By Shawnya Meyers
When did you become interested in architecture and why?
Architecture was first introduced to me as a profession in the eighth grade. An English teacher of mine was impressed by the scaled models I had crafted of scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” She casually mentioned architecture would be something I would be good at, but, admittedly, I didn’t really know what an architect was. After doing some research, I discovered it involved two things I really enjoyed – math and art. I never looked back.
Why did you choose to attend the University of Arkansas?
My parents moved to Fayetteville in the 1970s as my father had accepted a teaching position at the University of Arkansas. The UA School of Architecture had an excellent reputation, but I looked at other schools including Rice and Washington University to explore my options. After taking a tour of Vol Walker, however, it just felt like home (and still does). I was awarded a scholarship from the university, making it a great opportunity and value.
What has been one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?
My firm, Jennings+Santa-Rita, recently completed working on the first cut-to-order cheese shop in the state of Arkansas, Sweet Freedom Cheese in Bentonville. The owner/cheese monger, Jessica, was incredibly knowledgeable. I learned a lot about all of the specialty equipment and requirements of running a cheese shop. It was also a tenant infill project, so there were a lot of restrictions and unique conditions that required creative problem solving.
What are your interests and involvement outside architecture?
I constantly have to stay busy beyond my work. I’ve dabbled in jewelry making, furniture design, and nonprofit work. Currently, I am serving as AIA Arkansas president and have been volunteering with the organization for seven years now. It is not a small committee, but it has allowed me amazing opportunities to learn more about the profession and the challenges we face. It is also inspiring being part of a community of passionate individuals who are constantly striving for progress through advocacy, sustainability, equity and education. Through the AIA, several other women and I created a Women In Architecture group. We strive to support women in all phases of their careers. With only 18 percent women in the profession, it is important work that is very fulfilling.
What unique experiences and perspectives do you have that make you stand out as an architect?
Through my involvement with the American Institute of Architects, I have had the opportunity to visit with national experts in their field. I have learned about equity in design, the citizen architect, being an effective leader and resiliency, just to name a few. These learning experiences have provided me with a larger overview of the profession beyond the design of buildings. Architects are capable of being leaders in so many aspects, including environmental stewardship, positive social change and the shaping of different industries. My perspective of the potential of our profession has inspired me to get involved and encourage other architects to share their unique perspective as well, and hopefully bring some of these positive changes to the state of Arkansas.
Who have been your biggest supporters?
I have been very fortunate to have so many supporters and role models in the industry (and some who are not). Dr. Ethel Goodstein was one of my architectural history professors and assistant dean of the school. I really appreciated her approach to the subject matter and would occasionally visit her office to get her insight on some of my experiences during my education. To this day, we still talk about the profession and the goings-on at the school. It’s a relationship I really value. Several folks at the school including Melinda Smith, Dean Peter MacKeith, and Marlon Blackwell, are always very generous with their time. It’s a really wonderful community full of people who want to see their students succeed.
My former partner, Maurice Jennings, has played a huge role in my career. I interned in his office during my summers and he invited me to continue to work in his office after I graduated. Maurice was a wealth of knowledge through his work in construction and partnership with E. Fay Jones. He never missed an opportunity to educate and mentor.
There is also an amazing community of professional women in this state who are champions of each other. Yume Rudzinski, Ati Blackwell, Sallie Overby, Leanne Baribeau, and Patty Opitz are just a few. Having shared experiences and trading words of encouragement with these powerful women has been invaluable to me.
I would also be remiss not to mention my family. My parents have always been very encouraging of my pursuits in architecture. They provided me with emotional and financial support when I wasn’t always sure I could accomplish my goals. Now my husband, Julian, fills part of that role. He is understanding of the demands of my job and is one of my biggest cheerleaders.
What’s the best part of being an architect?
There are so many neat things about my job. It’s amazing putting together a set of drawings on paper, and then going to the site to watch it come to fruition. I enjoy seeing spaces take shape and discovering nuances within the design that I may not have realized before – the way the natural light hits a building, the textures of the materials, etc. It’s also a profession that involves many diverse subject matters. I get to learn about structures, landscaping, new materials and technologies, and can apply the knowledge I acquire to other aspects of my life. Understanding the way buildings work is indispensable knowledge. However, the most rewarding experience is when a client thanks you for helping to fulfill a longtime dream of theirs. You really can’t beat that!