Architecture Pre-Grad Intern Ana Margarita Aguirre
A Learning Experience Like No Other
Being the first in my family to attend a university, I had many struggles knowing right from wrong on a variety of topics dealing with college. I only knew the basics of what a bachelor's, masters and doctorate degree was. As I progressed in my college career graduate school became more of an interest to me but I had so much more to learn over the subject. I met a couple of people during my sophomore and junior year that were either preparing for graduate school or were already in the program. I remember asking them general questions about graduate school. It was not until I had a close friend talk to me about the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program that I really began to finalize my decision to want to go to graduate school.
At the end of my junior year, I began the application process to be a part of the mentorship program. I asked one of my architecture professors if he would like to be my mentor and he gladly accepted. When the fall semester started, I was able to meet my graduate student mentor and she was also really excited to help me out. My professor mentor, Fernando Lara, also mentioned to me that there was another student willing to provide any help that I needed during the semester.
Within the next couple weeks, I received an email from Fernando inviting me to participate in his organization that met biweekly, the Latin American Modern Architecture research group (LAMA). These meetings were really interesting and I was able to learn more about different topics within architecture. Fernando would, at times, have special guests that sometimes came from other countries to present. It was an opportunity that I was given to be a part of a group of people all as interested in architecture like I was. I cannot wait until next semester when I can continue to attend these meetings with Fernando and other students/professionals.
Both of my student mentors were really interested in helping me out with whatever concern I had about graduate school. One of my mentors, Molly, is in her 3rd semester of her architecture masters and is taking what she called "vertical studios." She explained to me what the different kinds of studios there were and how the reviews (presentations) went. She invited me to one of her reviews earlier in the semester, one that a non-student could see. I came in just in time to see Molly present as well as other students that followed. The hour (or so) that I stayed for the presentations meant a great deal to me because I now know how graduate level studio reviews are conducted. In the summer, I took undergraduate level studios and had my own reviews but getting to see a graduate school review was something special. When Molly's professor dismissed the class for a break, we discussed the context of the project. She explained to me what they had to do, how long they had and other interesting details about their project. Later, my second mentor took me to HER review that was a little less formal because it was a mid-review.
My second mentor, Amy, was in another kind of studio, a traveling studio. Her studio was to travel to Ecuador to realize a real project there. Their project was to work and build a community center. The studio was paid for through the school of architecture. They were going to leave for Ecuador at the end of September so they needed to meet all of the project deadlines accordingly. I was able to sit in the review before they left for Ecuador. It was a class of about ten people and each person presented their ideas for the community center. The presentations were followed by the comments of the professor and some by the students. I was able to witness how the professor really dedicated time on each student's project proposal and asked important questions regarding the effectiveness of their design. It made me think of what my potential design could look like. Later on, she was able to give me an update about how their trip went and how the experience was as a whole.
I believe one of the most valuable parts of this program was the interviews with the student and professor mentors. Even though I had spent time with them besides those interviews, being able to sit down one-on-one and talk in depth about certain topics, really made me understand so much more about what it means to get a masters in architecture. The student mentors provided me with such valuable insight with their experiences as a student and how it was to get where they are today.
Molly and I met later in the semester to discuss my questions and concerns over graduate school. My favorite part of meeting up with both of my student mentors was being able to do it in an informal setting: we met up in the Medici coffee shop. Over a cup of coffee, she was kindly enough to set aside of her busy schedule to clear up some graduate school myths I brought up. I had the impression that going straight into graduate school right after my undergraduate degree was the only right way to go. However, she quickly disagreed with me. She began to tell me her story and how she got to her third semester of graduate school. She said she took five years off after her undergraduate studies. She told me how she didn't initially tell herself that she would take five years before coming back but sometimes life takes turns that we don't plan. During those five years, she worked in an interior design firm and was working on a variety of projects. Because I had believed in my mind that taking a break after graduating in May was NOT an option, I was going crazy trying to see when I was going to have time to dedicate to studying for the GRE test and then time to actually take it. I know the importance of the GRE so I knew I had to study enough to make the grade that I needed to get. This completely changed my plan about my process of going to graduate school. I started to get rid of my stress and pressure to apply this fall. I began to truly focus on my semester as a senior and allowed myself to breathe.
Her undergraduate studies were not architecture; they were a mixture of advertising and furniture making. This was another concern I had been really struggling at the time of speaking with her. I was becoming really stressed out because on top of the GRE test, I had to worry about developing a really good portfolio, which is the main component of the application process. Because I wasn't an architecture major, I didn't have experience in studios which didn't give me the sufficient material for the portfolio. Molly reassured me that graduating your undergraduate with something other than architecture was actually preferred over a student who all they know about is architecture. Those who select the students for graduate school enjoy diversity in their students and are more accepting of students with backgrounds in a range of subject areas. With Molly telling me this, it relieved me of more stress. My undergraduate major is Hispanic studies with a minor in architecture. When I told Molly this, she told me that it was perfect because that opens the opportunity for me to study architecture in Hispanic countries, which is an original interest of mine. I asked her how I can enhance my portfolio since I am not an architecture major, she provided me with many ideas. She told me that since she studied furniture design, she included material that dealt with that topic. Here I became aware of the fact that your portfolio can include material that wasn't related to architecture. She suggested taking courses next spring like photography or a sculpture class to really have a hands-on experience as well as great quality items for my portfolio.
Amy and I also had a really helpful conversation. Also over coffee, I asked her for her opinion over some of the questions I had asked Molly just to see another perspective of an architecture school student. Amy also reassured me that taking a break after graduating your undergraduate degree was a great thing. In her studios, the majority of students have taken at least a year off to intern somewhere and gain experience. She described taking a break as a time to find yourself and what you really want in life in all aspects, academically, professionally and personally. Her break lasted three years and she doesn't regret it one bit. She suggested for me to take art classes here at UT and at a community college back home while I work. Taking time off doesn't hurt your application at all, if anything it enhances it because it shows your experience and your abilities professionally. She updated me on her trip to Ecuador. Everything went pretty well but they had a few surprises along the way. They came across a couple problems with the site itself and other complications with the project. She said that even though the students knew the details of the location and people where the community center would be built, actually going to the site was crucial in the design because the real thing is the best indicator for the design. The surprises caused them to have to come back to studio and alter their designs drastically. This sort of thing happens in industry because of the variety of problems that come up unexpectedly.
When I met with my professor mentor, Fernando, I gained even more valuable information about graduate school. Fernando backed up everything that Molly and Amy suggested for me. He reiterated the fact that I should improve my drawing skills by taking art studio classes but by getting a small sketchbook to carry with me especially when I travel so I can sketch every chance I get. When I traveled to California in October for an academic conference, I took a small sketchbook and drew when I could. He mentioned to me of a research opportunity that I will have next semester to help him out with a new research project he is starting this semester. His research is dealing with architectural magazines and topics related to them. I am really excited to be a part of this next semester. The most exciting part of our meeting was when he told me that he knew a female architect in Detroit that worked at HKS, Inc. This firm also has an office in downtown Dallas (my hometown). HKS has been my dream firm since I was in seventh grade! When he told me this, I tried really hard to maintain my composure because it made me so happy the thought of maybe working at my dream firm next year. Fernando told me that even though she is in Detroit, she flies frequently to the Dallas office and knows the architects there. If I write a letter to her telling her my story and requesting to work there for a year in search for experience, Fernando said that he will revise it before sending it to her. I can't wait to write and hear back from her.
In all aspects, the IE program this semester has been one of the best decisions that I have taken during my time here at UT. I have gained so much by taking this course. I love the fact that the course is designed around the interest of each student; it's not one syllabus that pertains to hundreds of students. Besides the scheduled meetings and few assignments for the program director, the IE program allows each student to gain and benefit as much as they want. This program has pushed me even more towards wanting my master's degree and I cannot wait to get started on the process. Going into the program, I had so many uncertainties and honestly, I was lost. I only knew general information and it was limited. A semester later, I am full of such knowledge over graduate school in general and the field I wish to pursue my master's in, architecture. Before I took this course, the idea of applying this fall to enter next fall was becoming an impossible task to complete with my busy schedule. I was full of stress and pressure to try to finish and do everything at once. Now, I am enjoying and focusing on my senior year more and I am taking the process of graduate school one step at a time. I have developed wonderful relationships/friendships with my professor mentor as well as my two student mentors. I know that when I continue this program next semester, I will keep on learning everything I need to know about graduate school.