Cornell Future Architect Award Diversity Initiative Connects Students Through Times of Transition

Perspective through an open hall between multi-story gray walls, stairways, and columns.
Work by CFAA scholar José Ortega, a high school student at United Nations International School, New York City. rendering / provided
Five rectangles of peoples' faces on a black background.
Clockwise from top left: Max Leston; Stephanie Resue, assistant director of admissions; Nicholas Thomas; José Ortega; and David Morales. photo / provided
Two rectangles depicting 3-dimensional cardboard models.
Views of a model constructed by CFAA scholar Max Leston. photo / provided
Young person constructing a gray model
2020 CFAA Scholar Nicholas Thomas at work on his model studio assignment. photo / provided
Intersecting rectangular cuboid shapes
Model by José Ortega. image / provided
Work by CFAA scholar José Ortega, a high school student at United Nations International School, New York City. rendering / provided Clockwise from top left: Max Leston; Stephanie Resue, assistant director of admissions; Nicholas Thomas; José Ortega; and David Morales. photo / provided Views of a model constructed by CFAA scholar Max Leston. photo / provided 2020 CFAA Scholar Nicholas Thomas at work on his model studio assignment. photo / provided Model by José Ortega. image / provided
August 4, 2020

AAP's Cornell Future Architect Award (CFAA) program, now concluding its fifth year virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, gives high school students from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity for a full scholarship to attend AAP's Introduction to Architecture Summer Program.

This year, as the end of the spring semester approached and many Cornell summer programs were suspended in response to the crisis, it wasn't clear if the program scheduled for June 20–August 1 would be canceled or proceed online. The decision was made for the summer program shift to virtual instruction, and preparation went ahead at hurricane speed, according to Director of AAP Admissions Maureen Carroll. The entire program was scaled to web-based and digital media.

Faculty, graduate teaching associates (TAs), the Office of Admissions, and AAP IT worked closely to equip and prepare the participating students. Technology and time zones were accounted for, and architecture faculty who lead the program — Professor Henry Richardson and Assistant Professor Luben Dimcheff (B.Arch. '99) — prepared to teach online. The Department of Architecture shipped identical supply kits to every student; Dimcheff and the program's TAs also assembled "making" kits of source material from 3D glasses to collaging supplies. CFAA scholars' kits were fully funded through support from Michael Neumann (B.Arch. '81), ensuring that all students had access to the same materials.

The 2020 CFAA scholars, all high school students in their junior year, had been selected but they had not yet been matched with mentors as the first day of studio approached. In record time, both the scholars and alumni mentors communicated enthusiasm to proceed online, and the Office of Admissions coordinated matches. The scholars met with Dimcheff and with each other online, bonded, and shared details about their lives.

According to Carroll, the aptitude and commitment required to participate in the summer architecture program can be challenging under normal circumstances but were amplified this summer in a number of ways. By the time midterm reviews were underway, Carroll noted that the students needed guidance with work-life balance and time management in the absence of a school day and regular downtime. She and admissions staff connected with CFAA students in weekly zoom coffee chats.

"This summer, students were at home, had family responsibilities, and some shared living spaces with other family members," Carroll said. "Yet balancing these things was a challenge that the students meet with enthusiasm and positivity."

CFAA was first established in 2016 with seed funding from Bill '69 and Catherine Perez, and receives continued support from a number of firms, alumni, and friends of AAP. In 2017, AAP's Alumni Committee on Diversity initiated a mentorship component of the program to establish a meaningful connection between alumni and students. CFAA scholars have access to the guidance and experience of a dedicated B.Arch. alumni mentor who advises them on developing their portfolio and preparing for an interview before, during, and after the summer coursework.

To date, CFAA has funded scholarships for 32 students, including the 2020 cohort. Through 2019, 17 of 28 scholars applied to the Cornell B.Arch. program; 9 were admitted, and 7 matriculated. Most other students went on to pursue architecture degrees at institutions such as Howard University, University of Michigan, and University of Southern California.

Kumi and Michael Adamson, two of several individuals, alumni, and firms funding individual CFAA scholarships established the Adamson Family Cornell Future Architect Award after their son, Bennet Adamson (B.Arch.'20) attended the six-week summer program in 2015.

"To broaden the base of qualified students to those who have the desire to participate yet may not be able to do so is not only of benefit to the individual student, but also to Cornell and society in general," the Adamsons said.

Theirs is an apt description of CFAA's goal to support student scholars as well as to reach beyond to the practice of architecture as designers respond to broader trends, shifts in design, and issues of social equity. Nicholas Thomas, a rising senior at Kenwood Academy High School, Chicago, is the 2020 recipient of the Adamson Family Cornell Future Architect Award. Thomas's mentor is Maria Blanco (B.Arch. '92) senior associate architect at Populous, Kansas City.

"Cultivating an informed and openminded generation of architects is essential, and mentorship offers students another dimension to an architectural education," said Walker Thisted (B.Arch. '07), an alumni mentor for the CFAA program. Thisted's mentee is David Morales, a student at Lake View High School in Chicago. Morales is the recipient of the FXCollaborative Cornell Future Architects Award, as well as the Jessica and Natan Bibliowicz award, funded by Jessica '81 and Natan (B.Arch. '81) Bibliowicz.

The 2020 scholars described how support and guidance from their alumni mentors enriched their experience.

José Ortega is a rising senior at United Nations International School in New York City and the recipient of the Winston Perez Ventura Cornell Future Architect Award, funded by Matthew (B.Arch. '79) and Lizanne Witte, and a second award funded by Bill '69 and Catherine Perez. Ortega's mentor is Ricardo Zurita (B.Arch. '84), principal of New York City–based Ricardo Zurita Architecture & Planning, P.C. (RZAPS), and a repeat mentor for the CFAA program. Ortega said the pair talked about the admissions process — what to expect, how to prepare his admissions portfolio, and the interview — but they also made a personal connection.

"We discussed how our interest in architecture came to be, and I found it particularly interesting how many similarities we shared as both New Yorkers and Hispanic Americans who are relatively new to the field of architecture. Mr. Zurita redesigned Randall's Island Park, where I have enjoyed playing soccer for my school teams."

In studio, Ortega said he deconstructed his preconceptions about architecture by "focusing on process over outcome, experimenting by traversing through different mediums, and learning by doing. This way of learning, thinking, and imagining that I've been exposed to through CFAA is truly fascinating. In the lectures, I became more knowledgeable about the dimensions of space, and function, and the wide variety of specializations existing in architecture demonstrated by various guest speakers who regularly attended our class. The lectures expanded my notion of what is and what can be architecture."

Recent alumnus Oonagh Davis (B.Arch. '20) is one of the TAs working individually with the CFAA scholars. Davis said Ortega comes to class with a positive spirit and drive. "This energy is channeled into his studio project, which meticulously explores order and disorder through the juxtaposition of antiquity and modernism. José is a thoughtful, studious, and creative individual," she said.

According to Dimcheff, key pedagogical principles were fully embraced even as the introductory Arch 1110 studio class moved to a virtual format. "The design studio is based on the importance of making as a way of thinking and discovery, as well as on the notion that drawing is both an analytical and a generative process," he said. "Architecture is projected into fruition by the critical and iterative oscillation between the two. New media and the incorporation of the moving image have become equally important, as the current 2020 theme explores the relationship and translations between image, object, and space."  

Maximilian Leston, a rising senior at Chaminade High School, in Mineola, New York, is the recipient of both the Kohn Pedersen Fox and the Perkins + Will Cornell future architects awards. Cornell AAP is his top college choice and he was looking forward to his time on campus.

"When the program was changed to an online format because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was worried about how we would interact with our instructors, and how the studio work would be completed," Leston said. "Although it has not been the same as if I were there in person, I have learned to make the best of the situation. The weekly assignments have been challenging yet fun, and they are teaching me to think outside the box."

Leston credited the weekly chats with admissions staff to help him settle into the program, learn more about Cornell and AAP, and understand the admissions and portfolio process. "Receiving the award and attending the program has reinforced my desire to pursue a degree in architecture and attend Cornell," he said.

Leston's mentor is Peter Robinson (B.Arch. '98), director of WorkUrban, a New York City–based nonprofit, and board member of BLACKSPACE Urbanist Collective, an interdisciplinary collective with a mission of equity and justice.

"It has been an immensely fulfilling experience to be a mentor to Max," Robinson said. "We share the same exuberance for the study and practice of architecture and equally for Cornell."

Robinson's experience with mentorship and Cornell began in his junior year of high school when he was paired with an alumnus of the College of Human Ecology and the Johnson School. For Robinson, the relationship made attending Cornell more attainable. 

"At AAP, my experience with mentorship was pivotal," he said. "At that time, the Office of Minority Educational Affairs under the stewardship of Raymond Dalton, and the Minority Organization of Architecture, Art, and Planning (MOAAP) provided a network of support for Black and Latino students that has remained resilient for more than 20 years."

"Max is so much like the students I meet with as an AAP alumni interviewer," added Robinson. "We spent our time sharing, advising, planning, and anticipating. Max's openness to having his assumptions about architecture radically challenged, and his eagerness to invent its potential through creative rigor and thought, are incredibly gratifying to witness."

Leston's TA, Isabel Branas (M.Arch. '20), noted that his interest in architecture comes from a fascination with structures. "Max is thoughtful and meticulously approaches his drawings and models. His ability to listen to criticism and his drive to constantly revise his work allows him to improve every week."

Carroll saw similar improvements among all the summer architecture students, as well as challenges.

"Self-awareness is something I saw increasing in our summer students. They're thinking actively about well-being and will apply that to their futures. The challenges that CFAA students encounter are the same for all the summer program students. The flexibility of the program goes well beyond the CFAA scholars' needs," she said. "It's a pedagogical shift."

In another unexpected shift, the summer program students told Carroll that lectures took on particular importance in the online medium. "They were expecting lectures on history, but what they are learning is about language, industry, diversity of practice, and issues in architecture."

Despite the challenges, the 2020 CFAA cohort in the summer architecture program was fully engaged — benefitting in myriad ways from their scholarships and their classes. This is perhaps especially relevant in the current climate of pandemic, political upheaval, and calls for racial justice.

"AAP is giving CFAA students access to resources and equipping them with skills that will help them in their senior year of high school, on to college, and into the future," Carroll said.

Thisted underscored the enduring value of connection through mentorship.

"The students are helped to see how others have navigated career choices, and mentorship opens their eyes to the wide range of applications of a design education," he said. "I really appreciate the opportunity to meet these students so early on in their path and hope to have the opportunity to stay in touch with them as they move forward."

By Patti Witten

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