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DSI / Social Design
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Catching up with Danielle Hernandez (’19)

With an initial focus on healing through visual art and design, Danielle Hernandez (‘19) has always had a passion for working with people and adopting a human-centered approach in her work, it just took her some time and experience to put that calling into practice. 

Prior to DSI, Danielle attended Iowa State University and graduated in 2015 with a degree in graphic design. In her senior year she made the decision to apply for the Peace Corps, knowing that she wanted to establish art therapy systems for women and children in Morocco. Unfortunately, the program she hoped to attend that year was shut down and her application was rejected, but she was not deterred from pursuing a similar path in the future. 

This opportunity came relatively quickly, as the following year held the infamous 2016 election. Donald Trump being elected into office was the catalyst for Danielle’s graduate school search, and she began working on applications a mere week after the polls closed. As her primary passion at the time, Danielle had every intent to pursue a masters in art therapy, and was even set to apply to SVA’s MPS Art Therapy program before discovering DSI in a stack of program brochures. Danielle decided to apply to DSI, saying that “it was a risk…. but it just seemed like the perfect fit. I didn’t think that something so specifically tailored to my interests existed, especially since I knew I wanted work more based in social impact.”

Once she officially joined the 2019 cohort, she found space to explore a variety of interests that happened to intersect with her initial passion for art therapy, but not in the ways she would’ve expected. While working on her thesis–Identity Explorers–she found that her mission to guide interracial families through a deeper exploration of ethnic-racial identity was helped along by the families’ preexisting interests in arts and crafts and imagination as pathways to youth identity development.The use of art and creativity helped her community partners when talking about race and other difficult conversations, allowing for more vulnerability and trust. When discussing the thesis process and design as a whole, Danielle said: “I found that, with design thinking in general, it’s not about coming to a problem with a solution already in mind. It’s more about tearing apart a problem and finding out what’s really at play there, and then establishing and prototyping the best methods of solving it.”

Danielle plans to continue work on her thesis, and hopes to scale it to suit communities in Illinois, where she currently works at the Siebel Center for Design. The Seibel Center is a multidisciplinary hub at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which aims to foster cross-department collaborations and promote human-centered design practices across campus. In her position at the Siebel Center, Danielle works on a number of individual projects, many of them in collaboration with fellow DSI alum Lu Rodrigues (‘19). The pair currently co-teach Design Thinking for Women’s Health and Wellbeing, and Danielle also teaches Design Thinking for Social Innovation with Rachel Dietkus, the Associate Director of Programs at the Seibel Center. Danielle has found teaching to be one of her favorite aspects of work, especially when it involves modeling new meanings of human-centered design to best suit students’ individual disciplines and passions. In addition to teaching courses, Danielle is working with Lu on a project that supports women experiencing breast cancer in informed decision making practices, and a separate project working toward building educational spaces that are more conducive to learning. This summer, she will also spearhead a project exploring available leadership opportunities for women on campus. The goal after the data-collection phase will be to better connect the school, and eventually help fill in the blanks necessary to help women succeed at the university level.

What advice does Danielle have  for incoming DSI students and applicants?  “They need to ask themselves if they’re ready. At least for me, my application was brought on by a series of events and a need to pivot my own career, but I did see a lot more focus in the students who were a little older and more experienced. They always had that North Star to come back to, whereas I came in wanting to learn more about different things. There’s no right way to do grad school, you just have to know what works for you. Really know within yourself that you want to be [at DSI].”

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