Sunkist Judson remembers what it’s like to live as a refugee in Thailand, fleeing persecution by the Myanmar government.
The graduate architecture student who moved to Nebraska in August 2012 recalls a childhood spent walking through mud as the rain poured down on the bamboo homes, with mosquitoes biting every inch of his skin.
The vivid experience of his childhood has inspired Judson to pursue a goal of designing schools and hospitals for refugees across the world.
Similar to Judson, other minority architecture students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have different reasons why they want to research and construct a building someday. For some, it’s a passion; for others, it’s a lifelong dream of helping an underserved community across the world.
Whatever the reason, the College of Architecture shows that even though it contains one of the least diverse student populations on campus, students from all different walks of life, socially and economically, can still thrive despite representation challenges.
According to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics at UNL, only 11 percent of architecture undergraduate students as of fall 2018 are minorities, and 22 minority students are enrolled in the graduate program.
The College of Architecture’s diversity woes reflects on the professional field as a whole, as reported by the National Council of Architectural Registration Board. The study shows only 20 percent of those who hold professional architecture licenses are nonwhite, and one in three new architects are women.
But the homogeneity in the field does not hinder minority students and faculty members at the college to pursue their goal of making a contribution to their community.
Judson said the lack of diversity in the field has never been a limitation for him to achieve his lifelong goal of building sustainable homes, schools and hospitals for refugees.
“Race has never really bothered me,” he said. “This is the place that I am trying to learn, so it doesn’t matter who’s teaching, building or designing as long as I can learn from them.”
The American dream
Judson started noticing the impact of structures on the health of a community when he lived in a refugee camp, where most living spaces were made out of bamboo.
The habitations in the refugee camp were enough to accommodate his family, but he said the structures did not protect other families against a malaria epidemic due to excessive rainfall and unhygienic water.
After three years of living in the camp, 13-year-old Judson and his family arrived in Burlington, Wisconsin.
After landing from a nearly 20-hour flight, he said he saw something he’d never seen — American homes in typical neighborhoods with clean-cut lawns.
“The houses looked very nice compared to the houses made out of bamboo and wood,” Judson said. “The road was made out of pavement, so the sidewalks was made of concrete, so that was really nice compared to walking in the mud.”
From then on, he always dreamed of building more sustainable living spaces for those living in refugee camps.
“My passion is that I want to go back to Thailand and help the refugee[s] there and build sustainable architecture using material resources there because they live in the remote areas, so it’s difficult to access the medical care and school,” Judson said. “So, my goal is after I graduate here, I am going to work for a few years and save up money so that I can go back to build [a] hospital ... And after that I want to build school so that the [students] can study and get an education.”
Although he’s finally doing what he’s always wanted, Judson said he often felt out of place in his studio class as a nontraditional student. He said most of his classmates have already acquired architectural skills from their undergraduate degrees, but he entered the program knowing nothing.
Before enrolling in UNL’s graduate architecture program, Judson had to settle with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, since the university had removed its architecture program while he was an undergraduate.
Judson said it took him longer than his classmates to understand their assignments. At first, he did not know how to decipher draft documents or understand different materials. To catch up with his classmates, he said he spent many late nights working at the studio.
“If it takes my friends 30 minutes, it would take one hour and a half for me,” he said. “It is very difficult, actually. It’s physically and mentally exhausting.”
Judson said he goes to bed at 3 a.m. and averages under five hours of sleep. Despite the sleepless nights and mental exhaustion, he said he still can’t believe he’s living his American dream.
“I am just happy to be here, you know. I never thought of being in America and studying and going to high school and college,” Judson said. “Now I am studying architecture.”
Gender sees no bounds
As the child of Argentinian immigrants, senior architecture major Jessica Larsen said she distinctly understands why female college students might feel pressured to drop out of the architecture program each school year.
She said she’s always wanted a career in architecture, but she believes women are less interested in pursuing a career in architecture because of potential sexism in the workplace, limited representation and a restricted support system.
“Even though women are interested in this, and they are coming to the college and they’re going to school for it, they fall out of it professionally more and more as they go deeper into it,” Larsen said.
At times, she’s noticed how some clients talk to her differently at work compared to her male counterparts. When she hears jokes she considers sexist, she said she responds to them without humor.
“If somebody makes a joke that’s sexist, I just don’t laugh,” Larsen said. “I try not to put up with crap like that.”
If it weren’t for her interest in design or her drive to use her skills to help the less economically and socially fortunate, she said she would contemplate whether to stay in the field.
“I feel like I can put up with it with the fact that I really like [architecture],” Larsen said. “It’s discouraging when every year I come back, there are fewer women.”
Senior architecture major Adrian Silva is likewise spearheading diversity efforts in the College of Architecture. Silva said he’s working to establish a recognized student organization called Queer Nebraska Design Student to encourage students to research and create a more inclusive space for the LGBTQ community at the university and beyond, such as adding genderless bathrooms.
As an executive member of UNL’s National Organization of Minority Architects chapter and one of the college’s 27 undergraduate students who identify as Hispanic, Silva has also highlighted the importance of college diversity by organizing events and film screenings that represent racial and gender diversity.
Silva said these events help foster diverse dialogue on social, racial and gender identity that will help students design living spaces that benefit everyone.
“There has to be diversity in architecture, because it is the built environment, so if you don’t have that diversity, you’re not building for the general population,” he said. “You’re only building for one type of person.”
Architecture is still a “white masculine field”
Co-founders of the architectural firm WAI Think Tank and UNL lecturers Cruz Garcia and Nathalie Frankowski said they’re frustrated with the “white masculine field” they see in their careers.
“Architecture is pretty terrible,” Garcia said. “It’s probably, in this part of the world, is the whitest discipline and male-dominated. Usually, if you have women in power, they’re usually white, too.”
Garcia said he often finds he’s the only black person in the workplace. He said he always tells himself he has to prove his qualifications with extra work and efforts in his design.
At times, he said he wonders why his co-workers whose designs are equal to, if not worse than his are given more opportunities than him.
“I feel like I have to be 10 times better than any mediocre professor,” Garcia said.
Frankowski, Garcia’s firm partner, grew up in France in a family of architects and said she still has to prove to others how she is capable of a traditionally masculine job.
“For women in the profession, it’s not just about being good. It’s just that you have to prove that what you do is good,” Frankowski said, “You have to make 100 percent more efforts to be noticed.”
In the past, construction managers on a site project would ignore her role as the team manager and directly consult with the male employees — like her interns.
“As a woman … when you have to manage a team that is usually of men, you have to prove your authority,” Frankowski said.
Although more women hold higher positions or even own firms, Frankowski said she sees mostly men starting out in the field.
“The tip of the iceberg may be women, but underneath it, it’s still the same,” Garcia said.
Although both said frustration creeps up in a field dominated by white males, Garcia said diversity in architecture would improve if more individuals in educational and professional leadership positions strive to make the field more diverse.
“Obviously, things are not working, and they’re really comfortable with what they have, so they don’t want to change it because change is really uncomfortable,” he said.
Garcia said he believes if the field is opened to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, more talent and opportunities will rise to build better designs.
“How can you get the best of the best if people don’t even know that it’s a possibility that they can do architecture as a career?” he asked.
Despite small steps toward diversity in architecture, both Garcia and Frankowski agree that progress of diversity in the school and field will occur by educating and encouraging the next generation of aspiring architects.
“We have people around us, like many faculty, friends that are really great and engaging,” Garcia said. “The program director, the dean and everybody here are involved in making this school to much more interesting place and diverse place.”
Katherine Ankerson, the dean of the College of Architecture, said in an email that the establishment of the NOMA chapter at UNL, a $1,000 cultural and gender equity scholarship sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and opportunities to send minority students to networking conventions are some of the college’s initiatives to foster diversity in students’ educational experiences.
While the College of Architecture continues to foster a more diverse student population and improves inclusivity, aspiring architecture students are presented with the opportunity to push the boundaries of the field.
“Architecture, at the end of the day, deals with trying to design a better world for everybody,” Garcia said.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 edition of The DN.