Student Spotlight: Kholisile Dhliwayo MDes ’24
“With more financial aid, we could have a greater diversity of students at the GSD. I know many people who would never consider applying because they don’t have the financial means. That could have been me, easily. If I leave the GSD and I end up with the means, I plan to give back because financial aid is essential.”
– Kholisile Dhliwayo MDes ’24
After completing his master’s in architecture in 2009, Kholisile moved from Australia to Toronto to New York, working in various corporate settings along the way. After three and a half years in New York, Kholisile left his corporate position and embarked on a period of self-employment that lasted until the onset of the pandemic. During this time, Kholisile became more acutely aware of how racial equity issues permeate society. Once the pandemic started, he realized that he did not wish to return to a corporate firm.
Kholisile began to reflect on his career and contemplate his next steps, entertaining the idea of returning to school. Initially, Kholisile saw the application process for graduate school as an opportunity for self-discovery—more so than the expectation of being accepted into the schools to which he applied. Putting together his portfolio became a period of meaningful, retrospective evaluation.
“In the reflection required to put together a portfolio, I realized I was most passionate about the work I had done that had a social impact. This process instigated profound introspection. I delved into the chapters of my career, the most fulfilling moments, and the instances that I remembered with dissonance. It prompted me to question how the work I was leading aligned with my values, preferences, and aspirations—unearthing the essence of what truly holds significance in my professional life.”
Through the application process, Kholisile realized that his most meaningful projects were interdisciplinary, involving mapping, oral narratives, and exhibition design. He wanted to combine these diverse elements in architecture, and saw the GSD’s Master in Design Studies (MDes) program as the ideal place to do so. His period of reflection proved fruitful; he was accepted.
The financial component of graduate school posed a challenge. After approaching the financial aid office and sharing his situation, he was able to secure a substantial financial aid package, making the GSD a feasible option.
“I was ecstatic. I’d never thought of going to Harvard as a possibility, and without financial aid, it would not have been. At my age , it just isn’t practical to take out excessive loans, and I wouldn’t have been able to make it work.”
Kholisile’s research focuses on oral narratives and their influence on the built environment, aiming to address the needs of marginalized communities. During his time at the GSD, he has taken classes that explore participatory design, equity in urban spaces, and the integration of oral histories.
His GSD courses helped him to expand on his past pursuits while beginning new ones. Kholisile is a founding member of afrOURban Inc., a 501c3 dedicated to documenting and celebrating more accurate narratives about the spaces occupied by Black people, both in the diaspora and on the African continent. He continues to lead afrOURban projects while designing exhibitions and deepening his skills.
“It’s important to have diverse voices present in decision-making processes to foster understanding and challenge perspectives. My primary focus is finding strategies and frameworks that can bring in other voices and decentralize the design process. How do you make sure that people have the power to decide what happens in their own neighborhoods?”
Kholisile is currently working on how to translate this cultural knowledge and narrative work into his personal work as a practicing architect. His time at the GSD so far has sharpened his tools, allowing him to uncover new ways to combine architecture, narrative, exhibition, and social entrepreneurship.
“Reflecting on my decision to apply to the GSD, I wanted to bridge my architectural work with the social impact of my extracurricular activities. From my perspective, architecture and design are on the cusp of significant changes in the coming years, and I see the GSD as a place that nurtures visionary leaders in the field.
Kholisile is a second year MDes student at the GSD, an Adrian Cheng Fellow at the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a 2023 fellow at the Center for Architecture Lab in NYC. He is also a founding member of afrOURban Inc., a 501c3 dedicated to documenting and celebrating more accurate narratives about the spaces occupied by Black people, both in the diaspora and on the African continent. He leads the afrOURban project Black Diasporas, a community-led geolocated oral mapping project that documents the experiences, spaces, and places in cities that have meaning to Black people. Kholisile is also the principal architect of the design practice Culture as Creative and has worked extensively in Naarm-Melbourne, Warrane-Sydney, Tkaronto-Toronto, and Manahatta-New York. Kholisile’s latest project, Brooklyn Bronzes, is an ode to the contribution of 20 Black Brooklynites and opened at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art in NYC in August of 2023.