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HOK Designers Share How Historically Black Colleges Shaped Their Lives, Careers

It’s impossible to overstate the role historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played in developing African-American scholars and leaders. Born in response to racist policies that kept students of color from attending many public and private colleges, HBCUs today remain vibrant centers of learning, culture and discovery.

HOK currently employs over a dozen HBCU alumni, and the firm makes a point to recruit students at historically black institutes like Howard University, Florida A&M, Tuskegee and more. In honor of Black History Month, we asked a few of our HBCU grads to share why they chose their college and how their alma maters prepared them for life and a career in architecture and design.

Zahra Makki
Senior Medical Planner / Chicago
Hampton University

I chose Hampton because: It was recommended to me by a friend of my family. He knew I wanted to study architecture and Hampton had a strong program. Hampton also had a reputation for being invested in its students’ success and providing a supportive environment.

What I’d tell my freshman self: Stay curious!

What may surprise people about Hampton University: Originally intended for African-American and Native American students, Hampton today has a diverse student body and faculty. The architecture school at Hampton started as a trade school, and through the early 1900s students were required to build on campus as part of their graduation requirement. Many of those buildings still exist today and include dormitories, trade schools and housing.

Bruce Arthur
Senior Project Manager / New York
Howard University

I chose Howard because: It had everything I was looking for—rich tradition, an urban location, and an established architectural program. I never had the opportunity to visit before I attended, but when I arrived and met my classmates and heard their stories, I knew I was home. Today I continue to take pride in my connection to Howard.

What I’d tell my freshman self: There are no shortcuts to get to maturity and independence.

What may surprise people about HBCUs: Studying at an HBCU isn’t an exclusively African-American experience. Peers in my program came from many countries and viewed the world through different prisms. For many of them creating architecture wasn’t strictly about building attractive buildings or seeking a career. They had come to this study of architecture as a way to effect change in their communities. Projects they created—hydroponic centers, water treatment plants, large-scale affordable housing solutions—were undertaken to address a known and experienced need.

Allison Merritt
Design Professional / St. Louis
Tuskegee University

I chose Tuskegee because:I love the family-like atmosphere it offers and its rich, wonderful history. While the other schools I looked at also had great architecture programs, they were larger, public universities. I wasn’t sure I would receive the same amount of attention from professors or develop the same close-knit relationships I desired. I was also eager to learn about the broad spectrum of African and African-American history that is taught at HBCUs. This concentrated focus was something I felt was lacking from my primary and secondary education, and I wanted to learn more about black history, especially in architecture.

What I’d tell my freshman self: Beware of that diet of Pizza Hut, Doritos and ramen. It will catch up with you! Also get as much internship experience and exploration in the field as possible. I had the opportunity to attend a few summer design camps while in high school, which helped me decide on architecture as my major. Similarly, internships allow you to have better insight into what pursuing a career in architecture will be like, and they can assist in making the transition into the corporate world much easier.

What may surprise people about Tuskegee: While it’s well known for the Tuskegee Airmen and George Washington Carver, it is also a National Historic Site and several of its brick buildings were designed by Robert Robinson Taylor, one of America’s first black architects, and constructed by students. It was such an empowering feeling to know that the same buildings I was learning in were built by students just like me.

Damon Sheppard
Regional Leader of S+T / Washington D.C. 
Howard University

I chose Howard because: I fell in love with the culture and instantly felt at home when I visited. I also found that a school like Howard, with its rich history and prominent role in the community, has a unique ability to inspire its students to pursue excellence in the classroom and make an impact in the community. At an HBCU you can just be a student and focus on your craft. You don’t have the added pressure of constantly being conscious of being one of the few black students in the learning environment.

What I’d tell my freshman self: Architecture is a profession that comes in different shades. The image of the star designer that many of us have as a student is just a narrow slice of what we do. The reality is that each architectural career is unique. There’s no script, and no one way to practice. Leverage your strengths and let them guide you as you navigate your career in architecture.

What may surprise people about HBCUs:They are diverse in a different way. You get exposed to students who represent countries from around the world—African nations, Asian regions, the Caribbean and South America. The reality is that—from an international standpoint—you may actually be exposed to more diversity on a global scale than you might otherwise experience at a typical state university.

Victoria Lewis
Design Professional / HOK in Atlanta
Howard University

I chose Howard because: I fell in love with the school the first time I stepped on campus to attend the Sunday chapel service. The second time I visited was for a college tour where I got to experience the beautiful atmosphere and culture. The campus look, the music and the positivity of the students made me feel completely at home. It was exactly how I thought college would be. I was able to be myself unapologetically, and that’s what I loved.

What I’d tell my freshman self:  1. Don’t be afraid to engage more. I was a bit shy when I entered college, and I wish had grabbed hold of more opportunities. 2. Your current situation does not define your future. Architecture was quite difficult for me in college, and I had to work hard to stay afloat. I often doubted that I would be an asset in the profession. However, I learned that our industry is much bigger than what we learn in the classroom. There are so many opportunities to still learn and achieve greatness. 3. Networking is key. Architecture in particular is largely based on relationships with others. It has been vital to my career thus far to utilize and expand my network of peers and colleagues.

What may surprise people about Howard: Howard has such a unique and tight-knit community. You have the ability to learn about and connect with such a wide range of cultures.

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