Experiential Learning & Co-op   |   Featured Students

Ryan Gagnebin sends a Postcard from Shanghai

Following a great post on his time studying abroad in Berlin, Germany, we asked Ryan Gagnebin to share some thoughts on his recent semester in Shanghai, China with fellow School of Architecture students. Here are Ryan’s words about culture shock, from busy streets to office suites, from half a world away.

Where was your co-op placement?

I was fortunate enough to spend my very first co-op working at ZEROLABOFFICE in Shanghai, China.

What did you learn while on co-op?

Needless to say, I learned a lot while on co-op in China. Of course, I learned a lot at work—I learned a lot about the business of architecture, working in an office environment, working with clients, and collaborating as a team. I learned a lot outside of work about people in general, about Chinese culture, and I even learned how to speak a little Mandarin (not easy). But most important to me is that I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of. I had to grow up fast when I got to Shanghai, and I think that sounds terrifying to a lot of people but I can honestly say  that I am glad it happened the way it did. When you have that experience halfway across the world there is no time to be scared, only time to adapt and grow. I never would have thought that at twenty years old I would be living and working in China, but somehow I did it and it always makes me wonder, “what else can I do?”

Gagnebin work site

What experiences in the School of Architecture helped prepare you for this placement?

To be fair, my answer to this question would be been very different had the first letter of my last name been in the latter half of the alphabet. My classmates and I were split in half alphabetically, with A through L going on co-op in the fall and M though Z going to Berlin for a mandatory semester abroad. The rotation switched in the spring, with my group going to Berlin and the other half starting their first co-ops. That semester spent studying architecture in Berlin was the best semester of my life (a story for another time), and had it come first there is no telling how it would have affected my preparation for Shanghai. That’s not how the cards were dealt, and I don’t think it would have mattered had the circumstances been any different. Being in architecture school has helped me hone skills as an independent thinker and designer, but co-op is an opportunity to prepare for the rest of your life.

How did your placement affect your plans for the future?

More than anything my placement in Shanghai prepared me for the unexpected, which sounds odd since I’m the one that made the choice, but I never really had any plans to go to China—I applied on a whim, got the interview, got the job, and said yes. That’s not to say I’m not making any plans for the future, but something I’ve learned both as an architecture student and from my experiences abroad is that there is only so much value in planning. I put more value into goals and dreams. I want to receive my Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I want to work in Switzerland. I’d like to have my own design firm one day. So the only plan I have for now is to work as hard as possible to get there, and if a China sized opportunity presents itself again, well—I just might take it.


What was the most fun/interesting/unique thing you’ve done/experienced while in Shanghai?

The most interesting thing about my experience in Shanghai was meeting and getting to know all of the people I shared it with. Never before in my life have I met so many different people from so many different places—from France, the U.K., Italy, Germany, Romania, Japan. Believe it or not, I even ran into not one, but two fellow Northeastern students along the way (small world, eh?) Some were mere acquaintances and some were great friends that I may not see again for a very long time, or never again as long as I live, but those relationships made co-op one of the best experiences of my life and shaped some of my fondest memories.

Gagnebin students

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s funny—I spent this past December 17th at home in Bethel, Connecticut where I was born and raised. It marked the one-year anniversary of my return home to the states from Shanghai, and I don’t think it crossed my mind once. Somehow my memories of China seem like only yesterday, but from another lifetime entirely; incredibly vivid, but as if from a dream. People always ask me if I’m glad I did it, or if I’ll ever go back, and I always say I would do it a hundred times over, but I don’t want to go back. That’s not the answer people expect to hear, and it’s nothing personal, Shanghai! I love you! I just think that’s how you know you made the most of it: when the memories feel like yesterday, but you’re looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.