Beyond the classroom.
As part of my final year at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, I had the opportunity to pursue work as a practicum student for six months before I graduate in May. That I was able to pursue this opportunity with any firm in the country was extremely daunting and I didn’t know where to start. Initially, I thought I would take this opportunity to work in Chicago or on the East Coast, but quickly my research changed my mind. As I began to notice that different regions of the country have certain architectural styles and that I was drawn to the projects found in the West and Northwest, I decided to focus there, and ended up at THA. Despite never having visited Oregon, the decision to live and work in Portland for six months was somewhat strategic. I’ve been able to call Austin, Texas home for the past five years and knowing that Portland and Austin are often referred to as sister cities, I knew that I would be going somewhere different but not foreign. I had general knowledge of the region and was ready to embrace the unexpected. It was this same mindset that I adopted on outdoor adventures and working in the office.
As students, there are some differences that we can expect as we transition from studio into the professional environment. For example, more difficult problems as we deal with the true complexity of architecture and its construction or the importance of communication as projects are often executed in teams rather than as individuals. My practicum experience allowed me to understand these and much more firsthand. It was the times I was given the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” that were the biggest learning opportunities for me – whether it was sitting in a marketing meeting or seeing the interaction between an architect and client.
Let’s talk business.
If I had to pick one aspect that fascinated me the most it would be understanding architecture as a business. This subject is hardly discussed in school and yet is one of the most important aspects of the profession. The process of pursuing projects, preparing for interviews, strategic marketing, and the importance of networking are all things that make a firm successful. Design is the identity of your firm, but ultimately it’s the ability to properly manage a business that is crucial. I was even able to experience the ups and downs of obtaining projects as I helped teams prepare for presentations. I quickly understood the pressure and importance of obtaining work, but also the passion and hard work that must go into it regardless of what the result could be. This is the way that the industry works and something that cannot be experienced until working professionally.
Right after realizing that the design projects done during school are far from being feasible (which happened very quickly) I also realized the value of time. Due to the complexity of projects, great amounts of time have to be dedicated at all phases. As an incomer, I struggled with the pace at first and couldn’t help but to feel like I wasn’t working fast enough, perhaps because we are accustomed to a slower pace in studio. I was much more aware of the time it takes for certain tasks to get done, which essentially helped in being more productive and efficient with my time.
As i get ready to enter the profession, I’m inevitably thinking about the future and my goals moving forward. Prior to this experience it was hard to understand the profession’s structure and path to leadership roles. I was looking to understand the ladder to climb or linear process to take, but the reality is there isn’t one. It was a great help to understand this by speaking with other individuals about their history and experiences in architecture. No two stories were alike, but they had all taken advantage of an unexpected opportunity which helped lead them to success and where they are today.
As I transition back to school and studio, I’m happy to apply everything I learned throughout my practicum. This experience was invaluable and taught me many lessons and skills that will not only be useful in school, but also in my future employment. In the field of architecture, it’s rare to come across an academic program that is so committed to the idea of a real-world education that it offers its students the opportunity to gain this longer term professional experience while simultaneously obtaining school credit. And even better, to allow them to choose the country, city, and company where they wish to conduct their experience. And the reality is that programs like the UT Professional Residency Program would not be possible if it weren’t for the commitment made by architecture firms to influence higher education and mentor students who will be the future of the profession. There is a very large gap between school and the real world that can only be understood through professional experiences like these.
I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity and not only am I more knowledgeable about what to look for in a future employer, but also how I could be a better asset. I walk away having met amazing people, in an amazing city, within a beautiful state. It was a long journey from home, but one that was absolutely worth it.