UM program lets teens explore architecture field

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Julissa Avina has long been devoted to art, so the student at Detroit’s Western International High School wanted guidance on finding careers that incorporate its elements.

The 16-year-old found it this year in ArcPrep, a program headed by the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning that allows her and other juniors a chance to explore the architecture field.

Graduating from the initiative on Monday evening with about 40 other youths, she bore a whole new outlook as well as the framework for a possible new profession.

“I learned a lot of skills,” the teen said. “I see everything different now — every little window, dent in the wall. It opened doors.”

Since its launch in 2015, more than 170 students have completed ArcPrep, which works to boost diversity in the field. Program leaders have cited a study showing that as of 2008, only 1.5 percent of U.S. architects were African-American. Avina and fellow students attended the program for three-hour credited sessions throughout the semester at the Midtown studio space on Woodward where the graduation ceremony Monday took place.

Students from Cass Technical High School, Detroit School of Arts, Henry Ford High School and Western International High School were instructed by architecture professionals on building, urbanism and integrated design studio practices.

Participants were selected by their school principals and meet requirements, including having at least a 2.5 grade point average.

The goal was to help aspiring architects gain pre-college experience as well as develop skills for a potential career, leaders said.

“It’s not common in schools that architecture is understood for what it is, which is a creative discipline,” said Sharon Haar, professor and architecture program chair with Taubman.

In turn, the knowledge gained can translate into changes in a redeveloped Detroit as well as around the world, UM President Mark Schlissel told the graduates. “It’s the potential to shape neighborhoods and cities, creating better places for all.”

During the ceremony, the youths showcased some of their projects and designs.

Two of the students were awarded summer internships to the Rossetti architecture firm. They are slated to work on projects that involve their city, said Deena Fox, a principal and director of project management there.

“The goal is to contribute to strengthening the pipeline of local talent,” Fox said.

Brandon Battle, who attends Cass Tech, has spent years preparing himself for a career in architecture and praised ArcPrep as providing a blueprint.

“It better gives you an idea of what an actual architect does,” said Battle, 17. “It’s preparation for the real world.”

Talon Foster, 17, also a Cass Tech student, appreciated how program concepts made him “think more broadly about how architecture can effect the environment and how people think about it. It makes you think like an architect before you get into that business.”

The course also encouraged Xavier Kendricks, a Western International student who now plans to attend a program at Cornell University this summer.

“There are a lot of intricacies that allow me to express my creativity,” he said after showing his portfolio to family. “It’s an amazing opportunity. It’s challenging enough to provide a fun obstacle to conquer.”

Funding was secured by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. ArcPrep is supported by the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, UM’s School of Education and the Detroit school district.

Nikolai Vitti, the new Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent, praised the program as a valuable way to link students with the modern workplace.

“That’s what we need to expand in our school system,” he said. “We know that our students are capable of great and wonderful things if they’re connected to a program that inspires them.”