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Designing healing spaces

Thayer meets with members of the Maasai tribe in the Maasai Mara.
Thayer on her trip to Africa in 2014, meeting with members of the Maasai tribe in the Maasai Mara.

Interior design graduate student Hannah Thayer first began thinking of design as a career choice when she visited a women’s shelter in Kenya in 2014.

Only 17 years old at the time, she was meeting young girls and women her age who had escaped abusive homes and were starting over in a safe and comforting place. One of the girls with a toddler was only 15 years old.

“She had nowhere else to go, and this shelter was a place of healing for her,” Thayer said. “That’s what really inspired me. I wanted to create spaces for people to heal and to help them create a better life for themselves.”

Thayer has followed her passion ever since and is now pursuing a master’s degree in interior design. She recently received the Architectural Research Centers Consortium (ARCC) King Student Medal for excellence in architectural and environmental research. Named in honor of the late Jonathan King, co-founder of the consortium, the award is given annually to one student per ARCC-member college.

Thayer’s research is highly interdisciplinary — a mix of interior design, healthcare, social ecology, and medical anthropology. She is studying how the design of rural health care clinics in Rwanda can support the health and well-being of genocide survivors who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“My goal is to create a framework that can be used in healthcare settings for at-risk populations,” she said.

In just a 100-day time period in 1994, about 800,000 members of the country’s Tutsi minority were viciously killed in a genocide by Hutu extremists. Since that time, the country has rebuilt itself with a focus on the unity of its people, said Thayer, who visited Rwanda as well as Uganda on her 2014 trip. Still, many people who survived the 1994 genocide experience PTSD.

“Part of coming together and building a stronger future requires acknowledging the past,” she said.

Thayer’s research addresses the issues within mental health care in health clinics and uses both Western and traditional medicinal practices to create a space of healing for those who are affected by trauma.

“By using medical anthropology, I can look at the population as a whole and their specific needs to inform holistic design decisions,” she said.

A rendering of a cafe within a grocery store.
Image from Thayer’s senior capstone project of a cafe within a grocery store.

In addition to in Rwanda, Thayer hopes her work can help other at-risk populations.

“I chose Rwandan genocide survivors because they hold a special place in my heart, but there are so many other groups that this work can be applied to,” she said. “Homeless people, older adults, those with substance abuse disorders, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and so many more face health discrimination every day. By opening up the health sector to acknowledge personal and cultural trauma, I believe that we can make positive change within these populations.

“Design has the power to heal and change lives,” she added.

Originally from California’s Bay Area, Thayer came to WSU as an undergraduate. She appreciates the well-rounded education she’s received.

“I have been taught how to design for both public and private use all over the world and I am incredibly grateful for those experiences,” she said.

Design isn’t just colors and furniture, she says. She has also learned about safety and the repercussions of poor design.

“It’s our job to create interiors that inspire but are also safe for users,” she said.

Thayer will graduate next spring and hopes to work for a non-profit organization to help underserved populations or possibly continue her education in public health. She would like to return and work in Africa.

“I know my experiences here at WSU will set me on the right path,” she said. “I am really excited to see where the future takes me.”

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