From independent major to top graduate school: Samantha Jaff ’11

One of the benefits of attending a liberal arts college like Colby is having the open flexibility in one’s studies to create an independent major. Samantha Jaff took advantage of this opportunity, creating and independent major in architecture. Jaff shared with the Echo just how her independent major and her experiences at Colby equipped her with the skills to attend one of the top architecture programs in the world.

During her time at Colby, Jaff was planning to major only in art history, but a survey of western art taught by Professor Emeritus David Simon piqued her interest in architecture. After taking the continuation of the course in the spring, it was clear to Jaff that architecture was something she wanted to pursue further. Unfortunately, Colby did not offer a major, so she was told to make her own in architecture.

One of the biggest questions people have when it comes to independent majors at Colby is the difficulty in finding classes that fit an appropriate curriculum for a given study. While the college’s academic program may be diverse, the class offerings are limited in comparison to those at a larger institution. However, this did not impede Jaff, as she was able to construct a complete independent major in architecture through putting courses together from a broad array of departments.

The core of her study was based around a pre-architecture program Jaff attended while abroad in Florence, Italy. “My classes in Italy were a big part of my major, as they were the only opportunity to get my hands wet in a design studio,” she said. Jaff had learned about the program through Simon, who also instructed a few architectural history classes that comprised the core of her major. In addition to these primary courses, Jaff  “took studio art classes that were relevant, like drawing and sculpture. I also took calculus, physics, furniture making and did a fair amount with Adjunct Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Jim Thurston taking his intro and intermediate design classes.”

Jaff graduated from the college with a double major in art history and architecture and began working immediately as a summer intern at LDa Architecture and Interiors. At the end of the season, the firm hired her as a full-time designer, and she worked there for the following two years. It was then she decided to apply for graduate school. She applied to and was accepted by several graduate programs, and finally settled at the Yale School of Architecture.

One might think that an individual with an independent major from a liberal arts college would have a hard time competing with individuals who attended highly specialized, pre-professional undergraduate programs, as many of her fellow students had done. Jaff asserts that her liberal arts background was the perfect match for Yale. “Architecture is like the ultimate liberal art. You need a little bit of the artistic creative stuff, you need a little bit of the engineering scientific mindset,  you need to be able to communicate clearly and efficiently, you need to understand history and theory as it comes into play all the time. I feel a Colby education is really well suited for architecture school,” she said. While there were certain disadvantages not coming from a specialized background, Jaff felt like they were minimal.“I wasn’t as well prepared for the technical stuff like software, and hadn’t really learned about current architectural discourse and what people specifically in the field are talking about. But you can learn computer programs on the fly. it is much more difficult to learn how to be a good writer and communicator.”

The access to leadership roles were where the College fronted its value. During her time at here Jaff was incredibly active and maintained leadership roles as the director of Broadway Musical Review, a member of the student executive board and Campus Visit Coordinator in admissions, a CCAK mentor and regular CVC volunteer. She said,“Just being an active participant in a community and getting exposure to real leadership roles while you are in school is a really important skill to have.” Jaff also noted that the connections she made with professors were especially important. “I would never be where I am today without the help of several professors at Colby, especially David Simon and Jim Thurston, not a chance. I benefitted not just from their classes, but from informal meetings and conversations with them along the way.”

Beyond strictly academic offerings, the College hosts speakers and events like the Art Department’s annual Southworth Lecture, which gives students the opportunity to meet and discuss with notable and influential people. It was at one Southworth Lecture where Jaff had a particularly serendipitous interaction. “David [Simon] used to get the most unbelievable people  to come. One year he got this woman named Deborah Berke. I had never heard of her before, but he assigned us some reading on her in my seminar and she came and gave the lecture. Afterwards, some other students and I went to grab a drink with her at the pub. She was just this really nice woman and gave us a lot of great advice.” However, this wasn’t Jaff’s final exchange with the award-winning architect. “Three years later I get to Yale and I find out she is a professor at the Architecture School. When I spoke with her she told that she remembered me and was happy to see me at Yale. Just a couple of months ago she was named the dean of the architecture school.”

While pursuing an independent major may seem daunting or inaccessible, Jaff says that it is worth it. “Just go for it if it is something you are really interested in. I think there is enough support at Colby and enough opportunities here to make it really valuable.” If you are not quite sure how to structure your independent major, Jaff suggests looking at what graduate schools in a particular field are looking for.

Now in her final semester at Yale, Jaff is putting her writing prowess to work as an editor for the 51st issue of Perspecta, the oldest student-edited architectural journal in the United States. As for her plans after graduation, Jaff hopes to work at an architecture or design firm in New York City. Overall Jaff notes that her time at Yale “has been incredibly challenging, but a really wonderful and exciting experience.”


Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated that Jaff is an editor of this year’s Perspecta, however, we have corrected it to state that Jaff is an editor of Perspecta 51, which will come out in Fall 2018.

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