Montana State University

MSU architecture student from Paradise wins international competition with Butte essay

June 3, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Milenka "Kali" Jirasko, an MSU architecture student from Paradise, Mont., was one of three winners of the Berkeley Prize to fund travel for architectural research.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
A Montana State University architecture student inspired by a visit to Butte has won an international fellowship competition that will allow her to research at the former Auschwitz concentration camp in rural Poland this summer.

A proposal written by Milenka "Kali" Jirasko of Paradise, Mont. was one of three international winners of the Berkeley Prize Travel Fellowship Competition She won a $3,200 travel stipend to allow her to research sacred spaces that are open to the public.

The prize is given by the University of California, Berkeley and the Berkeley Prize Endowment to enable winners to travel to gain a deeper understanding of the social art of architecture. Two other students -- one from Finland and another from Romania -- also received a travel award.

Jirasko said she was required to enter the competition for a class that she took last fall taught by MSU architecture professor Maire O'Neill.

"Entering anything is intimidating to me and I wouldn't have done it if Maire hadn't required it of our studio," Jirasko said. "It's encouraging, and winning a prize like this is something that you hope for, but certainly not something that you would expect."

O'Neill is a graduate of the Department of Architecture in the College of Environmental Design at UC, Berkeley and has judged the Berkeley Prize competition in previous years. She said she believes it is the first time that an MSU student has won a Berkeley Prize, which has an international emphasis. However, she said this year five MSU architecture students were semifinalists for the Berkeley Prize Essay competition. In addition to Jirasko, other MSU semifinalists were Carson Booth of Somers, Rachel Haugen of Fort Benton, Britni Jeziorski of Billings and Chris Taleff of Helena.

O'Neill explained that the competition first required the submission of a brief essay on a theme "valuing the sacred." Semifinalists were then invited to submit a full 2,500 word essay on the theme.

"There were 33 semifinalists selected overall and only 15 of them were from the USA, so MSU boasts 15 percent of the semifinalists internationally," O'Neill said.

"We don't know why this happened, but it was amazing. I think that part of it may be that we're benefiting from something we've been striving to do for 10 years (in the School of Architecture) and that is to add more emphasis on writing."

She said that Jirasko was also a finalist for the essay competition, finishing in the top 10 internationally. Semifinalists were invited to apply for a Berkeley Prize travel grant by submitting a proposal for a project that would require them to travel and research. Both Jeziorski and Jirasko were in the finals for the travel fellowship, with Jirasko one of three selected to receive the grant.

O'Neill adds that the essay component is often difficult for architecture students, who are often visual people who may not feel comfortable writing. That is not the case for Jirasko, who aspires to write fantasy novels for young adult readers.

"But I thought I needed a practical profession, so I came to MSU to study architecture," she said. She thought she would write in her free time. However, she discovered there is little if any free time for an architecture student.

Since studying architecture, the aspiring novelist said that she has "fallen in love with architecture and found more than I ever hoped."

Jirasko said she was inspired to write her essay about "Valuing the Sacred" by O'Neill's class visit to the abandoned Anselmo mine in Butte. The mine is now fenced off, she wrote, therefore it stands as "an isolated memorial, not an active part of the community." She said she would like to learn from Auschwitz and nearby memorials how to keep a sacred site open to the public.

"In Butte, I took a rare tour and walked through a locker room where yellowed nametags of men still dangled on rusty doors. The experience of standing where they stood was unforgettable and haunting" Jirasko wrote. "This is the spatial experience the people of Butte deserve, and this is the spatial experience Auschwitz offers visitors."

Jirasko said in July she will travel to Poland to work with the Amizade Witness to History program from Rome, where she is studying with the MSU School of Architecture's summer studio. At the end of the two-week program in Oswiecim and the surrounding region. She will document her experiences through writing, photos, and on-site sketches, with the possibility of an exhibition in the School of Architecture gallery in Cheever Hall in the coming fall semester.

"I'm sure that it's not by chance that (Jirasko) won this thing," O'Neill said. "She works unbelievably hard at everything she does. Her exploration with ideas to understand the place she's designing for is really, really rigorous and tireless. It allowed her to understand Butte in great depth and helped her to write in a very moving way about it."

Maire O\'Neill (406) 994-3950,