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Lily Hou - Graduate Story

Lily Hou

Lily Hou has never been afraid to venture outside of her comfort zone. Growing up in Beijing, her initial discovery of art quickly blossomed into a passion for creative expression, eventually earning her admission into the Affiliated High School of Fine Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts – a highly-competitive art school ranking among China's elite.

Had she stayed in China, Lily would have had her pick of the country's top undergraduate art and design schools. The world, however, was calling, and she was eager to answer.

"I knew very early on that I wanted to study abroad," she said. "My parents were very supportive, because they wanted me to experience different cultures and learn new things."

Lily's international options were equally abundant, but a visit from David Du, coordinator of international students at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, helped set her sights on Grand Rapids and KCAD's Furniture Design program, from which she graduated from in May.

"David and I had a strong connection, and he sold me on KCAD very quickly," she said. "I was very attracted to Grand Rapids and could see that the city and the school had a very strong reputation for furniture design. I couldn't wait to start exploring."

Still, adjusting to life without her family in a foreign country wasn't easy.

"It was very hard for me; I thought about my family all the time," she said. "I knew I needed to focus on school, but it was hard being so far away."

Every college freshmen faces challenges in adapting to tougher classes, finding their way around campus, meeting new people and becoming more independent, but for international students, those challenges are amplified.

"For international students, even simple tasks like finding a place to buy food or opening a bank account are incredibly challenging," said Du. "It's not just because of the language barrier, but also because they have to do all of these things without the cultural and familial support systems they had in their own countries."

FurnitureAfter the initial culture shock passed, though, Lily began dismantling the barriers in front of her. She worked hard to improve her English, made lots of friends – including other Chinese students studying at KCAD – and immersed herself in her education and in her craft. She earned a regular spot on the KCAD President's List, received both a Portfolio Scholarship and a Scholarship of Merit and became active in KCAD's American Society of Furniture Designers student chapter. She also was named runner-up in the 2013 Pure Michigan Woods Challenge furniture design competition.

Entrants in the competition were challenged to design a collection of furniture made entirely from wood native to Michigan. Using cherry, Lily crafted a set of occasional, cocktail and end tables that embodied the strong connection she'd developed with her adopted home.

"I just started with the Great Lakes," she said. "When I saw them for the first time, I was inspired by their shape and the curves of the waves, as well as all the curved lines in the Mackinac Bridge, so I started using those elements in sketches."

FishingShe may not have won the competition, but Lily captured something much more valuable: the attention of one of the judges, Steve Silver, whose company Steve Silver Co. is one of the largest occasional furniture companies in the United States. Silver was so impressed with Lily's talents that he offered her a summer internship at the company's headquarters in Dallas.

As with the chance to study abroad, Lily knew that taking advantage of this opportunity would require sacrifice. While many of her friends returned to China for the summer, Lily moved to yet another unfamiliar new place, determined to make the most out of the experience.

"I didn't know anyone in Texas, so it was even harder than coming to Grand Rapids," she said. "Steve was very supportive though; he let me live with his family and taught me so many things about furniture design and the industry. It was hard only being able to Skype with my parents every week, but I knew I couldn't feel sorry for myself. My parents wanted me to get a good education, so I knew the most important thing was to make the most out of it and to pay them back by learning a lot here."

Even as an internEven as an intern, Lily was trusted enough by Silver to design new products for his company, including one that was produced and displayed at the annual High Point Market in North Carolina, the largest home furnishing industry trade show in the world. The following summer, Silver invited her back for another internship; and in January, he hired her full-time. Now Lily designs original furniture for the company and assists in the company's graphic design and marketing efforts.

At KCAD's 2015 commencement ceremony, Lily finally was reunited with her mother and father, who came from China to celebrate their daughter's tremendous accomplishments. From upstart artist to design student to professional furniture designer, Lily has come come a long way herself, but she knows her journey is far from over.

"My long-term goal is start my own furniture design company in either Michigan or Texas," she said. "I want to create something of my own."