Meet KCAD’s 2023 Valedictorian, Gabrielle Gentner

Posted May 4, 2023 in Collaborative Design, Commencement

Headshot of Gabrielle Gentner smiling and standing with arms crossed in front of a window.

This May, Gabrielle Gentner (’23) will take home the top academic honor at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD).  And as a Collaborative Design major, she knows that becoming the college’s valedictorian involved plenty of teamwork—beginning when she was very young. 

“I was always creating as a kid,” she says. “I remember getting the urge to create and having to sit down in the big bay window in my parents’ living room and just have at it. I would call it ‘working on my project.’ My parents always supported me in my creative pursuits. They believed in me even on the days when I didn’t believe in myself, and I wouldn’t have gotten here if it weren’t for their love and support.” 

Gentner entered KCAD with the intention of studying ceramics, but with interests ranging from drawing to painting and photography, she struggled with the idea of focusing on a single discipline. “I ended up in Collaborative Design after [Professor and Program Chair] Gayle DeBruyn explained the program to me,” she says. “She’s definitely the reason I picked the school and the program.” When DeBruyn showed her how open-ended Collaborative Design could be, Gentner says, “It was like an angel-singing moment where I realized, I’m not going to be pigeon-holed. I can explore whatever I want!” 

DeBruyn says Gentner, who is the first Collaborative Design major to be named valedictorian, was an ideal fit for the program. “She’s deeply curious. She’s a natural explorer. She embraced the idea of a generalist approach to creative problem solving, which is how we look at it from a Collaborative Design lens. Somewhere along the way, she quickly recognized that the journey isn’t a straight line. Ambiguity is okay. Agility is something you can test and practice. If you give yourself the time to do that, it will take you down some interesting roads—and in her case, it did!” 

KCAD Heart of the Spark: Library Project 2.0 by Gabrielle GentnerCollaborative Design work by Gabrielle Gentner.

Along with DeBruyn, several other mentors stood out over Gentner’s time in college. “I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of professors over the years who have a very clear passion and love for what they’re doing--and just fun personalities,” she says. Mike Dollar, Assistant Professor of Digital Art and Design, was another important influence. “He is so passionate about what he does and was always very honest about the path he took to get where he is today. It’s really refreshing to have those people who are so encouraging and supportive,” she says. 

Another favorite memory was with former adjunct instructor Ken Krayer, who taught Gentner’s Intro to Design class at KCAD. “He was just a goof in class,” she says. “One time we were doing a project where I was standing behind him with a tape measure trying to tap him on the shoulder without him knowing! We worked really hard in that class, and I did learn a lot, but I also learned that you could have fun too.” 

In fact, Gentner says that figuring out how to strike a balance between work and play was one of the most important takeaways of her educational experience. “When I came to KCAD, I was a very controlling person and wanted everybody to put in 110 percent all the time and be as passionate as I was,” she says. “I would get frustrated really easily, and that was obviously not productive.” 

She’s since found a way to pace herself. “I’ve learned to be more human, to slow down and take more time thinking about things,” she says. It’s not healthy for me or anyone to give 110 percent every day. We can have a good time and love what we do at the same time. That’s something I’m trying to incorporate into my professional growth: that you do have to work hard, but you also have to let off steam and enjoy the people you’re around.” 

Still, Gentner admits she always tries to go the extra mile—a go-getter approach that led her to become one of the founding members and leaders of the newly-rebooted KCAD Student Council this year on top of maintaining her 4.0 GPA.  DeBruyn says, “As a staff, we’ve been trying to help students recognize the value of student governance. Somehow, Gabby did, and she found the right people around her to put it together and get it going in the right direction.” 

DeBruyn says Gentner also put her skills to work as a student leader for KCAD’s Wege Prize High School Collaborative Studio initiative, a free two-week program that gives West Michigan high school students the chance to collaboratively learn design thinking and creative problem solving strategies while envisioning solutions to real-world challenges faced by people in their own communities. “It’s been another opportunity to apply her learning and test her steel on how design methods work in a workshopping scenario. Gabby is a fun, smart, and very resourceful and trusted leader, and the students really groove on her. That’s what we need in our world!” 

Collaborative Design work by Gabrielle Gentner.Images from Gentner's work with KCAD's Wege Prize High School Collaborative Studio initiative.

KCAD President Tara McCrackin says Gentner’s achievements are an inspiration to the entire KCAD community. “We are very pleased to recognize Gabby with this honor. She has been an asset to our community during her time here, and I have no doubt that she will continue to shape what’s around her in positive and powerful ways wherever she goes next.” 

Whether in the classroom or leading extra-curriculars, Gentner has noticed that her work often seems to revolve around people. “One of my friends and I joke that our dream career would be sitting in a room talking with people and brainstorming all day,” she says. “I love hearing about other people’s stories, about their experiences, what they find interesting or funny or sad. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from my connections with other people, which has been a good thing for me being in Collaborative Design because we get to do a lot of connecting with others.” 

That skill is something she put to work on her senior thesis on tourism development in West Michigan. “I looked at the trends around how the industry is recovering post-pandemic,” she explains. “I wanted to focus on how we can build more resilient systems here in Grand Rapids and in West Michigan, identifying different metrics for success beyond the financial piece that tends to be the centerpiece of that conversation. I was curious how we, as a region, might focus more on the relationship between locals and tourism. It’s not just people coming from outside the city who are bringing money in--locals are also participating. And long-term, I’d like to find a way to prioritize the people and the environment here in addition to looking at profit.” 

Collaborative Design Senior Thesis work by Gabrielle Gentner.Collaborative Design Senior Thesis work by Gentner.

As her time at KCAD comes to an end, Gentner is preparing to transition into the working world. She says, “I have been interning at Nextpoint Design in Grand Rapids for the past year, and recently, my boss offered me a full-time position.” 

The distant future is more open-ended for her. “I am very passionate about climate justice and sustainability, and that’s something I always try to come back to,” she says. “I’m not sure how it’s going to manifest, but anything that lets me keep connecting with people and improving the lives of others is on my radar.”  

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