PGE Student Profile

Olivia Jia, AB'19

Chicago Studies Undergraduate Prize Recipient, Spring 2019

Olivia Jia.jpg

Inteview by Sam Joyce

Tell me about yourself and your academic background.

I'm a fourth-year. My first major is sociology with a focus on urban policies, urban studies. Within the sociology major, they let you craft your own concentration, so there's a lot of leeway, but most of my electives are focused on urban sociology. And then my second major is Environmental and Urban Studies, where I've also been more focused on the urban studies track, especially classes related to design and architecture.

What else are you involved with on campus?

I was the editor in chief for MODA, which is a fashion and lifestyle publication on campus. Since my second year, I've been a research assistant for [Professor of Urbanism and PGE Faculty Advisory Committee member] Emily Talen, doing literature reviews for her, helping her with a lot of her published work, doing research or editing. I'll continue working for Emily over the summer.

What did your BA research focus on?

I wrote a joint BA for both majors, so I had to touch on sociological ramifications and environmental or urban issues as well. I decided to focus on the Chinatown neighborhood in Chicago. As someone who's also Chinese American, I was really interested in honing my research to be related to the Chinese American community. I didn't initially start out as being Chicago-focused, but I always knew I wanted to focus on sense of place, and I thought this was the best way to do it, since I was in Chicago and I had all the interview and ethnographic data in front of me.

I use Chinatown as a case study for investigating how Chinese Americans formulate sense of place and create a sense of community and identity that is either unique to their environment, or potentially shared across a lot of minority groups and ethnic enclaves. I was really interested, specifically, in how the built environment and architecture plays a role in formulating sense of place and in influencing behavior and identity. I was really interested in of the tensions between the Chinese and Eastern-looking architecture that you see in parts of Chinatown, and more vernacular Chicago-style townhouses and six flats.

Did the Chicago Studies Quarter: Calumet shape your research or interest in Chicago?

I don't know if it directly shaped my research, but the Calumet Quarter was definitely the first time I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the City of Chicago. Even though you've been here for three or four, however many years, it is kind of hard to get out of the Hyde Park bubble. It was really insightful and engaging to interact with the city in a way that I never would have expected to before.

I think that quarter, rather than send me out on this track to investigate Chicago specifically, it opened my eyes to a more hands-on approach to data collecting. In the past, a lot of the lit reviews I've done or the papers I've written have been literature-focused, culling whatever is online, but that quarter and my BA research really required a hands-on approach, interacting with people and interacting with the environment in a way that's typically limited in a classroom.

Could you talk about some courses that were particularly influential?

I did a class with Amber Ginsburg in the Department of Visual Arts, offered every fall for four or five years, called Designing a House for a Kiln. It was essentially an architectural design and build course. By the time I took the course,  it was just build, so we were constructing a kiln from the ceramics classes. I think that was the first course I had at UChicago that was an introduction to construction and design. We worked with a local architectural design/build firm, so that was really amazing hands-on exposure to the back end of the process. I think a lot of times, we focus on the stuff like, "What was your impetus for design? What policy informed it?" but to see the end result and actually create something yourself was pretty cool

I keep wondering.

I also did a traveling seminar, I think it was through the Department of Art History, that was an architectural history and theory course at the Venice Architectural Biennial. It was incredible, really awesome, and we met with a lot of local firms and nonprofits that deal a lot with sustainability and climate change, specifically as it relates to Venice — they face a lot of issues with tourism and water conservation. It was really interesting to see a marriage of all this interesting theory and design that countries all around the world are proposing, and then to meet with locals who are very hands-on, talking about how to combat day-to-day issues.

What's the applicability of your research going forward?

Before I honed in on Chinatown, I initially thought about doing a comparative analysis of a Chinese community within an urban context and within a suburban context. There isn't really a lot of research out there that contextualizes sense of place in a comparative way. I'm trying to figure out the ways in which minority groups, or really any cohesive community, distinguishes itself in different urban schema. I also thought it'd be interesting to translate a lot of the ideas, like cognitive mapping, to other minority groups and ethnic enclaves in the city that have potentially experienced a lot more gentrification or a lot more movement of ingroups and outgroups.

Chinatown has remained fairly homogenous, and they have a pretty concrete and shared sense of what the community looks like and what its boundaries are. But if you live in Pilsen, or if you live in Little Village, how is that impacted by a different history of movement and migration?

What are your future plans?

The plan thus far is to go to architecture school for a Master's. I'm doing a summer program at the Illinois Institute of Technology that's an intro to architecture program. I have a really thorough exposure to urban policy and sociology through my UChicago experience, but in terms of technical skills, that's a requirement of architecture school that I can't really bring to the table. So I'm really interested in getting exposed to a lot of these ideas and issues, but through the lens of design.

I'm not sure if I want to focus specifically on architecture or more broadly, on urban planning or design. But the degree would be formal training in architectural design.

I've also been like an editorial intern for an architectural news site called ArchDaily, it's a daily news/archival source with a lot of architectural design information. It's a lot of stuff that's research and literature-focused, but not a lot of design, policy, real-world application. I'm excited to hopefully get a more hands-on approach to what I've been studying

I don't know where I'm gonna end up in however many years, but Chicago is a really fascinating and engaging place to be in terms of architecture and urban planning and urban design. There's a lot going up in the city right now.