It only took a few weeks for Margarita Aleixo to fall in love with Qatar. This semester, the interior design junior signed up to be an exchange student at the VCUarts Qatar campus in Doha. Aleixo’s months overseas have introduced her to new friends from around the world and stunning architecture that’s influencing the way she looks at interior design. Along the way, she’s kept a colorful travel blog and dropped by the VCUarts Instagram for a takeover.
“Qatar is basically the size of Connecticut,” says Aleixo, “but it’s rich in design and architecture.”
Old and new meet often in Doha, with construction constantly underway across the capital city. Many of the modern buildings incorporate elements of Islamic art and design into their façades and interiors, paying homage to a long aesthetic tradition in the Middle East.
The unique architectural character of Qatar even extends to its college campuses in Education City, the center of university life in Doha. Aleixo compared her residence hall to a five-star hotel, where she lives in a two bedroom dorm with a roommate from Lebanon. They try to cook together when they’re not too busy with classes.
The majority of people in Qatar are expatriates, which means that studying in the Gulf nation has exposed Aleixo to people and cultures from near and far who enrolled at VCUarts.
“I have friends from Bangladesh and Egypt, Jordan, Libya and other parts of Africa,” she says. “I’ve already made really great friendships that I know I’ll keep for a long time.”
On the Qatar campus, Aleixo has continued her interior design studies with courses in light and color, ancient art history, graphics and studio work. Her studio final project is a collaboration with graphic design students to develop a redesign proposal for the school library. VCUarts wants the building to better reflect the institution’s creative spirit.
“We’re starting to rebrand it first,” says Aleixo, “what the brand will look like, the typography of the name, the logo and stuff. Eventually we’ll get into the detail of the space and how it’s laid out.”
Aleixo applied to VCUarts in Richmond because she loved the busy urban atmosphere and large campus. She didn’t even know about the Qatar exchange program until a few months before she decided to go. But now that she’s had this transformative experience, she’s urging her peers to follow suit.
“I really want people to know more about Qatar,” says Aleixo. “I want to bring more representation here.”
A number of funding opportunities helped Aleixo support herself abroad. VCUarts Qatar paid for her round-trip flight, and FAFSA grants—such as VCU’s need-based grants for juniors and seniors, the Pell Grant and the Virginia Merit Award—offset her tuition. Her time on campus has been made even more affordable with many free resources, like printing, and less expensive housing.
Though she’s heading back to Richmond in December as she prepares to finish her senior year, Aleixo says she’ll definitely miss the people in Qatar.
“Some of my friends are already like, ‘No, you’re not leaving,’” she says. “‘You have to stay another semester.’”