Man stands in front of a tree in a T-shirt and smiles.
Joshua Tan, who will graduate in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, is focused on home automation and design that improves accessibility. (Contributed photo)

Class of 2024: Joshua Tan renovated his vision for college by crafting a customized degree path

After a rough start at VCU, the interdisciplinary studies student blended woodworking, engineering and more to focus on home design and accessibility.

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Joshua Tan comes from a family of builders, but his initial blueprint for college wasn’t a foundation for success.

“It was kind of a harrowing time,” he said of his early experience.

Tan was pursuing a traditional major at Virginia Commonwealth University, and though he enjoyed the coursework, he hoped to merge his creative and technical skills. Life got in the way, and Tan, disaffected with school, started to distance himself from his academics. He even dropped out for a brief period.

“But when I looked around and tried to find a major that would match where I wanted to take my studies and career, that’s when I found IDS,” he said.

Tan will graduate in May from VCU’s University College with an interdisciplinary studies degree that blends his interests in computer engineering, furniture design and entrepreneurship. That mix led him to focus on home automation and design that improves accessibility.

“I wanted to combine my artistic interests through the VCU School of the Arts and my computer engineering interests through the College of Engineering, to go with my interests I had established before coming to VCU,” Tan said.

His interest in homebuilding and woodworking has generational roots. Tan comes from a family of builders and contractors who can handle projects from full-on home construction to routine repairs.

In creating a degree program that encompasses woodworking and engineering, “I ended up with two fields of expertise, and there really was not a way for me to bridge the two until I came into IDS,” Tan said. He noted that IDS director Zach Hilpert, Ph.D., “helped me form a bridge where I can still utilize a good amount of my technical knowledge, yet I can still incorporate and include what society still needs, like labor workers.”

That ability to combine his innate interests with his new scholarly pursuits of engineering was what he had been searching for, Tan said. His senior capstone project focuses on how automation and design can enhance home life for people with disabilities, and he hopes one day to apply his insight and skills to improve senior living communities and hospice facilities.

“There is just not enough research and work out there around home accessibility,” Tan said. “There is definitely a need for development within the sector. I would like to get contractors to agree that accessibility is a necessary thing, because not everyone stays young forever.”

Reflecting on his VCU journey, Tan said he is grateful for a chance encounter he had with Hilpert. Though they had corresponded by email previously, the two met by coincidence at an ice cream shop in Richmond and discussed Tan joining the IDS program.

“Talking to him about what I wanted to do, and him giving me the assurance to come over,” Tan said, “really sealed the deal for how I ended up where I did” – which is with a degree that is uniquely his.