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First Word

Co-op to Career: The Architect

How one Northeastern University alumna connects experiential learning to the future of her field.

By Schuyler Velasco

Jha D. Williams graduated from the College of Arts, Media and Design in 2008. Now, she is a senior associate at MASS Design Group, a nonprofit collective in Boston that focuses on social justice and public spaces. As an undergraduate, she completed three co-ops: with SPEC Process Engineering & Construction in Burlington, Mass.; Graphisoft US; and interior design for the facilities department on Northeastern’s Boston campus. 

What kind of work do you do at MASS Design Group?
I’m a project manager on a number of our cultural projectslike the Gun Violence Memorial Project [in Chicago]; the King Memorial project here in Boston; the Oasis@Bartlett, which is a public arts plaza in [Boston’s] Roxbury [neighborhood]. It’s way more emotional than designing somebody’s second vacation home. 

Were you interested in architecture as a kid?
I didn’t understand what it was! I assumed that construction workers were the ones that made the buildings. I had no idea that there was an entire team of designers behind that. A high school guidance counselor told me, “If you prefer math and science, and you like to draw and travel, you might enjoy this.” So I went to the library, looked up “architecture,” spelled it wrong, figured it out, and applied to schools that didn’t require an [art or design] portfolio. Thank God, Northeastern was one of them.

“Architecture and design can be a vehicle for social change.”

Jha D. Williams

What were your biggest takeaways from your undergraduate education?
What I appreciated about Northeastern’s undergraduate program is that there was a heavy urban design focus to it. I realized in some of my design studios, with instructors like Tim Love and Michael LeBlanc, that architecture and design have the capacity to address socioeconomic challenges in our society. It’s a vehicle for social change. That’s when I knew this profession was for me.

How did your co-op experience influence your eventual career?
I intentionally chose co-ops that were adjacent to architecture, but not at traditional architecture firms — the interior design firm on campus, an architectural software company, and an engineering firm. I understood that there would be a number of consultants and other design industry folks I’d be working with, and I wanted to get a feel for that. I was also thinking, “I’m going to spend the rest of my adult life in a traditional architecture firm. There’s no need to do it in my co-op.”

In what ways can building and landscape design reinforce inequality?
Historically, Black and brown people, as well as women, have been drastically underrepresented in urban planning and architecture. The world we live in was designed and built by predominantly white men, so, inherently, there’s an understanding that these spaces were not designed for anyone outside of that. Diversifying this profession, and supporting young lack and brown students to consider it, will improve the ways in which we design our public spaces to be more welcoming and affirming of all folks.

How has technology improved and evolved since your co-ops?
It’s much more efficient. When I was in school, we were taught a program called Form D, which was simple 3D modeling and visualization. But now, there’s software like Sim 360, where we can draw a plan in two dimensions, very quickly click a button, rotate to a different view, and see it start to formulate itself into a 3D object, while also collaborating live with the other design teams, or the engineers, or whomever around the globe. We’re able to create video walk-throughs in much shorter periods of time. 

Have some of those technological advances helped you to continue your work in this strange time?
Definitely. If COVID had happened even five years ago, this would be an absolute disaster.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?
“You can’t continue to be both an artist, or a poet, and an architect.” Had I listened, I’d be a very miserable person. Now, my experience outside of this office [as a spoken-word artist and founder of the “Feel it, Speak it” open mic in Boston] is considered an asset. Of course, it also helps with public speaking, which is a critical aspect of projects.

How do you think COVID-19 will change how we design spaces?
Up until now, a number of spaces have been about maximizing occupancy. Post-COVID, the question is going to be, “How does this space continue to function in the ways that it already had, should there be another pandemic? How does this space remain safe?” And then, a ton of manufacturers are already changing how they’re manufacturing architectural components. 

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience's Senior Editor.


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