When she was 9, Brittney Sooksengdao decided that she wanted to “create spaces that connect people.” The field of architecture was a good match for someone who wanted to explore how design affects the ways people interact with each other. She benefitted from her high school’s architecture program, where she developed skills in the design field that reinforced her desire to pursue a degree in architecture.

A daughter of refugees from Laos, Sooksengdao is aware of the lack of diversity among those who want to pursue architecture or planning degrees. She is committed to building programs that help other young students see themselves as designers, architects, and creators of equitable communities. 

Now a graduate student at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Campus (WAAC), Sooksengdao and a team of graduate and undergraduate students developed the Architecture Creation Club (ARCH). 

“There are many teens with the talent and skills to choose a career in design, but the information to encourage and guide them is often lacking," said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, director of the WAAC and mentor for the program. "That lack of awareness, unfortunately, reinforces the current lack of diversity in the field.”

ARCH introduces high school students to creative technology professions in an effort to address the lack of minority representation in these fields. The project is funded by a SEAD Grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT).

A member of an underrepresented group in architecture, Sooksengdao saw a way to improve representation by increasing design programming in high schools and casting a wider net for future design practitioners.

“The more high school students who have access to design-based problem-solving and programming, the more students are likely to feel enabled to continue pursuing design-based professions,” she said. This is an experience shared with many of her team members as they explored future professions. “Most of us had some kind of exposure to architecture sometime in high school or middle school. This really changed our trajectory and choice of profession,” she added.

ARCH was created with the goal to “bridge the gap between varying economic classes and school curriculums by connecting high school students with higher education mentorship to learn skills in architecture, design, urban planning, and environmental engineering,” Sooksengdao said.

Image of a map with highlighted program zones
This graphic was created to show zones of activity on a high school campus.

The program includes six workshops that introduce high school students to the design process, networking, college portfolio preparation, and presentation skills. This culminates in a final presentation led by the participants to showcase the skills they learned throughout the program. ARCH works to empower students to picture themselves in creative technology roles and as leaders in architecture and design. Notably, the program is structured as student-to-student mentorship because it connects high school students with current Virginia Tech students.

Participants in the ARCH program who choose to apply to Virginia Tech have access to support such as waived college application fees, micro-scholarships, and professional development. Removing these barriers for a diverse cohort of participants allows high school students to view the design field as a viable career choice. ARCH mentors help to create the next generation of practitioners, providing them with the critical-thinking skills necessary to succeed. In addition, participants reflect on issues greater than architecture and design, including land acknowledgments and the role of designers as stewards of the land. They learn to understand the context in which design decisions are made and begin to see themselves as problem solvers.

Sooksengdao and ARCH team members believe that incorporating underrepresented and first-generation students in the design field will increase the diversity of people, perspectives, and practices in architecture. This can lead to innovation and diversity of thought, inspiring the next generation of design practitioners to solve problems and affect long-term change in the field. The program is supported by and partnered with Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative, led by Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for college access, which focuses on enabling high school students to access higher education.

Current team members plan to continue the program with the hope that it will expand its reach. Team members include Shelby Pollock, who is working on a master's degree in architecture; Melody Brown, who earned a master's degree in urban and regional planning in 2021; and Sarah Handelsman, a junior majoring in biological systems engineering.  

Sooksengdao said the ARCH “gives students a broader sense of the world and their potential to shape it. High school students leave the program with the skills necessary to succeed in architecture and the opportunity to grow their network before entering the field.”

Written by Elizabeth Quill '21, MPA '22

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