Dena Baskous Finds Her 'Glass Slipper' at NJIT

Dena Baskous - Architecture Student

Dena Baskous misses the wild open spaces of Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage, where she learned to love the manifold beauties of nature. When she was a girl, her parents often took her camping in the desolate woods. They would stay in a remote cabin without electricity or running water. It was paradise. It was the last frontier. And she loved it. “We lived like the way the pioneers did,” Dena recalls, “where all we worried about was the wildlife.” 

The girl who loved the ruggedness of nature, perhaps unsurprisingly, grew up to be a rugged athlete. After high school, she was recruited to play soccer at UConn, one of the leading soccer teams in the nation. She loved playing there, but something was missing. And that something brought her here, to NJIT.

In this interview, Dena talks about why she transferred to NJIT and why she is so successful and happy here.

Why did you first attend the University of Connecticut?
I attended the University of Connecticut primarily for its soccer team. The year I was recruited, the team had made it to the NCAA Division I championship. I had an opportunity to be part of a high-caliber team and I took it. Initially, I was excited to be on the second-best soccer team in the nation. I had a great time and learned so much playing at UConn. But there was one major problem: the university didn't have an architecture program. I was admitted to UConn's business school. And midway through the first semester, I was struggling to attend my courses, since I had no interest in them. I knew I wanted to study architecture. So during my second semester, I decided to take any course related to architecture -- against my adviser’s advice. I took classes in drawing, drafting and art history and I loved them all. At that point, I started looking for a college that would allow me to fulfill my two passions: architecture and soccer.

Is that why you transferred to NJIT?
Yes, I transferred here to study architecture and play Division I soccer. NJIT is one of the very few colleges in the country that offers a 5-year bachelor of architecture degree as well as a Division I athletic program. When I was searching for a college to transfer to, I focused on schools that had a first-rate architecture school and a great athletic program. NJIT was the glass slipper.

Was it hard switching from business management to architecture?
Studying architecture was frustrating my first year. It was a trial and error process, and the only way to succeed was to continue trying after multiple failures. But given my background in athletics, I was used to persevering through failure. Architecture was not something taught in my high school. Sure, I was interested in architecture. But I had minimal knowledge regarding how to properly study or create architecture; and at first, using the advanced computer software that we have access to only made my studies more complicated. Architecture is something you absolutely have to be passionate about. If you like the idea of it or even just appreciate it -- that is by no means qualification to study it. It is too intense of a learning environment. Our studio classes combine so many subjects and it takes persistent effort to do well in studio.

What’s best about the School of Architecture?
The School of Architecture attracted me for many reasons, but one in particular was its advanced use of the computer software. Architecture used to be something done with a pen and paper and penmanship was important to the craft. But today’s technology is a great aid to architects, and the school gives us the finest software in the field. We also have our own studio space with desks and computers. That helps to create a friendly learning environment, and there is always a classmate to help you. And you can guarantee that the night before a project review, 75 percent of the class will be working in their studios until after 3 a.m. The school is open 24 hours, which is great. And NJIT's location, being so close to NYC, one of the architecture capitals of the world -- is an added bonus!

Do you have a specialty within architecture? 
Over the summer, I did an internship at an architecture firm that taught me so much about the profession. So far in my classes, I have just scratched the surface of learning about design principles, construction methods and architectural history. But this summer, during my internship, I began to learn about the different phases that an architect goes through. I learned how to interact with clients, how to contend with legal issues related to architecture and how to deal with documents. I took a particular interest in field work, acting as a kind of intermediary between the architects and the construction crews. I consequently decided to enter a dual degree program that the school offers in construction management.

When did you first take an interest in architecture?
My interest in architecture was first sparked in elementary school, when my fifth grade  teacher asked the class to design a new entryway for our school. I didn't know this until recently, but my teacher had held onto my design project for many years. She saw my mother in town recently and gave her back my project. I consider that assignment my first architectural design proposal. Also, my mother always had appreciation for art and architecture, which we talked about a lot when I was growing up. That helped me get interested in architecture, too.

What was it like growing up in Anchorage, Alaska?
When people hear I grew up in Alaska, I'm usually bombarded with questions, usually about Alaska’s cold weather. But to me, weather is one of the least significant differences between Alaska and the rest of the country. While the cold, dark winters do sometimes get under your skin, they are not all that different from winter here in New Jersey. Alaskans just deal with winter on a larger scale.

What do your parents do?
My father is a physician. He was raised in upstate New York and loved the outdoors. So when he was offered a job at an Alaska Native Hospital, he was thrilled. My mother was raised in Sparta, Greece. When my parents were first married she worked with my father as his nurse until they settled down in Alaska and started a family. Once my brothers and I were older, my mom began teaching. She now teaches Greek language courses, Greek history as well as anatomy and physiology to middle school and high school students. She has a really curious mind and is interested in all those subjects, so they let her teach them. She recently went back to school to get a master’s degree in higher education. My dad is pragmatic and scientific and my mother is artistic, so I guess that is why I love architecture, which balances the arts and the sciences.

How do you balance architecture and soccer, two demanding endeavors?
The importance of education was always something that was stressed in my family. No matter what extra-curricular activities I pursued, I knew that academics came first. I was a busy child: I played soccer and also played the violin since I was five years old. I also played tennis, danced and traveled with a theater company.  And now that I'm in college, it seems natural to continue to thrive in a whirlwind of activity.

Studying architecture is very demanding. We are given design problems in studio with strict deadlines and reviews with critics. It is a rigorous learning process; architecture students work on a project for weeks, every day and every night. We have to propose a design, meet various drawing requirements, make physical and digital models, create a layout and present the project to an audience of between 25 and 200 students and professors and outside designers, all of whom can be harsh critics. And that’s just work for our main studio course! Other classes, such as history or systems courses, have more traditional curriculums with lots of reading, homework and tests. In the end, it is what we take from our other classes and apply to what we are designing in studio that is important.

What do you like most about architecture?
Architecture fascinates me because it balances science and art. In that sense, I believe architecture is one of the best-rounded fields. Architecture spans the extremes of the scientific and artistic spectrums, covering math, physics, music, politics and history. So many fields affect the architect and his or her work. I love the unlimited creativity that architecture offers, but as a student of architecture there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to master. It’s a never-ending learning-process. On the first day of my first-year studio class, I recall Dean Gauchat saying, “You will never again have nothing to do!” And he was absolutely right; an architect’s work can always be refined.

(Robert Florida, University Web Services)