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HOK Diversity x Design 2022 Scholarship Winners Speak Up

Six upper-level and graduate design students talk about what fuels their passion for architecture and design, who and what inspires them, their career goals, the architectural profession’s challenges and how they hope to make an impact on the world.

Last April, HOK announced the recipients of the firm’s second-annual Diversity x Design scholarships. Each valued at $10,000, the nine scholarships awarded by HOK for the 2022-2023 school year went to students from HBCUs and institutions with a history of educating BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and minority design students. Here, six of this year’s scholarship recipients offer insights into what’s on the minds of aspiring young architects.

  • Armand Gamboa (top left), a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sponsored by HOK’s Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, studios.
  • Kolbi Holston (top middle), a graduate student at Howard University, sponsored by HOK’s Washington, D.C., and Tampa studios.
  • Kelly Majam (top right), an undergraduate student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, sponsored by HOK’s San Francisco and Seattle studios.
  • Trenton Scott (bottom left), an undergraduate student at Tuskegee University, sponsored by HOK’s St. Louis studio.
  • Ana Valdez-Tello (bottom middle), an undergraduate student at Kennesaw State University, sponsored by HOK’s Atlanta studio.
  • Xiao Lin Wang (bottom right), an undergraduate student at City College of New York, sponsored by HOK’s New York and Philadelphia studios.

How did you become interested in architecture and design?

Armand Gamboa: Before studying architecture, my interest in the profession stemmed solely from a desire to please my parents, who were adamant that my prior dream of art was a path toward financial ruin. Imagine my surprise when on day one of lecture at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I realized that architecture was an art form beyond what I had previously thought possible. I quickly learned that architecture as art is both the canvas and the frame.

Kolbi Holston: I’ve wanted to be an architect since second grade. My dad is an electrician and would always have lighting blueprints around the house. As a kid, I fell in love with the drawings and how those lines could become real walls and spaces. I’ve always been fascinated by an architect’s ability to bring imagination to life and create things so much bigger than themselves.

Kelly Majam: I discovered architecture during my junior year of high school. I planned to take an AP Computer Science class, but it had too many students, so I was placed in an Architecture course. At first, I did everything I could to get out of that class, as I had no interest in becoming an architect. Yet after two weeks, it became my favorite class. It allowed me to be creative and open my mind to perceive the world in a new way. During the summer, I attended a month-long intensive architecture workshop at California Polytechnic State University. There, I found an even greater appreciation and passion for the industry. I plan to work at Cal Poly’s Architecture Workshop this summer with the hope of inspiring young students to think about a career in architecture.

Trenton Scott: I began drawing and sketching cartoons at eight years old. I enjoyed recreating a graphic design that someone else had already mastered. Then I moved into a fascination with motorcycles and started sketching detailed Harley-Davidsons, which challenged my eye for intricate systems that made the vehicle come to life. Around the age of 15, I truly discovered a passion for drawing buildings and the details within them.

Ana Valdez-Tello: I have always been passionate about painting and sketching. Art and drafting were my favorite high school classes, and they led me to pursue a career in architecture.

Xiao Lin Wang: My interest in architecture and design was a gradual realization through a series of relevant events and opportunities. Growing up in Fuzhou, China, and Brooklyn, New York, as a second-generation Asian American has allowed me to understand the context of two different built environments. From a young age, I enjoyed hands-on activities like craft making or drawing. Despite my personal interests, I was influenced to believe that pursuing a STEM field meant a more successful future. I attended Brooklyn Technical High School, a STEM-based specialized high school that ironically introduced me to architecture through its elective system. As a native New Yorker, continuing to receive my education at a public institution, the City College of New York Spitzer School of Architecture, is an experience I truly value. I get the opportunity to study alongside a diverse group of students and faculty. I became more conscious of the injustice and racial implications in architecture by studying in Harlem, a place rich in culture and history. Architecture means something different to me now than simply the passion to build, draw or even create. I am now interested in exploring the relationship between architecture and the urban environment and how we, as problem solvers, perceive design with empathy, innovation, sustainability and accessibility.

Where do you find inspiration?

Armand Gamboa: I am inspired by anything or anyone that, through its or their presence or action, evokes a strong emotional response. One example of this is the work of artist Kathleen Speranza. She paints her homegrown roses with such careful consideration that it’s difficult not to look at them as anything but portraits of individuals as deeply varied and full of character as you might discover in your local grocery store. I look at those rose portraits and imagine they are people who laugh, talk, cry and feel everything that you or I might feel. I am deeply inspired that my work might one day do the same.

Kolbi Holston: I find inspiration in just about everything. One of the most beautiful things about this world is how everyone sees it differently. There is something to learn from every situation and person you encounter. Finding inspiration in the things other people love and value, and then bringing that vision to life is what architects do. I don’t think there’s anything more inspiring than that.

Kelly Majam: I find inspiration through surfing. This activity brings me peace of mind and provides a balance in my life. Out in the water, I feel at one with nature and myself. The ocean is where I can reflect and take inspiration from the activity of surfing and apply it to my architecture: obstacles, perception and equilibrium.

Trenton Scott: My passion and inspiration come from uplifting communities through researching their needs and wants while understanding their discomforts. After that, it is producing a space they can consider their own.

Ana Valdez-Tello: I find inspiration through many sources; architectural magazines, books, nature and art. The allure of architecture is that inspiration can come from anywhere.

Xiao Lin Wang: Finding inspiration is always tricky. It comes from being in different environments and being around different people. Going to museums, exhibitions, lectures and events have been ways I stay informed and allow myself to constantly think. Reaching beyond the classroom setting and being around motivated people inspires me to find my next goal or career trajectory.

What are your goals for your architectural career?

Armand Gamboa: My pursuit of architecture as a career is born out of a simple yet fervent desire to populate the world with beauty. For me, beauty is anything but simple. It has many facets, including aesthetic parameters, social considerations and emotional repercussions. Beauty in architecture can be fruitful in the literal sense that it provides some form of nourishment for the individuals and communities it serves. Or it can be fruitless in the sense that it doesn’t help enrich the human spirit, In many cases, it acts as an agent of displacement and destabilization. For my career, I always strive to cultivate the former.

Kolbi Holston: My first priority is being in a space that allows me to keep learning and growing as a designer. Another goal is to continue working towards acquiring my architecture license. Lastly, I want to design self-aware, climate-resilient and socially conscious structures.

Kelly Majam: This is a question I ponder at times, as I still am not sure about which discipline of architecture I would like to work in. I do know that I want to spread knowledge to future generations and educate and converse with the public about architecture and ways that we can improve it for everyone.

Trenton Scott: Seeing the impact that architecture has on a community has inspired me to pursue sports and recreation design for my architecture career. Growing up, sports were such a big part of my life.

Ana Valdez-Tello: My objective in my architectural career is to become a licensed architect here in Georgia. My goals are also to design in the commercial area, particularly high-performance buildings. I am interested in the attributes and optimization of a building’s life cycle as well as people’s experiences.

Xiao Lin Wang: My goals are constantly evolving. For now, my career objectives are to work toward licensure, explore different aspects of the construction field and find a place in academia. I want to lead and advocate for others while building lasting relationships. Thus far, I have gained experience in various roles through internships, competitions and freelance work to gauge my interests. I have worked as a model maker, architectural intern, emergency operations intern and project management intern. I hope to be a designer who understands the overall process. By continuing to lean in on different sides of the design and construction process, I can better understand how architects, engineers and trades work together to bring a project to life. As a studio teacher assistant this past fall semester, I found it fulfilling to be able to offer advice. Therefore, I would like to obtain a master’s degree and become a studio professor while working in the industry. I am currently the Chapter Chair of the American Institute of Architecture Students and part of the National Organization of Minority Architect Students Mentorship Committee. In the future, I want to continue to be involved in organizations that give back.

What are the biggest challenges facing the design industry?

Armand Gamboa: Perhaps the biggest challenge for the design industry doesn’t lie in the ability of the designer to conceive novel ideas and solutions, but instead resides in our inability to properly convey the implications of those aspirations to the various participants responsible for their funding and construction. As soon as the design industry demands the same amount of trust and respect in the eyes of the general public that is afforded to the healthcare industry, or the constituent members of the STEM professions, we will begin to see the transformative and healing effects of design come to full fruition.

Kolbi Holston: Architecture often juggles issues like gentrification, gendered spaces, climate change and exclusivity in design. Our challenge continues to be finding a way to design for all people and for the betterment of all living things, including the Earth.

Kelly Majam: Ego is a challenge facing the design industry, as some designers disregard the communities their architecture impacts. Without engaging and having a dialogue with the public, architects can create dysfunctional spaces that do not solve the needs of communities. Once we put aside our egos and start to design with the public and the environment, we can begin to build better-performing buildings for the people.

Trenton Scott: The biggest challenge I see today is supporting rural communities that need a fresh and affordable structure or space yet don’t have the funds to achieve that goal. How can design firms and other corporations use their money to help fund these communities?

Ana Valdez-Tello: Though the design industry has become more diverse over the years, minorities and other underserved populations still face obstacles. Diversity in the workforce increases creativity, problem-solving and productivity. Therefore, underrepresentation is a missed opportunity in the profession.

Xiao Lin Wang: Architects have the burden and responsibility to shape the future of how we live and interact with each other and the space we inhabit. It is a process that can be conceptual and fun, but there’s also realness to how space affects us. Technical issues such as zoning laws, what defines a landmark site and what is ethical to build in specific areas are questions we constantly ask ourselves when designing. Are we making the right design choices? Are we conscious about our design impact on the site’s context? If not considered, neighborhoods start to change and lose their cultural context and significance. Other prominent issues are mental health, work-life balance and pay. Are we getting enough vacation days? Are we working overtime every day? How much are we getting paid for the work we do? Unions seem difficult in the world of architecture. Why is that?

How can architects make a positive impact on the most pressing issues of our time?

Armand Gamboa: The best way for architects to positively impact the most pressing issues of our time is identical to how any of us can make a positive impact, regardless of our profession. That is through the simple yet incalculable power of empathy. It really is that simple. If architects always keep the consideration of others at the forefront of their minds and if they always endeavor to act according to those considerations, a positive impact will follow.

Kolbi Holston: We can start by wholeheartedly believing in our power to make a difference. Even as someone who isn’t fully immersed in the industry, I see how it’s easy to be discouraged. If we all have the mindset that small changes won’t make a difference, then no change will ever happen. Everything you create is important, and your potential to make positive change is limitless.

Kelly Majam: This is a difficult question to answer, as I recognize that I am very young in the architecture industry and my answer will probably change as I grow older and learn more. But I think architects can make a positive impact through education, putting egos aside and listening to the public and the planet.

Trenton Scott: Architects can make a positive impact by turning their computers off, putting their pens down, taking a break from office life and engaging in the emotional ups and downs of our communities. Some architects have already stepped into that impact, while others haven’t yet taken that step.

Ana Valdez-Tello: Architects can impact society in various ways, including culturally, environmentally and psychologically. Architecture that aims to help social causes can empower and change the lives of future generations in a community. Understanding the community and environment in which projects will live can positively impact many pressing issues of our time.

Xiao Lin Wang: The role of an architect is always a difficult one. We are problem solvers and project-driven, while others can be profit-driven. One thing is sure: speak up and keep the conversation going because it has worked and will always work. Change happens when committees are formed and issues are spoken about. For example, this can be rezoning areas that need care. Another instance is firms and schools collaborating to branch the connection between the students and the real world. This gives students opportunities to learn about the professional field and creates more connectivity between each other.

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