In celebration of National Hispanic and Latin American Heritage Month, we spoke with Ruben A. Quesada about his journey from Costa Rica to Auburn University to ZGF’s Seattle and Washington, D.C. offices. Ruben is the recipient of AIA | DC’s John ”Wieb” Wiebenson Award for Architecture in the Public Interest, recognizing his dedication to positive community change, and he will be moderating a virtual panel, Architecture Uncensored: Barriers – Getting Hired, with the AIA|DC Emerging Architects Committee on October 19th. He discusses his experiences as a young immigrant and his volunteer work with Liberty’s Promise in our latest Q&A.
As a native of Costa Rica, what made you want to pursue an architectural education in the United States?
My dad was an architect and attended University of Florida. He really sold me on the American college experience and made me want to go to a big school with football and all kinds of campus traditions, which led me to Auburn University. There, I was one of few international students in my studio. Even though I was fortunate to have many resources available to me throughout the application process—everything from an SAT tutor to the ability to travel to the U.S. to visit campuses in person—the experience of moving to this country by myself, without a support system in place helped me to understand all the obstacles young immigrants face in acclimating to the American educational system and lifestyle.
Tell us about your work with Liberty’s Promise. How are you working to support other young immigrants who might be interested in architecture?
Liberty’s Promise is a small non-profit organization that supports low-income immigrant youth (ages 15-21) by providing them with means to become actively involved in civic life, pursue higher education, and embark upon meaningful careers. A lot of these kids are lacking resources and mentorship, and they want to get to know people who can introduce them to different industries.
I started meeting with students from several different high schools in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland to teach them about architecture and share what a path into the profession might look like for them individually. My objective is to provide each student with a road map to reach their goals, while being a mentor who can answer mundane questions pertaining to everyday life.
Building on these sessions, I also started thinking about ways that ZGF could support Liberty’s Promise at an organizational level by donating our time and our design skills. My colleagues and I created a cohesive branding package that updated their social media presence, website, and stationery with a more contemporary look and feel. We also designed a line of merchandise for them to sell on their website and at events, providing them with an additional revenue stream. Lastly, we are working on some recommendations for simple improvements to their space.
What other barriers do you see immigrants and people of color facing when trying to break into the profession? How can we work collectively to break down these barriers?
As I have become more involved in recruitment for ZGF, I have learned how important it is to focus on a person’s unique attributes and skills, rather than the level of polish in their portfolio. Not only is architecture a notoriously expensive major, but there is an uneven distribution of resources across institutions. I witnessed this first-hand during my time at Auburn when students from a nearby university had to travel to use our wood shop and 3D printers to build their models because the school lacked the budget to have these spaces in-house. Scholarships and funds dedicated to providing resources and services to students of all backgrounds will help the industry attract a broader variety of talent.
Ruben A. Quesada is an Associate in our Washington, D.C. office.