Opalia Meade is a junior in the UMass Amherst Architecture+Design program. Her curiosity about architecture has been present for a while, but has developed and evolved over the past few years. She began with an interest in business and real estate, but was also interested in the fine arts. She realized, over time, that she might want to actually design buildings (not just sell them) and by the tenth grade realized that architecture was the right path for her.
At Springfield Central High School in Springfield, MA, Opalia took the studio arts classes that were offered, but she didn’t have access to any architecture or design classes. Wanting to build her portfolio and apply to college architecture programs, she found the Dunbar Community Center program in her neighborhood. It was just what she was looking for.
The UMass Architecture Program at Dunbar Community Center is an 8 week after-school introduction to architecture workshop that has been held at the community center for the last four years. It was created by Kevin Chroback AIA and Steve Schreiber FAIA and is taught by graduate students and professors from UMass Architecture+Design. About 80 students have participated in the program since it began.
With lessons like learning about sections by drawing cut green peppers and building models with a kit of parts to learn about path and place, Opalia was able to learn the basics and get a glimpse into what a college studio program would be like. Many different architects and engineers visited the program to share their career stories with the students. Through the program Opalia found a mentor in architect Steve Jablonski AIA, and continues to maintain that relationship to this day. Steve has helped her by inviting her to his office and advising her on her portfolio and applying to schools.
At UMass Opalia was eager to get started in her major, but enjoyed the year of foundations classes. She feels that her freshman year shared with other fine arts students made her a better artist and that her sophomore year of architecture studios has challenged her to think abstractly. When I asked her what she brings to the studio experience that is unique, she noted that there aren’t many students of color in the program and she recognizes that there aren’t many minority designers in the profession at large. She feels that distinction personally when she meets new people and they are surprised that she has chosen to study architecture. Opalia said that as a young African American woman she feels some pressure to succeed, but is trying to ignore that and focus on her work.
One project that she is particularly proud of is the design for a Center for Architectural Research on a site in Amherst. This was her first project with a real site and a significant program requirement (students had to include entry space, library, administration and studios). Opalia was able to apply ideas she learned after spending time in the UMass Fine Arts Center studios and to incorporate the landscape in her design.
Overall Opalia feels that her experience at UMass has been a positive one. She has enjoyed living on campus (her sister attended Western New England University and commuted, a challenge which Opalia is happy to avoid so that she can spend more time in studio). She thinks that her experience on campus has made her more outgoing and she has enjoyed meeting so many new people. Opalia has spent the past two summers interning in Mass Mutual’s IT Department. Wanting to explore a department more similar to her career interests, Opalia hopes to move into the Corporate Real Estate Division of the company in the future. Eventually she is looking ahead to a master’s degree and imagines a career in architecture and real estate development. We have no doubts that she will be a big success!