For Tessa Durso, the motto of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “Why Not Change the World,” perfectly embodies the educational approach at the university: challenging, forward-thinking, and transformative. Durso, who graduates this year with a five-year bachelor’s degree in architecture, found that the environment in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer pushed her to achieve a level of creativity she hadn’t imagined, maturing from her high school passion for fashion to envisioning smart-skins for buildings that grow plants in harsh environments.

“Especially in the design studios, they teach you how to express yourself through design and to be as creative as you can,” Durso said. “During finals, you have to create boards for your final presentation. You develop your own style over the semester and I really like that representational aspect.”

Growing up in the rural hamlet of Stillwater, New Jersey, with her three sisters, Durso enjoyed outdoor activities and school sports while her parents encouraged her creative side by providing many opportunities for crafts and art and different avenues of exploration. From a young age, Durso took to crocheting as a means of creative expression.

When it came time to attend college, her interests had shifted from designing crafts to designing buildings thanks to an architecture class she took in high school. She had known a few students who went to Rensselaer and had heard of the top reputation of the School of Architecture. It was a good fit.

Durso arrived on campus with her twin sister, Emily. Not only were they attending the same school, they were pursuing the same degree in the School of Architecture. Luckily for the Dursos, they already had a supportive relationship as siblings.

“Everyone always thinks we must be super competitive, but that’s not the case at all,” Durso said. “Having Emily here definitely made the transition a lot easier for both of us. Especially in the beginning semesters, having someone to talk to about work with was helpful.”

Online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging for Durso. For her, the creativity and encouragement she found in the studio environment, bouncing ideas off her classmates, was hard to recreate virtually and her motivation waned. To get through this difficult time, she returned to the creative outlet that gave her peace growing up, crocheting.

“I need to be creative and express my feelings,” Durso said. “When I couldn’t be on campus and collaborate with my friends, there is nothing better than binging on Netflix and building a complex crochet pattern to relieve stress.

During her fourth year, Durso interned remotely at John Buckley Architecture and Design, an opportunity that allowed her to get hands-on experience with technical drawing and computer rendering for client projects.

Durso achieved the Dean’s Honor Roll for her overall scholarship numerous semesters during her years at Rensselaer. In the School of Architecture, she received Studio Honors as well as several Studio Archive Awards. In her final year, Durso was a Harriet R. Peck Prize finalist for her thesis project that reimagined real-life abandoned coal-mining buildings on an island in Hashima, Japan, as a gene-editing facility for new plant biomes in the face of climate change.

Following graduation, Durso hopes to pursue a position in an architectural firm working as a renderer or model builder with plans to obtain her architectural license.