Most of my comments apply to Pratt. Some of the West coast schools have far more non-traditional students in the undergrad program. Art Center is basically set up for students who have already completed some courses elsewhere. Pratt is arranged so that most of the undergrad courses must be taken consecutively over 4 years. The grad program is either 2.5 or 3 years for students who do not have design undergrad. The first year of the grad program is what I am talking about when I say, “spread too thin”. If you are struggling to create graphics for project boards, draw, make models, it will make the whole experience harder. Figuring it out as you go along is OK, but takes more time. I’m not saying that you have to be completely proficient in all these areas, but time spent learning before enrollment will save you time later.
In terms of grad programs that regularly accept students who do not have a design undergrad, I am aware of Pratt, RISD, North Carolina, IIT. Because you have an engineering background there may be specific schools that will be more open. If you start looking internationally, you will have more options (I wish I had done this).
In case you don’t know (I didn’t) design research usually refers to primary observational research. Your experience in the peace core (living embedded in a culture different from that in which you developed, empathy, stepping outside your assumptions) should help here and make you an attractive candidate.
One more thing to put the grad-undergrad issue in perspective: at my school the undergrads tend to have slightly better skills than the grads. If you think skills are important, (and you may not after hearing some of the innovation rhetoric some of our profs give out) then either do an undergrad or do a grad and make sure you are in the top half of the class in terms of skills.
On the flip side the grads tend to be more articulate and better able to research and develop a strong rationale for a design. If you think this will fit into your career path then you probably want a grad. examples: If you want to be a footwear designer no one will give a crap about the ethnographic study you did for your thesis if your drawings are ho-hum. If you are looking for a job with a research-driven consultancy, a grad (esp from IIT) would be better. Pratt’s grad is actually broad enough to let you do both – if you work hard. It’s broadness is it’s strength and weakness because you are not lead through a highly thought-out process that really builds you as a designer or researcher. All the tools and knowledge are there, you just have to find what you want and then pursue it.
sorry… long winded answer (and sorry to those that are sick of hearing about Pratt grad on this board). I see these questions a lot, so I just wanted to provide what insight I can.
Call Rick Goodwin at Pratt – he is the admissions coordinator in the ID department (actual prof, not a person in the admissions office) and he will answer your questions.
good luck and PM me if you want to know anything else specific