Photo of Tosin Odugbemi MArch ’23

Tosin Odugbemi MArch ’24 often inhabits several spaces simultaneously, a skill and perspective that deeply benefits her study of the built environment. A child of two doctors, Tosin moved with her family from South Africa to Canada at a young age. She grew up in the prairies of British Columbia in a predominantly white neighborhood, with Nigerian parents at home who emphasized strength of character, hard work, and exceptional academics. Coming to Cambridge to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design added another cultural shift, where Tosin’s experience as an immigrant and international student has made her unique and a valuable voice in the community.

“My past experiences as a visible minority in my hometown have trained me to be unafraid to embrace my idiosyncrasies, freeing me to bring new perspectives and actions to architecture,” Tosin said. “Growing up in a different country with immigrant parents means that there are issues that I can speak to, understand, research, and be passionate about that my peers and classmates might not relate to.”

Tosin was a highly academic young student who was passionate about art and excelled in math. Her parents encouraged her to research careers that dovetailed with her interests and tailor her extracurriculars accordingly. They floated the idea of architecture; 10-year-old Tosin latched on and pursued design in full force. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the University of British Columbia, then applied and was accepted to the GSD.

“I wanted to have the freedom to pursue multiple avenues of a design career, including various modes of practice, entrepreneurship, and teaching, and I knew that Ivy Leagues and other prestigious schools would afford me the privilege to choose,” Tosin said. “Though I was blessed to receive acceptance into all six institutions I applied to, my decision to attend the GSD came down to culture, diversity, faculty, location, and funding. I had heard wonderful things about Boston and was attracted to the academic work produced at the GSD. The diversity of the student body felt more aligned with what I was looking for than in peer schools.”

Tosin added that financial aid played a large role in her decision about where to attend school. Fortunately, she was able to take advantage of the financial aid available at the GSD, including support from the John E. (Jack) Irving Fellowship Fund. Established in 2014 by John K. F. Irving AB ’83, MBA ’89 and Anne Irving Oxley in honor of their father, Jack Irving, the fellowship provides financial aid with a preference for GSD students from Canada. Those funds liberated Tosin to focus on her research and academic work, which explores how people interact with architecture on an emotional, physical, and neurological level and prioritizes the experience of the user in her projects.

“It’s been really helpful to have the support of this fellowship so I can pursue this degree,” Tosin said. “I’ve also been in situations where I had to move suddenly, and the GSD has been able to help through the Student Emergency Fund. I do have to work quite a bit, but I can focus on school and know the basics are paid for.”

There is a small percentage of Black people in design, so I want to be here and be a present voice. It means a lot to have representation and see a Black woman who’s studying and being academic, and has this type of career she’s building for herself.

Tosin is also heavily involved in the Black in Design Mentorship, a 10-week partnership program with design firm Perkins&Will for Boston-area Black high school students interested in design. As part of that program, Tosin has worked closely with Senior Director of Early Design Education Megan Panzano MArch ’10, calling her “a wonderful mentor” throughout her time at the school.

“She has truly made the GSD feel warm to me,” Tosin said. “Her allyship and advocacy for young Black designers are commendable, and I am blessed to know her. Instructors like Megan have sparked the joy of learning for me and kept me engaged in the GSD community, even when my instinct would lead me to retreat.”

As she approaches graduation this spring, Tosin is exploring how she can combine her practice of architecture with instructing the next generation. She hopes to teach future designers while taking the leap to start her own practice. After founding a boutique branding studio in 2020 to help small business owners with visual brand strategy and commercial interior design, she is already well on her way.

“There is a small percentage of Black people in design, so I want to be here and be a present voice,” Tosin said. “It means a lot to have representation and see a Black woman who’s studying and being academic, and has this type of career she’s building for herself. It’s helpful to these students, and it would have been helpful to me, too, to have that at that age.”

Alumni and friends of the GSD have the opportunity to support students like Tosin through the Future Design Leaders Match.