On a recent Wednesday, our Chicago office hosted 20 public high school students with no prior architecture experience for a design workshop and mentoring session. Not one student had ever visited a design firm before, and several had never even left Chicago’s city limits. The students—juniors and seniors at Uplift Community High School and Fenger Academy—were part of a program called EMBARC which drives success among middle- to low-performing CPS students by exposing them to professional, cultural, and social environments and supporting them through graduation.
We were intrigued by EMBARC’s program model: participants see 93% college enrollment and 97% post-secondary success. It was a natural fit for the Chicago staff, many of whom regularly participate in social purpose activities. The nature of the program was more in-depth than the typical office tour and presentation that many teenagers get when visiting professional environments. About 20 Perkins+Will volunteers coached and mentored over four hours, so the students got great hands-on experience and walked away with a better understanding of the design process.
The day started with a brief introduction about Perkins+Will. Aimee Eckmann talked about her role as a K-12 architect, and Cary Lancaster discussed ACE Mentors. When asked if there were any questions, several hands shot up; I was happy to see these kids were already engaged and curious.
We then gave the students a prompt: create a wing of your school that allows your classroom peers and surrounding community to engage with one another. Awareness of social issues is a major part of EMBARC, so we had them design an addition to their school that responds to the unique needs of their community. We gave them a few minutes to think about this before breaking them up into small groups. Each group of five was assigned a Perkins+Will leader, who spent the next 90 minutes helping them form ideas and facilitating visioning, sketching, and building a model out of chipboard. The room hummed with productive chatter. I could tell that the students, with no prior knowledge of the architecture industry, were enjoying talking through their ideas and connecting with their peers on a new level.
When the students completed their projects, a second, larger group of Perkins+Will volunteers joined us on the 18th floor for a “speed mentoring” session. The EMBARC staff gave each participant a simple question (“If you had a theme song, what would it be and why?” and “If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?” were a few I heard). We conversed one-on-one with the students for about 20 minutes, gaining insight into their personalities and interests. This activity positioned us for some deeper conversations we had over lunch on the 17th floor terrace a few minutes later.
Having lunch with the students was a great way for them to experience real-life networking conversations in a casual setting, which is another of EMBARC’s program goals. Looking for an open seat, I sat with a young woman I remembered from our earlier speed mentoring activity. My answer to the question she had asked me— “if you could invite one famous person to a dinner party, who would it be and why?” —obviously had an impression on her. “Tell me more about that girl you’d have to the dinner party!” she all but shouted at me from across the terrace, with a big smile on her face.
“Oh, Malala Yousafzai?”
“Yea, I’ve never heard of her.”
So we chatted about the Nobel laureate’s story, my conversation partner’s eyes wide at the fact that Malala is not that much older than she is. She then told me about her life on Chicago’s South Side, and the daily violence she’s grown accustomed to. Her nonchalance was unsettling, as my life experience has been vastly different. I asked her what she thinks is the most productive solution to this problem that plagues much of our city, and she simply said, “Less guns. More education.”
After lunch, Perkins+Will staff watched students present their work. Three of our afternoon volunteers acted as a panel to award points and feedback to each group. It was exciting to see the creative ideas the kids had, especially since they had never done a project like this before. Many of them have only been downtown once or twice, even though they have lived all their lives here in Chicago. They did a great job designing to the specific needs of their communities, which was part of the assignment, and confidently presented some unique program elements like a sun-shaped building layout and neighborhood coffee shop. Each project included calming, rehabilitative spaces such as therapy rooms, a yoga studio, and a healing garden, showing that these teenagers are intimately receptive to some of their neighborhoods’ most poignant issues.
The program in total lasted 4 hours in our office, and volunteers generously gave their time to all or part of the half-day workshop. It was similar in mission to ACE Mentors, though an extremely condensed version. EMBARC is local to Chicago, but this is a model easily replicable should other offices want to conduct a similar outreach program with a local nonprofit. On a personal level, we wish the EMBARC students success in all their endeavors and hope to partner with the program on future events.