March 30, 2022

GUEST ROOM | A Glimpse of Student Life in Architecture

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“Oh, you’re an archie? Wow, you’re the first one I’ve met. Do you ever get any sleep?”

This phrase is one that I hear frequently as an architecture student on campus. There seems to be an exciting sense of mystery surrounding our architecture program. Where do they go? Why do we never see them around? Are they doing okay?

When I was first applying to Cornell, I had to seriously ask myself whether I was ready to commit to five years of a bachelor’s degree in architecture, an amount of time sufficient for me to acquire both a bachelor’s and master’s in other fields. I thought this commitment wouldn’t be a problem because I had wanted to be an architect since the third grade. I was and still am interested in housing and social issues — and more broadly, the potential of design in solving problems of urbanization. In some ways, this interest has pushed me toward law and public policy, but more on that another time.

My first year was pretty tough. My high school didn’t offer any architecture classes, and I had only done a couple summer camps hosted by the architecture and design departments at my state schools. I was required to complete Cornell’s prefreshman summer program (now renamed the “pre-collegiate summer scholars program”) for additional preparation. As a first-generation student, I am still so thankful for the experience PSP gave me in adjusting to the coursework, the campus and college in general. There was just one thing I was not prepared for: the atmosphere.

I did not expect to be so shocked by the large majority of wealthy students, international students and most surprisingly, the near absence of students of color in architecture. Out of our traditional starting class size of 60, only six students were Black, four of whom told me personally that they eventually transferred out, took a semester off or just haven’t been present with the rest of our class. Growing up, my dad had always emphasized the importance of representation to me, since he had gone to school during the era of race riots and the enduring struggle for civil rights. In this case, the demographics of my class were quite telling of the kind of culture I was walking into.

From the start, European architecture was emphasized in our courses, if not the main focus. There were many issues between faculty and students. I, along with other underrepresented students — including my low-income and first-generation friends — shared the struggle of finding belonging. It felt like vulnerability was prohibited and even looked down upon, a sentiment which still lingers today. There remains a large disconnect in understanding one another due to differing socioeconomic statuses.

Confronted with microaggressions on a normal basis, I found it difficult to voice my frustrations. Any moments I took to call out this behavior, by mentioning issues I faced or by bringing up issues that marginalized groups faced, were largely dismissed or challenged, severely impacting my mental health.  It was absurdly difficult to find compassion from peers and architecture faculty alike. I tried to cope with my exclusion by joining student groups, many unrelated to architecture at that point. When the campus shut down due to the pandemic in spring 2020, it was a much needed reset for me.

By the time I reconnected with my peers in our second year, things felt different. It felt like there was less judgment, perhaps because we were going through something significant together with the rest of the world. I was able to reconnect more with my class, and we coexisted somewhat better than before. Despite ongoing problematic commentary and treatment from faculty, the College of Architecture, Art and Planning made attempts to repair our college atmosphere by forming a Diversity & Inclusion Council, who released a final report to the entire college towards the end of Spring 2021: “Building a Just and Equitable AAP: A Living Document and Action Plan.” Simultaneously, I helped create Architects, Artists & Planners of Color: a group for students of color in AAP to build community and amplify our voices.

Since I felt that progress was made with the report, I was excited to experience an improved third year. So far, I noticed a few changes. Bias reporting was discussed more during the first week of classes. Although some professors persisted with their biased rhetoric, even against their own colleagues, the department received several new faculty who are more open-minded and interested in topics related to social justice. In addition, the college now has a Director of Diversity & Inclusion. This small increase in representation is an important step in the college’s stride towards a more just and equitable AAP.

Furthermore, my studios are finally discussing issues of indigeneity and other topics relating to social injustice. Our new department chair has also been very receptive to student feedback and quite approachable. Some of these changes, if not most, were action items directly from last year’s report. Perhaps the most impactful change for me thus far has been the addition of new faculty, who are spearheading studio conversations around injustices and the advocacy possible within design. This proactive shift in pedagogy has directly influenced the studio climate, sparking conversations about our roles as architects and designers in the issues we are studying. But we can only hope that this leads to serious introspection for those more privileged than others, including faculty.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of room for change in AAP. Above all, there is a need for increased transparency between faculty, staff and students, as well as a way for all to share their voices, especially those often overlooked, without fear of backlash. In my opinion, the faculty are drivers of the climate within AAP. Their decisions to include or exclude certain topics within lectures, their personal commentary and attitude towards particular students, faculty or other issues, are all salient factors that either enhance or diminish student behavior. Architecture has been such an intense experience so far, in both the best and worst ways, but I feel our climate changing (no pun intended) and I am excited for the future that this new blood will bring to AAP.

As our chant begins in architecture: dragon, dragon, dragon!

Frankie Reed ‘24 (she/her) is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art, & Planning. She is the co-president of the Cornell Filipino Association and co-founder of Cornell’s Architects, Artists & Planners of Color. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.