Dr. Najla Mouchrek joins the Virginia Tech Honors College to empower and inspire Honors students
The Virginia Tech Honors College is proud to welcome one of its newest Collegiate Assistant Professors, Dr. Najla Mouchrek. Empowering the next generation through education, design, community, and mentorship is at the heart of Dr. Mouchrek’s career, which she will now bring to her work at the Honors College.
Dr. Mouchrek is a designer and scholar with an interdisciplinary PhD focused on participatory design applied to education and youth empowerment. After working in communication design for public universities in Brazil for 17 years, Dr. Mouchrek worked for four years in Academic Affairs at Virginia Tech as a designer supporting student-centered initiatives and systematic change strategies. She then continued to utilize human centered design to create meaningful experiences for students as well as develop structures for inclusion and collaboration among people from diverse worldviews and cultural backgrounds in her work for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech.
Now, Dr. Mouchrek joins the Virginia Tech Honors College as a collegiate assistant professor to further explore the potential of design-based methodologies to create community and promote transdisciplinary collaboration and learning in processes of change toward sustainable futures.
“Our responsibility as mentors in regards to the young population — because of world challenges — is increasing,” says Dr. Mouchrek. “I’m always thinking, ‘How can we support them? How can we leave some sort of legacy for them to carry?’”
Both in her work for institutions in Brazil and for Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries initiative, Dr. Mouchrek formed a series of participatory workshops. The workshops were designed to train students, faculty, and staff on how to collaborate with and learn from one another as well as practice feedback in policy and co-creation of strategies to address complex issues.
In 2019, Dr. Mouchrek earned her doctorate of philosophy at Virginia Tech, being the first graduate in the Individualized Interdisciplinary PhD Program. Before Dr. Mouchrek’s proposal to earn a doctoral degree in combining youth studies and human-centered design, no such program had existed at Virginia Tech. The effort spanned four disciplines and grew out of her work with the Human-Centered Design Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program, which provided an opportunity to continue research she began when she earned a master’s degree in design, innovation, and sustainability.
“In my PhD, I was working on how we could use design to support emerging adults, especially college students, in the process of empowerment and meaningful engagement in society,” she explains. “We need to do more because we don’t know what type of world they will inherit or what types of jobs will exist in ten years. We need to do more in terms of helping them to be prepared and also preparing them to be flexible.”
During her PhD project, Dr. Mouchrek developed a model of empowerment in emerging adulthood and transformed it to a semester-long curriculum for career exploration for students.
“Emerging adulthood is a moment of freedom and stress because 'you can be anything', but you have to do it for yourself. It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “This work has to do with student future trajectories — and now, I’m preparing to work on a class that’s not directly talking about that, but will indirectly touch that when finding how important it is to understand and take into account diverse perspectives when addressing complex global challenges. It will also be a way for students to envision ways to contribute with their disciplinary competences when participating in transdisciplinary teams.”
Dr. Mouchrek sees the Virginia Tech Honors College, a college which provides a new educational framework focused on experiential learning, undergraduate research, and collective real-world problem-solving by transdisciplinary groups of students, as a perfect fit to further make a bigger student impact.
“[The Virginia Tech Honors College] really opens the possibilities for students to develop themselves in their competencies and critical consciousness. I’m just happy to be a part of it,” says Dr. Mouchrek.
Fostering diversity and inclusion is also a crucial part of Dr. Mouchrek’s work. As former Assistant Dean for Interfaith Leadership and Holistic Development in the Interfaith Program at Virginia Tech, a program that she developed from scratch, Dr. Mouchrek created spaces for people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs to both engage and learn from one another using her background in communications.
“We were able to build an interfaith community on campus with a lot of interest from students, faculty, and staff,” she says. “We hosted a different series of events, two different trainings, and a series of dialogues — and we were able to do it in a way that people really enjoy participating in... It’s a little bittersweet for me to leave, but I’m proud of what happened there in terms of creating a community that hopefully will continue thriving.”
The Interfaith Program at Virginia Tech aims to promote constructive dialogue and build relationships across lines of difference, acknowledging the diversity of religious and non-religious identities on campus.
“Diversity of thought is really needed. We see how isolated we could be just with people that think the same way we do, or that come from the same background,” she says. “This is not intrinsically in the fields of communication and design, but we can use tools and mindsets in those fields to help people be more open to difference and learn how to build bridges across differences as well. This will all also connect to my current role [in the Honors College].”
In the Virginia Tech Honors College, Dr. Mouchrek will use her experience as Assistant Dean for Interfaith Leadership and Holistic Development to focus on creating engaging spaces for students across disciplines to learn from one another and to learn how to discuss complex global problems.
“If we want to address global challenges, we really do need everyone,” explains Dr. Mouchrek. “Holistic solutions will need people from all different perspectives working together.”
Dr. Mouchrek takes some of her inspiration from a theme of a favorite Brazilian song, Mais uma vez.
“[The lyrics suggest that] sometimes you need to believe in what you can’t see yet. This is true for the faith side of things, but also if you think about the creative endeavor. You need to see, to envision something before you’re able to bring it to fruition. I do believe there is something about creating a vision of what is possible, first,” explains Dr. Mouchrek.
She applies this same belief to the teacher–student mentoring relationship. “You have to be the one that sees where they can go, like a coach. The coach knows a lot more about an athlete’s potential than the athlete themselves, right? So, it’s this idea that the mentor can help students have a vision of their potential to realize outcomes.”
Dr. Mouchrek grew up in Brazil and earned her bachelor’s degree in Social Communication from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and her master’s degree in Design, Innovation, & Sustainability from the State University of Minas Gerais, both in her home country. Learn more about Dr. Mouchrek and her outstanding work on her website.
Written by Michelle Fleury