Najla Mouchrek calls herself a designer and a scholar. She’s also a trailblazer.

Mouchrek is the first Virginia Tech graduate student to earn an Individualized Interdisciplinary Ph.D., called an IPhD. She also will be the student speaker at the Fall Graduate Commencement Ceremony at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 at Cassell Coliseum.

Four years ago, Mouchrek — now the program director for Interfaith Leadership and Holistic Development in the office of the Dean of Students — was defending her proposal to earn a doctoral degree combining youth studies and human-centered design. No such program exists 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.

Mouchrek said she felt the research program offered the opportunity to explore ways in which to use human-centered design to develop initiatives to empower young people and support their holistic development. There was a catch. While human-centered design offers a graduate certificate, it does not grant a doctoral degree, so Mouchrek began exploring how to create her own degree program.

“It’s not easy, let me tell you,” Mouchrek said of the process she began in 2015.

Mouchrek worked with the Graduate School, which was launching the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program for students who could not meet their degree goals with a single discipline from a degree-granting academic unit. The new program offered the chance to achieve her goals, but it also meant she had to assemble her committee and build her plan of study from scratch and then defend the proposal before the Commission on Graduate and Professional Studies and Policies. That proposal included her research focus, goals, plan of study, coursework, a planned schedule for exams and research, and her advisory committee members.

Mouchrek said Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen DePauw warned her that the bulk of the responsibility for her degree would be on her shoulders.

“I had more freedom, but you have to negotiate everything with your committee and truly design your own course of studies,” Mouchrek said.

Fortunately, she said she had a great committee that worked closely with her and “jumped in when no one was there.” Members included co-chair Mark Benson, associate professor of human development (now retired); co-chair Jill Sible, professor of biological sciences and associate vice provost for undergraduate education; Timothy Baird, assistant professor of geography; Meaghan Dee, assistant professor of practice in the School of Visual Arts; and Liesl Baum, associate director for professional development in the Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Mouchrek said Sible helped her secure a graduate assistantship, which enabled her to pursue her degree.

That assistantship provided Mouchrek with a home base, she said. For four years she worked in Academic Affairs supporting student-centered initiatives and systemic change strategies. She said she also appreciated the community of researchers in the Human-Centered Design IGEP – director Steve Harrison was a key supporter as well.

Mouchrek said she stuck with her original focus of applying design theories to empowering young people as they transition into adulthood, but she narrowed the scope to career exploration for college students. Her challenge was to “design an experience to help students empower themselves.”

She had conducted three studies: a theoretical model of empowerment in emerging adulthood, a survey with Virginia Tech students on empowering experiences in college, and a 10-week career exploration curriculum she designed and implemented for first-year students with undecided or changing majors. The curriculum, based in participatory design and implemented in partnership with University Studies instructors Herbert “Bruce” Bruce and Jason Johnson, was designed to help students define their majors from the more than 100 possible at the university.

Mouchrek said the aim of the curriculum was not to have students make a final decision necessarily, but to feel they were better equipped to do so by exploring dimensions of personal agency, purpose, mentoring, and participation in community, she said.

“What I really liked was that some said at the end that if they did not have a major yet, they knew what to look for in a major,” she said.

The last year of her program was the most difficult because the third study generated a mountain of data, which led to rich qualitative and quantitative insights about the undergraduate student population and their developmental challenges, but required a great deal of work to synthesize.

“At the end, I was happy because the study showed ways to implement an innovative and meaningful intervention,” she said. The curriculum is now being implemented in all sections of the University Studies First-Year Experience course at the university.

“As a designer, I wanted to develop something to support students’ whole development and that we could scale. My research data shows that 94 percent of students arrive at Tech saying 'I want to make a change in the world’. They want to do something relevant, and it is essential that we help them explore further how they could align their career with a life purpose.”

She said she feels she accomplished that goal and now is focused on her work as a program director, a new position in the Office of the Dean of Students. She interviewed for the position only two days before her dissertation defense and is pleased to continue working closely with students, applying human-centered design to create meaningful experiences for them, with a focus on interfaith engagement and purpose-driven exploration.

Mouchrek appreciates the opportunity of engage students from diverse religious and nonreligious worldviews in meaningful conversations about life and meaning, in which they learn to interact positively across lines of difference. “Finding unity in diversity is a huge thing in my personal life,” she said. “It is also closely related to holistic development.”