#MentorMonday: Ya Vaughn Harlston, Assoc. AIA, LEED Green Associate

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: Ya Vaughn Harlston

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois, currently reside in Wheaton, Illinois

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

I use to draw all the time when I was a child and assembling anything that required to be assemble. I would get so excited when my parent bought furniture that required to be assembled and would ask if I can put it together by myself, which they did just to give myself something to do. I even had built an addition to my Barbie house. I was always amazed with the construction that was going on in Chicago and love to see the progress of the construction. I told my parents when I was 10 years old I wanted to be an Architect.
Throughout my time in high school, I have taken drafting classes and a lot of art classes. I have always love math and science as well. I didn’t have any exposure to an architect until I was introduced to by mother’s coworker whose brother-in-law was an architect. He was the first black architect that I have met. He mentored me while I was in high school and in college. When I applied to college I knew I wanted to major in architecture but wasn’t sure which school would be the best fit. I was accepted to Ball State University, Central University of Iowa, and University of California at Berkeley (my dream school). Because I am the youngest in my family and was graduating after completing 3 years of high school my parents would not allow me to go that far to my dream school so I settle at Central University of Iowa. I started at Central University of Iowa where I majored in mathematics, which I didn’t realized until after I started classes that mathematics was my major instead of art. After being there for a semester, I decided to transfer to University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) which is where, I received my Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies. While I was attending UIC I had a student mentor who guided me and has given me advice throughout my time in school and even to this day he still mentors me when I need advice. After graduation, I went on to pursue a Master degree in Architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

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

There is a small number of African-American Architects and an even smaller number of female African-American Architects that exist in this professional career. Because I am a minority and female I feel that I have more of a responsibility to work twice as hard as my peers to prove that I have what it takes to be successful and show professionally that I can do the work equally the same or better.

Being an African-American Architect, after my licensure process, I feel it is my responsibility to show that we play an important role in our society and shape the future of our environment through design and aesthetics, as well as, to inspire other minority individuals that have an aspiration to pursue a profession in architecture through mentoring which is something have done for a few years prior to pursuing my license.

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

Some of the obstacles I experienced as a black designer is being the only female at a job site or at a client meeting. Some assume that because I look young that I’m an intern or that it is my first project I have ever worked on. Usually after I have been engaging in the meetings the contractor realizes that this isn’t my first rodeo and are surprised I have over 10+ years experience. After a few meetings, the construction project team come to me with the questions in order to solve issues.

Should we ignore race in this profession?

No we shouldn’t ignore race in this profession. Race is a big issue because it shows that the architecture profession isn’t diversified enough and to show the large of a gap between the minority race and the majority race. This profession has been a “white male-dominated profession” for many years and is slowly evolving into a diversified profession. We should be asking ourselves the question “why and how can we make the architecture field even more inclusive and diversified when it comes to race”.

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

My advice would be to be more active in in student organizations at your school, take advantage of study abroad programs that are offered at your school,  network by going to conferences and putting yourself out in the forefront. Start applying for internships (paid) as early as your sophomore year so that you can work during the summer or work part-time while in school to gain professional work experience and become “marketable” after graduation. Investing in yourself outside of academia will make you have better opportunities when you enter into the workforce.

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

I started taking my ARE exam back in June 2016. My first exam that I have taken and passed was Schematic Design. After my first pass, I started studying for my Construction Documents and Services (CDS) exam followed by Programming, Planning and Practice (PPP). I scheduled and took these 2 exams 30 days apart and failed both exams. I rescheduled CDS and took it at the end of December, I found out at the beginning of 2018 I passed my second exam. I have taken another exam and failed that one. I finally passed my PPP exam on my second attempt. This was the only exam I have passed in the year 2018. After that pass I had eight ARE exam fails back to back. I allowed my anxiety to take over and wasn’t confident in my answers on the exam which caused me to second guess myself. I switched over to ARE 5.0 after I failed Site Planning and Design on the fourth attempt and decided to take Programming and Analysis where I failed this exam on my first attempt. At that point I was completely burned out from studying and had came to a point that maybe it’s not meant for me to pass these exams and was on the verge of giving up. I had a few heart to heart talks with friends about not giving up and explaining how it’s all part of the process, it was recommended that I should take a little break from studying so that I can rest my brain and start back preparing for the next exam after my break. After my break I started back studying for my next exam: Project Planning and Design (PPD), which I failed on my first attempt as well.
After this failed, I decided to push out the date of my next exam and decided to study for the LEED Green Associate exam and well as joined a study group bootcamp session which has helped me a lot with studying for the ARE. I took a two-day LEED course then took the exam 5 days later and passed it. This pass gave me the confidence that if I can pass this exam, I can definitely pass my last three ARE 5.0 exams. I took my Project Development & Documentation exam recently and I failed this exam. I was calm while taking the exam but I wasn’t confident in some of my answers on the exam so I ended up second guessing myself, which may have contributed to my fail. I was disappointed that I failed but I was proud of myself that I pushed through by not letting my anxiety take over. I bounced back next day and started studying for my PPD retake exam. I recently have taken my PPD exam and this time I took a different approach by not second guessing myself and went with my gut in answering the questions. Unfortunately did not pass on my 2nd attempt, but I improved so much by taking a different approach that I was very close. I am now strategizing in what I need to review more in that content areas I did not pass on my 2nd attempt.
I have learn during this ARE process that my exam fails do not determine how successful I will be as an architect, it’s a stepping stone for me to pursue other opportunities once I am a licensed architect. I have decided that I won’t let any obstacles stop me from pursuing the dream of becoming a licensed architect.

How important is representation?

It’s very important that representation of race and gender is reflected in the architecture profession. African Americans are definitely underrepresented in this profession. People of color are not likely to be promoted to higher positions at their jobs even though he/she are an equal asset to the company and there is a lack of African American role models that mentor minority students. Increasing more community outreach programs in middle and high schools in the inner city urban areas can promote and show students that there are people in this profession that look like them and possibly have come from a similar background can be successful.


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