AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholars Share Impact and Advice


AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship Interview

In early May of 2024, Danielle Tillman, AIA, NOMA, the Vice President of the AIA Chicago Foundation and a Diversity Scholarship Mentor, sat down with 2023 Diversity Scholarship Recipients Jocelyn Hernandez and Jamia Smith, both students at the University of Illinois Chicago. During this hour-long interview, our Diversity Scholars shared the impact that the scholarship has had on their career trajectory and future. Below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Danielle Tillman, AIA, NOMA (DT):
Jocelyn, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into architecture?

Jocelyn Hernandez (JH):
I am the eldest of six kids, Mexican American daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico. I say that because it really is who I am as a person. When my parents first got here, they opened a little shoe repair shop in downtown Chicago and started rehabbing properties one-by-one.  
I began my education career thinking I want to be a doctor, like every other immigrant daughter that has good grades. Because your parents point you in one direction. But during COVID, I went home, and I worked with my dad rehabbing a property – a full rehab in Chicago – and we started doing a little floor plans and started from there. I saw that I enjoyed it and so I switched my career from pre-med to pre-architecture. 

DT: Wow. So what year were you when you decided to change your major? 

JH: In the middle of my sophomore year of undergraduate. 

DT: Jamia, how did you get into architecture? 

Jamia Smith (JS): Similar story. My parents are basically the entire reason why I’m here. I grew up on the South Side and I was one of four siblings.  

When I was in about fifth grade, my mom bought home some software. I can’t remember what the software was, but it’s similar to SketchUp today and I remember going through and designing our dream house – there were three stories. The first floor I made had all these grab bars. Of course I didn’t know anything about ADA then, but my grandma was in a wheelchair, so I got I just knew what she needed on the first floor and it went from there. And we’re here now.
DT: That’s very, very interesting. So how has the AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship made a difference in your education?  
JH: I’ve always surrounded myself with mentors. They guide you and help you with mistakes – or the guided path where you should go. But even though I had a builders’ background, I had no idea what the career of architecture required of me. I knew I needed to have a portfolio in undergrad, which is why I studied art, and then thank God I got into UIC’s School of Architecture.

I had no idea that I knew I wanted to be an architect. I didn’t know that meant getting accredited. I didn’t know that meant taking exams. I didn’t know that meant getting an internship. And so my mentor has really helped me throughout that process, not only walking me through what UIC might look like, since she also graduated there. She also connected me with different opportunities, including applying for the internship at her firm currently. Just being a guiding hand to what architecture really includes. 

DT: And the Diversity Scholarship for you, Jamia? What does that mean for you and your education? 

JS: Sure, it’s been honestly incredible for me thus far, both financially and socially. My experience as a Masters degree student is much different than the one as an undergrad because I am a mom. So I don’t network as much I’m not often exposed in the same ways that I was able to because my time is so split and already in this process I found myself communicating more with my mentor, communicating with other people through AIA, and also just coming out to the different events I have that connection again. Within our architecture field that I wasn’t quite getting because of my scheduling. 

DT: What would you tell your younger selves or someone else who is younger about the importance of mentorship? 
JS: It’s necessary. I don’t think you should go through [architecture] without having a mentor, even if it’s not a formal mentorship – just constantly reaching out to different people who you admire. I think it’s necessary because it helps inform your work. You get different knowledge about the process of becoming an architect, because it’s not really talked about while we’re in school. 

We’re so focused on developing projects and producing projects that we don’t talk about the actual process to licensure. And I think that’s very, very important, because I came into this field with parents who didn’t know anything about architecture, and they couldn’t give me the fundamentals of that. I just knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how to get there. I think it’s helping to talk to someone while you’re going through it and who can stop you from making unnecessary hurdles so you can get straight to the point. 
DT: What are some of your thoughts about the significance of receiving the AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship? 
JS: I think it’s super significant. I think it’s so necessary especially when you’re trying to go into a field with people that don’t look like you. It may sometimes seem like it’s not a big deal, but it’s so necessary to see people being successful who look like you. It’s my goal to continue to serve the future of black women and architecture and just architects in general. 

JH: It’s very scary walking into a room where you are not seen. And sometimes your ideas don’t match your peers when you’re from different backgrounds.  

Being recognized for our continuing efforts, for being able to continue to represent women – especially black and brown women – in the room. It feels good to be safe. 

It’s very scary walking into a room where you are not seen. And sometimes your ideas don’t match your peers when you’re from different backgrounds.  

Jocelyn Hernandez

DT: Thank you for being honest. Thank you for being genuine. And thank you for showing up. The conversation that I hear from you is that you have felt that loneliness before. But you’re not alone. There are others of us, and I’ll say “us” because I’m in the room, too. We see you and we want to support you. And so not only through this scholarship, but the mentorship and everything.  We are here to support you. 

What do you think the scholarship has made possible for you? Or how will it impact you?
JS: It has already given me more time because I’m trying to split time between my baby, school, and work – which is hectic to say the least. [Because of the scholarship] I was able to stop working, which meant more time for study and more time for my baby.  
How will it impact me in the future? I already feel this desire to give back to the people who have poured into me. And I already feel that I have made connections with AIA Chicago, and I would love to continue giving back whether that be through the mentorship programs or however, as I’m needed. 
JH: One, financially it has helped so much. I don’t have my mom or dad’s financial support, which means: Do I have to go get a job or to find the scholarship that is a good fit for me? That I’ll be happy to represent, but also honored to receive? So that has tremendously helped with continuing my education.

It has helped me feel more confident. When I am sitting in the studio, it’s a reminder that I deserve to be here. I’ve been honored to be here. I’ve received this scholarship. I should be here. So it’s going to bring more confidence for me in the classroom and the work that I produce and my ideas. Having mentors, yes, but also like Jamia said, in giving back. Being part of something that’s bigger than myself and being able to continue moving forward, perhaps being a mentor in the future. 
DT: What has Chicago meant to you and how has it impacted you? Do you plan on working in the Chicago area after graduation? 
JH: I grew up by Midway Airport. When I would take the Orange line from Midway Airport to downtown, you just see so many different neighborhoods in Chicago and it’s almost impossible not to ask why does everything look so different? Why do some buildings look so beautiful and some have blocks and blocks and blocks of boarded up houses?  I said: OK. I want to help these buildings become rehabilitated and want to work with a lot of investors who want to work towards that. 
JS: I grew up off of 79th Street, near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Going through that experience as the only black woman [in class] having to work and pay my way through school, I was often and always in constantly different circumstances than my peers. I’m in studio all night. I go straight to work, I come back, I go to their dorm rooms and shower. And just cycle and repeat. But with that schedule, it also meant that I couldn’t always use the facilities. I’m buying saws on my credit card from Home Depot. I’m building my models overnight because I can’t use the Fab[rication] Lab because it closes at 8:00pm.  
My biggest thing is that I want to invest in the youth in Chicago and not to necessarily to become architects, but just to be exposed to more artistic opportunities and having the resources to create and to build and to do things for fun. That’s honestly the first thing that comes to my mind. 
DT: Is there any advice you would give to students pursuing an architectural career? 
JH: I would say ask for help.  When you’re going into something new which is something difficult just stop being and saying hey, I need help.  
We could always have more drive. We could always stay up later doing work. We could always read more and do more of our homework and do it more accurately. But, at the end of the day, just ask for help. It’s OK, it doesn’t make any less of you or any more of you, it just makes you a better person. 
JS: Yeah, asking for help is super important. I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble when I started, if I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. It’s just a hard process. You have to really love it and it’s easy to get lost in it. I think one of the things I had to do was learn how to create boundaries and manage my time, and unfortunately that’s just something that comes with practice. If you truly love it, it will be worth it. It will be amazing.  
Thank you for sharing the conversation and again, we could not be more proud to have two very smart, accomplished, award-winning, and beautiful women to represent the AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship.  It’s an honor to have you represent us and to be a source of support for you. 

A Letter from Danielle Tillman, AIA, NOMA

Dear AIA Chicago Members and Friends,

Chicago boasts a vibrant and diverse population, with 68% identifying as people of color. However, our AIA Chicago membership reflects a different picture – only 18% identify as people of color. This presents a significant opportunity to bridge this gap and create a more inclusive architectural community. [Source]

The AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship is a powerful tool in achieving this goal. We offer up to two$10,000 scholarships annually to talented students from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing architecture at Chicago institutions. But the scholarship goes beyond financial aid. Each recipient is paired with a dedicated mentor from AIA Chicago’s membership, providing invaluable guidance and support as they navigate their academic and professional journey.

Recently, I met with our 2023 Diversity Scholars. Their stories and aspirations were truly inspiring, highlighting the transformative impact of this program (you can read the full interview [link to interview here] to learn more).

We invite you to become a part of this positive change. Consider becoming a mentor and sharing your expertise and experience with a deserving student. If mentorship isn’t possible, you can still make a vital contribution by financially supporting the AIA Chicago Foundation Diversity Scholarship.

Together, let’s build a future for Chicago architecture that reflects the richness of our city’s population.

Danielle Tillman, AIA, NOMA
AIA Chicago Foundation Vice President

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