How HBCU Architecture Programs Are Catalysts for Change

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The inception of SmithGroup’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee in the summer of 2020 created a number of commitments to action to evolve our practice and the design industry at large to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

To advance our commitment to diversifying the talent pipeline in the design industry, SmithGroup created partnerships with three Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)—Florida A&M University, Howard University and Hampton University. These long-term partnerships provide students in their architecture programs direct academic mentorship as well as internship opportunities and provide financial sponsorship to each school. Structuring our partnership to address both supporting students and supporting the architecture program enables us to address two key challenges. First, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) reported in 2021 that only 5% of all architectural degrees awarded were to Black students, and 32% of those students graduated from HBCUs—representing a significant proportion of Black design talent. Second, HBCUs operate with fewer funds than predominantly white institutions—a recent report found that HBCUs receive 178 times less funding than the average Ivy League school.

We as co-authors recently helped to organize a virtual event for our colleagues at SmithGroup that featured a panel of professors from the three HBCUs in the partnership. Andrew Chin, Interim Dean of the School of Architecture and Engineering Technology at Florida A&M University; Dahlia Nduom, AIA, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at Howard University and AIA’s Architect Educator of 2022; and, Robert Easter, FAIA, NOMAC, Chair of the Department of Architecture and an Associate Professor at Hampton University.

Our panel graciously offered their perspectives on the role of HBCUs in architectural education today. They also shared what they would like to companies in the design industry to better understand about students attending HBCU architecture programs and what they believe can be done to advance diversity and social justice within the design profession. We have summarized that conversation here, offering it as a call to action for our peers in the industry.

Dispelling Misconceptions

Each of our panelists emphasized that architecture programs at HBCUs are just as rigorous as any programs at predominantly white institutions—a misconception that they feel they often see among firms hiring talent from their programs. Students choose to attend one of the seven HBCU architecture programs because historically Black institutions offer, "a safe space—they can be their authentic selves here—while they’re learning to be architects," asserts Professor Nduom.

Professor Easter emphasized that "creativity is a learned process," whether it’s learned at an HBCU or an Ivy League. Believing that HBCUs are, as Professor Nduom put it, "purely technical," is a misconception that leads to firms overlooking great talent. She noted that her students not only have the knowledge of how to put a building together, but also have a well-rounded depth beyond these technical skills.

Professor Chin emphasized that HBCUs teach their students the principle of "adaptability" and how to thrive in change. The unique focus on diversity of practices, activism, community engagement, and fostering empathetic design approaches—all mindsets that positively impact the design process—is what can lead to positive change in the built environment. Nduom hopes that more employers in the design industry will recognize and embrace the diversity of ideas and approaches outside of the "Eurocentric lens" that their students can bring to the design process.

Moreover, Chin advocates that the HBCU culture of "activism, talent and family" is what pushes their students to be their best selves—HBCUs have high expectations for their graduates after they leave campus, knowing the misperceptions that exist in the industry about the caliber of their students. Students graduate from their programs not only as holistic designers capable of excellence, bringing diverse perspectives, but also poised to achieve impact in our multi-cultured world.

Bridging the Gap between Academia and the Profession

When asked how design firms can better support HBCU architecture students, Professor Chin was clear: "sustained mentorship" is what they desire for their students. Recruiting at career fairs and offering internships is only a starting point; HBCU architecture programs would like to see more and earlier engagement in the classroom as well as ongoing mentorship of their students.

Chin suggests that this should start with undergraduates in their freshman and sophomore years, and then continue to "stay in touch." He asserts that for Black architecture students, this early relationship-building stays with them for the rest of their careers. Chin also shared that some of his students enter the architecture program having never met a practicing architect before—an experience that many of our own colleagues of historically underrepresented identities have reported was true of their journeys into the architecture profession.

SmithGroup and some of our peer firms in the design industry have begun to try to help address the significant resource gap of historically Black institutions. Many have created scholarships and internships targeted to HBCU students, and a few have developed more in-depth support like SmithGroup’s HBCU partnership. While these approaches have impact, the panel stated there are more avenues they would like to see the design industry explore—and specifically those that create earlier connections with students.

One idea that Professor Nduom supports is "shadowships," welcoming students into offices to observe more of professional practice. Professor Chin also proposes that firms could create "micro-internships," where they offer second-year students, who typically aren’t yet eligible for traditional summer internships, a three-to-four-week immersion in professional practice to provide real-world experience. Either solution could help to create the kind of sustained mentorship that HBCU architecture programs are seeking for their students.

Mentorship Regardless of Color

The theme of mentorship loomed large throughout the conversation. Each of the three professors expressed that it’s important for students to see Black architects in leadership. "Students need to see what they can be," explains Professor Chin. Formal corporate programs providing mentorship to students are important, but personal action is also necessary. While the HBCU ethos of "family" often leads to its graduates individually mentoring the next generation of HBCU students, increasing the numbers of students of color (especially Black students) that we desire to see enter design professions overall means that white professionals must also step up to contribute their experience in sustained mentoring relationships.

One of our colleagues asked a valid question during the panel about how white professionals should approach mentoring Black students and any common pitfalls to avoid. The professors were unanimous in their response, best summarized by Professors Easter and Chin, who at different times in the conversation both expressed the same sentiment: "You’re not mentoring a Black student. You are mentoring someone who wants to be an architect. Treat them that way, and you’ll be fine."

Professor Nduom added, "The profession is challenging enough. Focusing your mentorship on how to graduate, how to take the next step to employment, how to get licensed, how to succeed in the profession is enough." Working together to remove barriers and make the journey through academia into the professional world less arduous for a broader array of students benefits the profession, which in turn empowers designers with intrinsic drive to create positive change in the built environment.