search of a brighter future six years ago. Today, she is proud to be an American citizen. More importantly, she embraces her identity as both a Ukrainian and American and strives to honor her roots while building a future in the land of opportunity.

Upon arriving in the U.S. and joining her parents, Olkhovetska enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to learn a language she had little experience with.

Though apprehensive by what seemed like daunting steps to apply to any university, she chose UDM because of the tight-knit, community-type atmosphere. Before leaving Ukraine, she had completed her bachelor’s degree in Architecture in Ukraine and found that the one year the MCD program required was a great selling point over other universities with traditional two- or three-year master’s degree programs.

“What makes UDM special is the architecture student’s explosion into the field,” she said.  “Students hit the ground running from the outset. On day one of class, students are required to introduce and then defend their thesis/idea on a small, paper-sized poster before an audience of classmates and professors.”

Olkhovetska recalls being terrified at this task of presenting her ideas to people who were basically strangers. She remarks on how astonishing it felt nine months later when she not only presented an elaborate thesis but defended it with poise and confidence.

She is passionate about her thesis, “Paradigm Shift: Rethinking the Notion of Detroit’s Suburban Neighborhoods by Exploring European-Inspired Design Strategies.”

“This topic is very close to my heart as an immigrant who moved to the Detroit suburbs and was struck by the stark differences from the more vibrant, community-oriented neighborhoods I was used to back home,” she said.

She notes that her thesis is “a heartfelt plea for a more human-centric approach to urban planning, one that recognizes the deep impact our built environment has on our quality of life. I want to use my skills and passion to create a better world, one neighborhood at a time.”

In her experience relocating from Ukraine to a Detroit suburb, Olkhovetska said, “I was amazed by the car-centric design, lack of walkability and absence of lively public spaces compared to the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities I grew up with.”

It piqued her curiosity and motivated her to explore European design strategies such as prioritizing walkability with well-connected street grids, neighborhoods centered around lively public squares, parks that foster social interaction and investment in robust public transit networks to reduce car dependency, all of which could potentially transform the quality of life and sustainability of Detroit’s suburban neighborhoods.

“My goal was to show how even auto-centric suburbs could evolve into more inclusive, sustainable, and inspiring places through strategic urban design interventions,” she said.

“If the opportunity presents itself I would love to apply some of these concepts to my work at Fishbeck,” she added.

Fishbeck is a Michigan-based architecture and engineering firm, where she will intern on the healthcare team working on design strategies for hospitals and labs. She landed this opportunity after a mock interview in a professional environment preparation class as part of her curriculum at UDM.  “I’m optimistic that we’re at a paradigm-shifting moment for Detroit-area suburbs, and I am eager to contribute through research and practice.”

Outside of her classwork, Olkhovetska is also an artist who uses her talent to support her war-torn homeland. A group of women from the Ukrainian community in the Detroit area created a nonprofit organization called Ukrainian Girls Help Together, and she has played an active role in the organization.

The group comprises a talented cast skilled in beading, T-shirt printing, and jewelry making as well as communication and networking. Olkhovetska initially added her paintings to the handmade products of group members who sell at various Ukrainian exhibitions and events. Her participation in this group has evolved into teaching art classes and donating her earnings to the group. Girls Help Together supports not only Ukraine’s military but also its orphanages, homes for the elderly, and even animal shelters.

“I am incredibly proud of these girls because, despite our busy lives, we remain committed to our common goal and continue working tirelessly toward it,” she said.

At an early age, Olkhovetska knew her future would involve creativity, and in high school, she developed a clear interest in the exact sciences.

“I believe that my creative soul and precise mind are perfectly suited for a career in architecture, where I can combine my passion for design with my analytical skills,” she said. “Architecture is so fascinating. If it’s new, it’s not boring because I’m learning. I’m exploring something new.”

Her next steps include obtaining her architecture license. She is grateful for the help of her professors who aided her on this journey. She also appreciates the dedication of her adviser, Wladek Fuchs, and program director Claudia Bernasconi, under whose guidance she was able to blend her “creative and technical instincts.”

To prospective UDM students, Olkhovetska offers some advice: “Don’t be afraid to seek help; just ask for it. Part of the distinctiveness of UDM community is not only its professors, but also the students, where everybody helps each other. Communication is key,” she says. “There is nothing you can’t solve together.”

By Julie A. Erwin. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.