#MentorMonday: Jennifer Matthews, Assoc. AIA

Welcome to #MentorMonday! Mondays are dedicated to celebrating Black LICENSED Architects, Designers, and individuals in the profession of Architecture!

The questions asked to these individuals are to allow us into their lives and to be used as an inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series.
Name: Jennifer T. Matthews, Associate AIA

About Me – Jennifer T. Matthews, Associate AIA is a Design Professional at Waldon Studio Architects in Washington, DC. With 4 years of healthcare design experience, Jennifer has served clients such as Kaiser Permanente, Children’s National, Washington Hospital Center, Johns Hopkins, and United Medical Center. She is the 2018 recipient of the Healthcare Design Magazine HCD 10 Educator Honor Award for her efforts of creating and managing Array Architects’ annual Mind the Gap event. Jennifer served as the 2013-2014 National Vice President of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), the first African American female Vice President. She is a 2013 graduate of the Tuskegee University Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, receiving a Bachelor of Architecture, and a Master of Arts candidate for the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Business Design and Arts Leadership program.

Hometown: Montgomery, Alabama, Currently lives in Alexandria, VA

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

Growing up, I had not met any architects nor did I understand the architectural profession. My grandfather and uncles worked in construction, and my grandfather often created his own plans for construction. He did not have a formal education but would be considered a master builder, a central figure leading construction projects in pre-modern times and a precursor to the modern architect and engineer.
During my senior year of high school, my interest in art remained at the forefront of my efforts to determine a major. I went on two college tours specifically for graphic design, but was not particularly impressed or inspired to apply to either program. My dad, a Tuskegee University sales and marketing graduate, took me to the campus so I could tour the engineering department. His mind was on financial stability, while mine was on something a little more artsy and fun. I did not like science at all in high school and quickly rerouted him to the architecture building since I considered it the closest art option. To my surprise, I got a chance to talk to the Dean, students, and hear about the projects they were working on. I later visited an architecture firm in my hometown, and decided to declare my major in architecture at Tuskegee University.

What does it mean to be a black architect to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?

As a rising black architect, I feel like there is more responsibility to bring awareness to the small group of professionals that represent African American women architects. After licensure, our voice and platforms become bigger as advocates for the profession, our communities, and the change we wish to see in the profession. Without our voice, the profession continues to be one that caters to the majority although minority groups are beginning to surpass that of the majority in the United States. As minority groups continue to grow, so will the environments that we live, work, and learn in. We, as black architects, must be at the forefront to communicate and produce the changes our communities need.

What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/designer?

There is a difference between being respectful and respected. I’ve never been disrespected by a contractor or engineer, but I occasionally have the feeling that I’m not respected as a knowledgeable professional. For example, I can be considered the primary point of contact for a project; however, the contractor or engineers may still prefer to communicate directly with my project manager. I’ve learned over time that it is really important to speak up or have an opinion on the work you’re doing. If you don’t speak up, those around you may consider you to be passive, uninterested, or lacking knowledge. It’s tough sometimes because there’s still so much to learn in architecture and the constant feeling of not knowing plays heavily on an emerging professional’s mind and capability to speak up. The best advice I can give is to keep learning, speak up when you can, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes a question is better than saying nothing at all.

Should we ignore race in this profession?

As nice as it would be to go about our day-to-day without regards to race, it’s an important factor that must be addressed.Without the conversations, we won’t see a shift in the numbers that represent minorities in the industry. I’ve heard many firms and organizations claim to be diverse by simply having a comparable male to female ratio but also completely turning a blind eye to the representation of various ethnicities. Its a small band aid for a larger problem that must be addressed head on.

If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?

Leave the boundaries of your university so you can strengthen your learning. Go to as many conferences as you can, travel abroad, enter competitions, and hold local and national leadership roles. Sit in on presentations and crits at other universities in your area. Find an internship as early as your first year, or shadow for a couple of days if you can’t find a paid internship. I find that so many students succumb to the limitations that their architecture departments place on them because of a lack of funding or permissions from the University. Faculty may be able to assist with internship and job searching, but they are not responsible for securing opportunities for you. Take control of your future and your learning by investing in yourself and the opportunities you have.

Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?

After passing Schematic Design on my first try, I failed Construction Documents three times before receiving a pass. I started to think that obtaining a license was not for me. Again, I went through the same failed motions on Programming, Planning & Practice and failed by the vignette only before the NCARB transition to 5.0. Being surrounded by people who were experiencing a similar struggle raised my spirits by simply talking things out.
There’s a certain level of self determination that goes along with taking the ARE. You can’t want a license to satisfy others, and you need to know why YOU want to be licensed. That reason will fuel your fire to continue on. After pinpointing that reason, I just kept scheduling exams no matter the outcome. My biggest breakthrough was passing two consecutive tests after transitioning to ARE 5.0. I finally felt like I was in it to win this battle, and I stopped listening to outside pressures and expectations people placed on my shoulders. I now have three tests remaining and only I can be my own worst enemy.

How important is representation?

Without representation, we don’t exist. It’s important to share your voice with all groups, not just one. The same conversations should be circulating the AIA, NOMA, NCARB, NAAB, ACSA, and AIAS board rooms. We can’t fight battles of representation on our own. Others that don’t particularly look like us must also join the conversation and understand the value in the change we seek.
In the same way, personal representation is important. A lack of involvement can limit opportunities for new jobs, speaking opportunities, special projects, etc. If your firm has extra-circulars, find a way to join those activities or bring something new to the table. Local AIA and NOMA components have committees you can join, and these are great platforms to suggest and implement change.

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