Our Design Internship Sisterhood

By Ida Rodrigues and Cindy Darbandi (OU Design Curriculum Interns and Consultants)

In 2022, the Open University developed a virtual internship opportunity to support the diversification of the new design curriculum. We applied separately for the two intern roles that were available while studying different courses towards our design degrees.

We both were curious about how we could help decolonise the Open University’s design curriculum through the lenses of representation and language used within the design modules. But we didn’t know what to expect, we had no agency and neither of us knew the responsibility and expectation that comes in working in such settings – as-well-as barriers that we were to encounter in dismantling the norm. For our co-working experience to ‘work’ we had to unpack assumptions, expectations and experiences!

There were several shared conversations to unpack around life experiences and shared challenges as students, motherhood, womanhood, and most importantly being black. In doing so commonalities were easier to spot and we bonded over old wounds that we as black females tend to encounter through our walks of life. Therefore, sharing a space with a ‘sister’ (meaning someone who shares resemblance in complexion makes it less challenging to overcome intersectional identities typically found in the current higher education settings. In those conversations we were able to establish shared goals, principles, and empathy in each other’s perception that allowed us to be comfortable around each other.

Positioning as a Sister in an (un)familiar context

It is difficult to voice your opinion and express your ideas amongst those that resemble the people who often make you feel inadequate, overly passionate, and different due to appearance. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to showcase your competency without feeling like ‘you are doing too much’, seeing as culturally speaking black women tend to feel the need to be assertive, which often is reflected in your tone. The struggle often becomes overwhelming when you’re in need to regulate your tone, language, and body gesture to not appear overly expressive, passionate, or aggressive. Especially, when there’s a certain carefreeness that your counterparts display when speaking.

‘Just because we share complexion doesn’t mean we are the same or look-alike’.

There was a ‘cultural-mutualism’ despite different geographics that one shares when encountering a ‘sister’. An unspoken language that you instantly recognise on introduction.  Although there is a perceived difficulty to make connections with other students, in the internship, we worked together very well from the get-go!

Initially, we discussed individual objectives for the internship, but quickly realised we could achieve more when we worked together. We designed an Empathy Board (Darbandi et al, 2023), a virtual whiteboard that creates a shared safe space to build mutual understanding. This extended our collaborative engagement ‘sisterhood‘ to the academics we were working with. Suddenly, there was a realisation of this synergy when creating and co-designing, we were successfully ‘bouncing off’ ideas. This very much felt like the point where a sisterhood began!

As students, working in partnership with academics, a level of equal-playing-field that doesn’t feel territorial or hierarchical was built to establish a cohesive unit to support one another.

Creating a support system beyond just being a ‘study buddy’, more like a ‘sisterhood’ of design interns (and now consultants) connected us through the unwritten infinity of being black. It also informed tutors and professors about differences and issues between us as human beings which should not exist. Furthermore, we tried to participate in co-designing, collaboration, communication and decolonising from the opposite sides of the same academic coin (as students and staff).

We studied the same design courses at different stages, but we were on the same page when addressing issues within the Design curriculum. Nonetheless, we were nervous when we began a new, unique chapter in OU student life.

Primarily, our contributions to reviewing and designing new curriculum were key and felt welcomed from the early stages! And even more so when we met synchronously.  There was nothing to fear because two black women work well together it was not a ‘coup d’etat’.

What did the internship do to produce a ‘sisterhood’?

We developed an invaluable dynamic that we both were ‘seen’ as a force working towards the SAME goals we were hired for. Although coming into the OU on one’s own, the online work environment was adaptable and flexible that fitted well when intersecting diverse personalities. It created a positive synergy to cope with itching content when decolonising curriculum.

The sisterhood culture attained at work increased the sense of empowerment and acceptance – despite many differences.

Often novelty, in places, takes up an immense amount of courage and energy to impose yourself into a position. However, the difference was that it felt like someone had my back. The more of myself was displayed – the more authenticity was welcomed and celebrated.

The double workloads, as part time student and as part time intern, were at times overwhelming; but then as interns we also gelled as study buddies which was an invaluable coping mechanism….

What were the challenges?

It was quite challenging and daunting being a student amongst high functioning academics and their deserved levels of expertise. However, it is very important to stress that to ease our nervousness and ‘imposter syndrome’ we were instantly treated as colleagues even though we did not realise this at first. Especially when you also ‘look’ different, we didn’t recognise ourselves visually as members of the academic qualification team. There’s a certain body language that projects defensiveness that comes with being in predominant white spaces. This even permeates on camera – seemingly a loud aura that is visually noticeable that translates discomfort. It’s as if when you speak ‘you’re speaking in tongues’.

Our key messages for future interns, AL’s and module teams

Beginning an internship within the difficult realms of diversity and inclusion interventions was, we believe, successful for two reasons:

Firstly, marginalised life experiences have a knack of running in parallel or intersecting. They create a ‘cultural‘ understanding of what it means to participate in spaces where we are constantly the minority, and in this case a double-whammy-minority of being black females. Consequently, being black females has been our sisterly ‘SUPERPOWER’ of identity and strength. Collectively and successfully, we spoke up and co-designed solutions to instances of the educational injustices of not being seen and represented within our chosen educational spaces. Therefore, we recommend the OU hires interns in pairs.

Secondly, this long-awaited change towards student scholarship and internships within the far-reaching realms of OU academia is greatly welcomed. The sisterhood support system we experienced can also be a way of encouraging a far wider reaching study buddy-ship at the OU, as a less lonesome way of studying and communicating. We recommend that, greater towards student internships be more embedded within the curriculum itself. This would increase OU students’ ability to speak up and question their curriculum.

There is a whole pool of talented students out there waiting to be seen, heard, and hired for the educational greater good. What do you have to lose?


Darbandi, C. Rodrigues, I., Lotz, N., & Hale, V. (2023, forthcoming) Empathy Board: co-designing and decolonising curriculum in distance design education. In Jones, D. Nielsen, L.M, Lotz, N., Noel, L-A., Börekçi, N.A.G.Z., Corazzo, J., Clemente, V. Learn X Design 2023.








3 responses to “Our Design Internship Sisterhood”

  1. Rachel A. Wood avatar
    Rachel A. Wood

    Brilliantly crafted blog 😊 a great read 🤩

  2. Georgina Holden avatar
    Georgina Holden

    Such a wonderful and honest account. It has been the Design Group’s privilege to have your energy, knowledge and enthusiasm for helping us in the task of making our materials relevant and inclusive to all. Your contributions have been invaluable, your challenges and suggestions will inform all that we do moving forward. You will always be welcomed on the Design corridor with open arms. Thank you both so much, stay in touch!

  3. Clive Hilton avatar
    Clive Hilton

    Ida, Cindy, I can only endorse the comments from Rachel and Georgy. Your insights and unique perspectives have opened our eyes to the realities of the challenges that (to use your phrase) black sisters face in wider society and within the UK’s educational system – both at school and at tertiary level. Beyond doubt, your contributions have helped forge a pathway to academic success at the OU for other sisters to follow. Speaking personally, I feel privileged to have worked with you both in this vital mission to decolonise the OU’s offerings. I see great things ahead for both of you. Keep up the good work.

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