An Interview with Katie Scallon, Architectural Studies and Design Student

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Katie Scallon, Architectural Studies and Design Student

January 5, 2006

The potential to help push sustainability as an architecture trend is just one aspect of the field that excites Katie Scallon. "One of the best things about an architectural education is that, in the end, it teaches you to solve problems in a holistic, creative and unconventional way. This is a unique skill that can be applied in virtually any situation and makes designers a valuable asset to society," she says.

A senior in the Bachelor of Science in Design in Architectural Studies program at Arizona State University in Tempe, Katie plans to graduate in May of 2006. That's no small feat, considering she is concurrently enrolled in ASU's Barrett Honors College and the College of Design and is active in numerous extra-curricular activities.

Her academic achievements at Middleton High School in Middleton, Wis. – placing first in a class her class of 409, and being named an AP Scholar, a Wisconsin All-State Scholar and a 2002 National Merit Finalist – led to Katie's full-tuition National Merit Scholarship at ASU.

Studies are equally important to Katie at the college level, where she has a 3.9 cumulative GPA and is on the Dean's Honor List at ASU. But books aren't everything. Katie serves as president of the ASU American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) chapter for the 2005-2006 school year. She has held various other leadership positions within the chapter organization, including participation in regional and national events. In addition, she is a member of the College of Design College Council as well as the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Student Council.

To make sure that she gets a broad view of the world beyond design, Katie has tapped into other campus life activities, including the 2004 Train to End Stroke Marathon Training Program through the American Stroke Association as well being part of the ASU Student Speakers' Bureau, the ASU Refugee Resettlement Volunteers and serving as a student delegate for the ASU Leadership2000 Retreat. "Architecture is not an entity in and of itself, but rather a reflection of culture and community. It is important, therefore, that we as students do not isolate ourselves from that culture and community and consequently develop a myopic worldview," she says.

She participated in the ASU Honors Study Abroad program in the summer of 2003, and has since spent her summers on architectural internships. In 2004, she held an internship at Bouril Design Studio in Madison, Wis., and last summer she served as an intern at FM Group Inc. in Phoenix. When it comes to landing an architectural internship, Katie advises the following: "Don't settle for a less-than-inspiring internship that will leave you disheartened about the profession."

Education Information & Advice

How did you initially decide to study architecture?

While I had no formal training or exposure to architecture before college, I have always been a very artistic and creative person with a wide range of interests and talents. Architecture, being a creative profession and encompassing a broad range of skills and subjects, seemed like the perfect fit for me.

How did you choose the Arizona State University architectural design program?

I actually decided to attend ASU at the last minute, after I realized they were offering me a full-tuition National Merit Finalist scholarship. I was also impressed by the fact that their architecture school was in the same college and the same physical buildings as the other design disciplines (which is surprisingly not the case at many universities). Oh, and the beautiful, sunny weather is a nice perk!

Tell us about your concurrent enrollment in the Barrett Honors College and the College of Design.

The Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University was a big draw for me. As an honors student I have requirements above and beyond that of an average architecture student: I am required to take certain honors courses, to complete regular courses for honors credit, usually by doing an extra project or paper and to produce an honors thesis project by my senior year. It has often been difficult to manage my honors coursework in addition to the already rigorous requirements of an architectural education, but my experience as an honors student has given me opportunities and a broader perspective that I otherwise would not have had.

What were/are your three favorite classes and why?

Introduction to Architecture, Latin American Design... and Hip Hop Dance! "Introduction to Architecture," a broad overview of architectural movements throughout history with a focus on the 21st century, was a required lecture course in my sophomore year. We had an extremely enthusiastic and engaging professor who really got us excited about architecture. We also took field trips to different buildings around campus and analyzed them in relation to the topics we were discussing in class. I'm currently taking a seminar course called "Latin American Design." The informality of the seminar-style course combined with the unique subject matter makes this a class I truly look forward to each week. And last but not least, one of my favorite courses that ASU offers is Hip Hop Dance, a great stress reliever and an excuse to leave the architecture studio every now and then!

As a stand-out high school student, you are the recipient of a full-tuition National Merit Finalist Scholarship. What gave you an edge in the scholarship application process? Any tips for other students seeking scholarships?

Aside from maintaining a high GPA, it's important to get involved in extracurricular activities in high school. My high school involvement and leadership on the varsity gymnastics team, the yearbook, the student council, and the National Honor Society certainly gave me an edge in the scholarship application process. While the National Merit Scholarship is based primarily on PSAT scores, many of the other scholarships I received took extracurricular and volunteer activities heavily into account.

What led to your interest in the American Institute of Architecture Students organization?

Having been very involved in extracurricular activities in high school, I knew I wanted to get involved in student organizations at the university level as well. I was drawn to AIAS because it was directly applicable to my field of study and was an extremely well-organized national organization involved in a wealth of activities on the local level.

What should students expect from AIAS membership?

As an AIAS member, you will meet other students with similar goals and aspirations, gain opportunities for direct community involvement, participate in interdisciplinary programming and network with faculty and design professionals. You can attend regional and national conferences to learn about important issues relevant to architectural education and practice, explore new places and create lasting friendships with design students from across the country. You will receive nationwide discounts on computer hardware and software, books and magazines, and conferences, as well as local discounts at art supply stores, copy shops, coffee houses, and restaurants. You may also gain valuable leadership experience by serving as a committee chairperson or executive board member in your local chapter. Perhaps most importantly, however, by associating yourself with one of the five collateral architecture organizations in the country, you will have the opportunity and ability to facilitate meaningful change in architectural education and the profession.

You are also active in numerous other campus activities, including the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture's Student Council and the College of Design's College Council. What drives you to be so involved in these activities?

As ASU's AIAS chapter president I am involved in and aware of a lot of the things going on in our college. That makes it 'a natural' for me to participate on these councils, representing not only the student body, but also AIAS.

How is your participation in various on-campus organizations enhancing your education and future career plans?

While the skills and expertise that we acquire in the design studio and related courses are essential to the profession, a good architectural education should not stop there. Architecture is not an entity in and of itself, but rather a reflection of culture and community. It is important, therefore, that we as students do not isolate ourselves from that culture and community and consequently develop a myopic worldview.

Rather, I believe, we must seek out opportunities to explore other disciplines, to interact with other students, to meet design professionals in the community, and to participate in a larger discussion regarding our education and the profession. I have undoubtedly benefited from my participation in AIAS and other on-campus organizations, and the experiences and relationships they have afforded me will surely shape my future career path.

What do you like and dislike about your architecture education thus far?

One of the best things about an architectural education is that, in the end, it teaches you to solve problems in a holistic, creative and unconventional way. This is a unique skill that can be applied in virtually any situation and makes designers a valuable asset to society. My main gripe about architecture school, however, is the tendency for design students to isolate themselves from the rest of the university and community, due mostly to their intense workload. I think we, as the future of the architectural profession, have much to gain by minimizing studio-induced stress, living healthy and well-rounded lives and building relationships with our future clients and neighbors.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an architecture school? Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain area of the field?

The path to professional licensure in architecture is complicated. If you plan to become licensed, be sure to investigate the requirements toward licensure before choosing an architecture school. There are important differences between two-year, four-year, five-year, and masters programs, as well as between accredited and non-accredited programs. My best advice would be to talk to the advisors at each school you are considering and carefully weigh the differences. If you are looking to specialize in a specific area of the field, target schools that offer courses in that specialization area. If you visit a school, try to find your way to the architecture studios and talk to the students about their experiences thus far.

What are considered some of the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

The ranking system for architecture schools is difficult to interpret. Each school's program is unique, and it's nearly impossible to draw comparisons between dissimilar programs. I would caution students against choosing an architecture school based strictly on its prestige or ranking.

How can prospective architecture students assess their skill and aptitude?

Are you a creative, motivated person? Most programs do not assume that you've had any previous experience or training in architecture, so creativity and a willingness to learn are the most important assets an incoming student can possess. Architecture school is very demanding, so students should be prepared to work hard.

What can students applying to architecture schools/programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Some undergraduate programs may admit you as an incoming freshman, but at Arizona State and many other schools the official application process occurs after you have taken some studio courses and started your portfolio. Be sure to carefully document your work and spend time perfecting your portfolio. Have faculty and students already admitted into the program look over your portfolio and offer suggestions. The portfolio is an ever-expanding document that will be important not only in applying for schools, but also when searching for jobs and scholarships.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful as a student of the field? As a professional?

I don't think I would have considered myself passionate about architecture as an incoming freshman; I simply didn't know enough about it to have developed a passion at that point. After four years in the program, however, I am excited about the field and the potential for architects to positively impact people and places. As with anything, if you progress with your education or career and are not enjoying what you're doing, then it may be time to make a change.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career plans in the field of architecture. What area do you plan to specialize in?

I cannot say with any degree of certainty what direction my career path will take. I graduate in May and plan to pursue work in the field in one of the larger U.S. cities or abroad. I plan to eventually go back to school to receive my master's degree and would love to get involved with humanitarian work related to architecture at some point.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

In an effort to allow for and encourage spontaneity and transformation, my goals for the future are very broad: to be happy, to be constantly challenged, to love my work and to feel as though what I am doing is important and worthwhile. At this point, I cannot say specifically what tangible form those goals will take on.

Describe your dream job. Nightmare job?

My dream job would be working on humanitarian projects for people facing or recovering from some sort of crisis, for example providing housing for refugees returning home after ethnic conflict subsides in their homeland. My nightmare job would be contributing to the wealth of socially and environmentally irresponsible building and planning being done in the world today.

Tell us about your internship experiences. What kind of work did you do? How did your internships live up to your expectations? Any pitfalls?

My first internship was at a mid-sized firm working primarily on large, single-family residential projects. While I was not particularly interested in the kinds of projects the firm was involved in, I did get a basic understanding of the way an architecture firm operates and gained experience in a variety of tasks. My second internship, set up by the university, was a less positive experience; despite my attempts to be useful, the firm did not involve me in much of their work and the majority of my time was spent waiting for something to do. What's more, the firm was involved primarily in facilities management and telecommunications work, and their architectural projects were of little interest to me. Had I not been required to complete this internship for university credit, I would have left and sought another.

In general, how available are internships in the field?

In the Phoenix area specifically, internships are not hard to come by. The challenge, however, is finding a firm that is truly willing to teach you. So much about this profession is learned through direct experience; working on the same thing in an office for years will get you nowhere in the long run.

Any tips for seeking out internships/landing internships?

Don't settle for a less-than-inspiring internship that will leave you disheartened about the profession.

What hot architecture specialties are expected to develop through 2010?

Sustainable design is a hot topic right now, and hopefully it will continue to infiltrate the profession in the years to come. Sustainability, however, is not a specialty area, but rather a way of working that should permeate all aspects of the design-build process. Prefabrication is another specialty area that I imagine will continue to build steam in coming years.

Are there other trends in play that could help architecture students plan for the future?

One obvious trend in the architecture world today is the growing number of college graduates seeking nontraditional career paths with their architecture degrees. While some see this as a negative for the profession, I think that our architectural training could be useful in many fields, and perhaps by crossing traditional occupational boundaries we can begin to assert our value as designers to society at large. As a student you should pay attention to this blurring of boundaries and the expansion of traditional practice, as it may open up new avenues for your future.

What further advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in architecture?

Be prepared to work hard, yet unwilling to give up your other interests and endeavors; in the end it is those things which will set you apart and help you determine what to do with your architectural training.

Editor's note: If you would like to follow up with Katie Scallon personally about her experiences as an architecture and design student, click here.

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