Architect Spotlight: Devanne Pena

Architect Devanne Pena shares her advice on earning a license and her experiences as a minority in the architecture profession.

What inspired you to pursue architecture?

My grandfather was a stonemason and my grandmother was a painter. My mother is a kindergarten teacher, so she kept my sister and I busy with construction paper, blocks, and paints. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what inspired me to become an architect, because I’ve unwaveringly wanted to become one since I was seven years old. I hadn’t even met an architect until I was a freshman in college.

I moved to Fayetteville, NC, when I was eight and found inspiration in the churches. They were some of the most well built spaces in my community—arguably the only “real” architecture other than government buildings and old plantation homes. My first studio project was to design a space that could fit into a 50x50x50 box, and I designed mine as a church. The expression that happens within a black southern Baptist church is something to witness. I’ve always wanted to be a voice for the voiceless and, as an architect, design and build spaces that allow expression for the expressionless.

How long did it take you to complete your experience and exams? What was your strategy?

It took me two-and-a-half years to complete my exams and experience. I sat for my last division two days before my 27th birthday, so I like to say that I was (unofficially) licensed at 26! My strategy was to imagine myself in a rigorous master’s program and look at licensure as the most prestigious “degree” I could earn. It forced me to not make excuses for myself. In school, if you skip exams, procrastinate, or make excuses for yourself, you will fail; there’s a level of accountability imposed on you by an institution. Your passion to succeed has to be your institution.

I think it is especially important for women, minorities, and particularly minority women to become licensed—both for internal validation and confidence, but also for external factors such as leveraging salary and earning respect from leadership, clients, and consultants. Some people will still make assumptions about your role (someone recently thought I was the receptionist), but they won’t be confused for long—especially once you have the privilege of introducing yourself as the architect.

Why was earning a license important to you?

I went to college to become an architect and nothing less. I didn’t know anything about the post-grad process when I enrolled, but once I learned about it, I just charged it to the game. I understand that for a lot of people, life gets in the way—maybe a loved one passes away or they start a family. The former happened to me twice: my grandmother, who helped raise me, passed away right after I got my first job out of school, and soon after, my father-figure passed away as well. It was extremely heartbreaking, but it only fueled my determination.

As a black woman, you represent two underrepresented groups in the architecture field. What has that experience been like for you?

First, let me say that it is so important that NCARB is asking these questions. It shows that we, as architects, are not only empathetic to our built surroundings and the environmental needs of all communities, but are willing to acknowledge the historic disparities put upon certain groups of people. As a community, we will continue to improve our approach for positive impact using innate and focused creative problem-solving.

I have experienced racism and sexism within this field, both early in my career and to this day. I rose above it and still do. My high school drafting teacher told me I could get into MIT—as the maid. A classmate told me I only got into my college because I am a black girl. A studio professor told me I wasn’t serious enough and should consider majoring in English. A critiquer on my fifth year panel told me she didn’t believe I deserved to receive a degree. At a firm, I was told to “fit in and then you can be yourself” in a performance review.

It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but the reality is that implicit (and explicit) bias is something women and minorities have been subjected to for years. When you belong to both groups, it can be crippling. We have to prove the naysayers wrong, but most importantly, prove to ourselves that not even a fraction of what they think about us is right.

I am one of less than 400 black woman architects in the entire country. It is something to be celebrated and scrutinized in the same breath. The progress we’ve made in the past 150 years is jaw-dropping, but we still have so much more work to do. This means that I have to be a mentor, I have to self-promote representation, and I have to remain encouraged.

That attitude has brought me to where I am today. I am in the best place I have ever been in life. I have an amazing job at Page in an amazing city. I have the flexibility to travel, see family and explore the world, and I am an architect! I did the work, I learned so much, I studied when it was the last thing I wanted to do, I stopped worrying about people who couldn’t understand my commitment, and I still smile and accept their praise now that it is visible to everyone.

How do you think the architecture community can work to increase diversity?

Strategic and deliberate acts of partnership, promotion, and platform. First, let it be known that gender equity and diversity are two different things. We need both, and they often go hand-in-hand. But you cannot be a firm or organization that says it wants to increase diversity and just hire majority women. Minority men and women need to be interviewed more, hired more, and promoted more, along with our majority women counterparts.

Firms should support professional development and increase their visibility to organizations such as NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) and the ACE (Architecture Construction Engineering) Mentor Program. My firm just supported my attendance at the 2016 NOMA Conference in LA, and it really deepened my investment in the company. It showed me that they not only support my professional development, but are also interested in increasing diversity.

What advice do you have for candidates going through the licensure process?

Stay rigid in your goals and flexible in your methods. Change your study methods, document what works, and get it done! On days when I simply could not study another second, I would get on Cram, a website that converts your flashcards to a jewel matching game. For some exams I needed more quiet background, while others I could study with more bustle.

Get the experience you need, by any means. If you are fresh out of school, you may not find a job in your dream location. My first job out of school, ironically, was as a drafting teacher. I did that for a semester, then moved to Laredo, TX, for my first spot in a firm. Both were fantastic experiences that enriched my career trajectory. Success isn’t comfortable. I worked for a general contractor for almost a year as well. I wanted to be able to understand how buildings were built by the time I received my license.

What are some of your favorite ways to stay on top of the field?

Conferences and conventions—especially the NOMA Conference. When I say my career is framed by conferences, I mean it! I’ve also volunteered for a variety of organizations: I was a 2012 AIA Student Ambassador and 2016 Emerging Leader Fellow, was the Assistant Editor of NOMA Magazine from 2013-2015, and then the editor-in-chief from 2015-2016 year. I’ve gained amazing mentors and friends, traveled all over the states, all while staying on top of where our industry is headed and how I can shape my career to fit my dreams.

Devanne Pena, AIA, NOMA, is an architect at Page Southerland Page, Inc., in Austin, TX. She graduated from NC State University College of Design in 2012.