For over 40 years, Fairfield’s Interior Design program has been one of the University’s best-kept secrets.

For over 40 years, Fairfield’s Interior Design program has been one of the University’s best-kept secrets.

In the eyes of a designer, an empty room is a personal story waiting to be told. A living room is a family memoir narrated with warm colors and treasured heirlooms. An office is a company’s success story conveyed with bold lines and sleek fabrics.

The designer is the storyteller and is hired to write his or her client’s biography — not with words or phrases, but with fabrics, furniture, and vision.

For forty-two years, Fairfield University’s interior design program has been providing designers-in-training with the necessary credentials and industry knowledge to earn their professional certification and become the visual “storytellers” that they are today.

In the last ten years, the part-time program has issued more than a hundred certificates in residential, professional, and commercial design and has helped students develop robust portfolios.

“One of the unique appeals of our program is that it is specifically geared toward educated adults who wish to make a career change,” explained program director and independent interior designer Robert Hardy. “We provide individualized support throughout the program and designed the curriculum to be extremely flexible. This allows adults to successfully complete their studies, despite their busy schedules and demanding lives.”

Adults like Sarah Weiland, a 2011 graduate of Fairfield’s interior design program and the principal designer and owner of Tusk Home and Design, a high-end full-service interior design firm based in Westport, Conn.

Weiland spent the early years of her career as a trauma nurse, but it wasn’t long before the grueling hours and high-stress environment began to take a toll on the then pregnant mother of two. After years of working in the medical field, she realized it was time to make a change.

“My mother was always good at decorating, so I developed an opinion and appreciation for design at an early age,” Weiland recalled. “I mean how many kids do you know who paint their rooms eggplant with green velvet accents?”

Hoping to articulate that opinion as an adult, Weiland enrolled in her first interior design class at Fairfield University. Inspired by the work and her professor’s passion, she said goodbye to her career in nursing and dove head first into her design education. After completing her residential certification she singlehandedly launched an interior design company and taught herself the ropes along the way. For the first seven years of her career, Weiland’s business was entirely word-of-mouth, and before long, she had amassed a large and loyal client base, and her work was being featured in publications like Connecticut Cottages and East Coast Design. While a retail space had always been a part of her 10-year plan, it would take another life changing moment to reach that career milestone.

In 2017, Weiland was rushed to the hospital where she received emergency treatment for a pulmonary embolism. Only three days into her recovery, she received a phone call from an old business colleague who was selling her Westport retail shop and believed Weiland was the perfect person to take it over. Weiland’s health scare made her realize that time was more of a luxury than a guarantee, and she finally decided to take the plunge. On August 30, 2017, she closed the deal on her new retail space. Six days later, Tusk Home and Design opened its doors.

“I used to dread going to work, and now I love it,” Weiland said, while seated at an impeccably decorated farm table inside her store. “I always tell my clients, ‘don’t waste 20 years of your life in a space that you don’t love.’”

Much like Weiland, fellow Fairfield interior design student Jeanne Muscolino ’01 had developed an interest in architecture and design at young age. As a child, her frequent visits to Manhattan gave her early exposure to some of the world’s most famous architectural structures, and as a high school student, she was dazzled by an architect who came to speak to her class — so much so, that she asked for the man’s business card which bore the name Jeter, Cook, and Jepson Architectural Firm.

As graduation approached, Muscolino fell in love with Fairfield’s campus and decided to pursue a BS in marketing from the Dolan School of Business. Upon graduating with a minor in art history, she worked as an Associated Press analyst in New York City before relocating back to Connecticut — a move that marked the pivotal moment she would decide to switch gears and follow her passion. While researching the market, she learned of Fairfield’s interior design program and knew it was the perfect fit.

“Fairfield’s flexible scheduling allowed me to work full-time in the field and travel internationally to job sites while balancing class assignments,” she said. After enrolling in the program, Muscolino quickly landed a position as a design associate for a boutique hospitality interior design firm. She was off to a racing start, cutting her teeth on five-star projects and notable properties like the exclusive Turks and Caicos Sporting Club on the private residential island of Ambergris Cay, and The Greenbrier Hotel Virginia, a West Virginian National Historic Landmark that has welcomed presidents and celebrities since the 1770s.

It was 2012, when a former colleague reached out to Muscolino regarding a marketing position at one of Connecticut’s oldest, largest, and most well-respected architecture and interior design firms, and the rest was fate.

“That company was JCJ Architecture, formerly known as Jeter, Cook and Jepson,” Muscolino recalled. “Sixteen years later, I still had the business card and all had come full circle.”

Today, Muscolino works as a senior associate and business development manager for the 82- year-old architecture firm.

“Fairfield University’s interior design program perfectly complemented the experience I obtained in the field,” Muscolino said. “Now, I enjoy returning to campus every year as a guest lecturer for Rob Hardy’s ‘Business of Design’ course. The students are full of energy… and I always leave feeling inspired and energized by the conversation.”

Yet when it comes to giving back, there may be no greater example than 2008 Fairfield interior design graduate Carey Dougherty, founder and executive director of Her Haven, a nonprofit organization in Monroe, Conn., dedicated to bringing “beauty, comfort and care” into the lives of women through low-cost interior design projects.

While attending classes at Fairfield and working on several high-end residential projects with a local designer, Dougherty wished there was a way to bring the gift of design to those most in need.

A friend suggested that she and Dougherty raise funds through a local women’s organization to design a room for a deserving woman.

That woman was Nancy Kingwood. Described as “a gift to the city of Bridgeport” for her work serving those with HIV/AIDS, Nancy lived in a modest home and was in need of an office where she could “read, write, study, and pray.” With the help of local tradespeople who volunteered their services to lay hardwood floors, paint walls, trim doors, and sew window treatments, Dougherty used her design skills to convert a walkout-basement storage area into a beautiful and functional home office.

“I will never forget her reaction when she saw it, or the feeling I had seeing the tears roll down her cheeks,” Dougherty recalled. “I wanted others to experience the same joy that comes from using whatever gifts we have to make someone’s life a little better.”

That’s when Dougherty had her “light bulb moment.” She would start a nonprofit that engages the help of designers and tradespeople, offers students practical real-world experience, and creates spaces of healing for women and families in need. Since its founding in 2009, Her Haven has completed designs for several Habitat for Humanity homes, a bedroom and nursery for a family who lost a child in the Sandy Hook tragedy, a healing space for a female veteran, and a Bridgeport home for women recovering from substance abuse, addiction, and trauma that was recognized by the CT Women’s Consortium for being the number-one, trauma-informed women’s recovery home in Connecticut.

“I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Fairfield University,” Dougherty said. “Of course, it is where I received my residential interior design certificate, but it is also where I received support writing the business plan for Her Haven. Most importantly, it is where I saw faith in action through the support and encouragement I received from so many people.”

Professional certificate programs like Fairfield’s interior design program have become increasingly popular as they allow students to advance career skills in a specific area of interest for less cost and with less time. Fairfield currently offers more than 25 part-time graduate, post-baccalaureate, and professional certificate programs across each of the University’s five schools and is in the process of launching a series of online certificate programs in cybersecurity, educational technology, nursing informatics, and business essentials to name a few.

“Offering these certificates online will give us an opportunity to attract students outside of the tri-state region, and more importantly, share and showcase our faculty’s expertise to a whole new student population,” said Walter Rankin, PhD, vice provost for continuing and professional studies. “This is just one part of our being the modern, Jesuit Catholic University.”

While the success stories of graduates speak to the strength of Fairfield’s certificate programs, professors like Hardy take greater pride in knowing they have helped students attain a career in an industry they love.

“It is of course very rewarding to see our students go out into the world,” Hardy admitted. “But even more is the satisfaction of knowing that they have found their passion and a fulfilling way of life, not just a profession.”