Member Highlight: Amanda Sturgell, AIA
Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
On Education Outreach
Amanda Sturgell talked by phone with Lisa Skiles, AIAAR board member, about why she finds educational outreach important to our profession
I was drawn to your story about how your grandfather left such an impression on you. How has this influenced your current passion for educational outreach?
AS: I didn’t know an architect growing up or know anyone who knew one. We are unicorns in that way, especially in low income or rural areas. As a young person, perhaps it is thought of as a big city thing and not something I can do or that one would have the aptitude to do. I find that kids will take that opportunity to be creative if you show them how to begin.
How did you become interested in architecture? Did you have a mentor?
AS: I’ve got to give credit to every architect that has allowed a student to shadow them – but for myself specifically – it was Randy Palculict. I shadowed him for a day while in high school, at the encouragement of my mom. His firm was working on a project at the school she taught at and we ‘cold called’ him. I think he was working on a bathroom layout at the time and that was all it took! Bottom line – it doesn’t take much from us as professionals to inspire or solidify the dream of a kid. That experience really established my desire to go into architecture school. Then, I took the only class that was close to architecture at our high school, engineering drafting 101.
How did you become involved in outreach?
When I graduated from architecture school in 2009, it was a rough time for our industry. There were very few, if any, firms hiring. My mother was a high school math teacher at Bryant, and she thought I could substitute teach there in the meantime. I was intimidated at first – 30 teenagers to one ‘kind-of-adult’ seemed scary. But after the first few days, I found I really enjoyed it. Teens just want to be leveled with and listened to, and I found that I was able to do that. Eventually, I did find a position with Polk Stanley Wilcox, and I was so excited to get started! I think that my experience at the high school left a lasting impression – these kids jump at opportunities if someone offers them. Then, through our AIA AR Emerging Professionals Committee, I started thinking about how we could further our educational outreach around the state.
What do you hope to accomplish in this pursuit?
AS: I hope we can accomplish several things. To provide an understanding of what architecture and design is for every student, whether they want to pursue that specifically or not. Design involves logic, creativity, art through drawing and model building, working well with others, and the list goes on. Even if only one kid in a class wants to pursue architecture, the other 29 get the benefit of learning and using those skills. Another goal is to help students realize that they can pursue architecture. I have encountered some students that just don’t think they are smart enough. Somehow, it’s seen as an insurmountable goal because they have no frame of reference, or they don’t know anyone that is an architect. Showing them what we do, even for 30 minutes, can bridge that gap.
Can you talk a little more about this, especially for those that might be from areas that might not have architecture role models. What does a successful outcome look like?
AS: In the 7th/8th grade, before they think they can’t do math or before they lose confidence, perhaps especially for girls, there is a fork in the road. If they become interested at this age, then the interest can stick with them. Exposure, through shadowing, career days or in the classroom, needs to happen this early. By the time the student is in 12th grade, it is too late – their mind is made up. We need to go after the younger kids to show them the options. You might have one kid that pursues architecture. It is about more than providing architects for our pipeline. Think of it as if you were educating future clients, as well. Aid the kids that would not have the opportunity otherwise, to know what we do. We are a unicorn. By educating our community, we are educating future voters that might support projects we design, or future clients. That is worthwhile.
How many school districts have you visited? How does this fit with your professional role as an architect?
AS: At least four at this time. I am really lucky. My firm (Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects) encourages me to do educational outreach as a part of my job. It is important for firms and firm leadership, even though they may lose a few manpower hours, to encourage this. Shadowing is another way to help expose youth to our profession, besides attending career fairs. I would add that I do not think shadowing should have an age limit. By exposing them at a young age to what we do, we offer more opportunity to consider the possibility. It is worthwhile for the entire profession – that support, to have an employee spend some time out of the office with the kids, is incredibly important.
Any closing remarks or comments on how architecture makes a difference in your community?
AS: Architecture makes a difference because we live our lives in it, in our homes, at work, everywhere. Crafting that life through design, either in a new design or by saving an old building, has value and meaning to your community. It is a privilege. We can increase efficiency for a business, make people happier by placing windows in a thoughtful way, and can increase health outcomes in hospitals, just by being creative. I’m currently working on a 100-year-old stone building’s renovation in a small town that had been a vacant storefront for quite some time. The positive impact it’s having on the community – just them seeing this building being saved and updated – is amazing. It makes me proud that we get to do this job and make a difference for people in their everyday life.
Originally from Benton, Arkansas, Amanda Sturgell graduated from the Fay Jones School of Architecture+Design in 2009 and earned her license in 2016. She credits her interest in architecture to her grandfather, Robert Gregory, a carpenter, recalling that “he was building our home when I was about 3 years old, and I remember ‘helping’ him install trim. Seeing how you can create a house in the middle of a pasture really made an impression on me. I remember having that desire to draw and design, and I know my grandfather allowing me to ‘help’ him is where that passion started. He made it happen.” This story might explain her passion for exposing youth to architecture at a young age, as demonstrated by her history of interaction with kids in the classrooms. Amanda started her journey with AIA almost immediately after being hired by Polk Stanley Wilcox and is active with the Emerging Professionals Committee
photo courtesy of Alex Foundation