Berkeley Connect Architecture faculty discuss graduate school and beyond

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Berkeley Connect Architecture students recently got the opportunity to talk to Professors Renee Chow and Raveevarn Choksombatchai about their challenges and experiences in graduate school and beyond.

When asked about her greatest challenge in graduate school, Professor Chow replied that she initially struggled with bridging the history and theory she learned in some of her classes with design studio. But she added that it was a very important part of graduate school and she came to love it. For Professor Choksombatchai, it was something different. “It felt like the more I worked, the less I knew,” she said. “Problems would crop up the longer I worked.” But like Chow, Choksombatchai came to embrace these challenges as part of the experience.

Choksombatchai went on to explain how she came to become an architect. Her family had wanted her to be a doctor, and her high test scores on the national exam in her native Thailand put her on the pre-medical track. But Choksombatchai had always been drawn to the visual arts and after half a semester as a pre-med student, she realized she did not like the work. She chose instead to be honest with her family and to pursue what she loved. “Since then, I have never regretted it once,” she said.

When Choksombatchai first came to the United States, her greatest challenge was learning English. Coupled with a lack of theory classes at her university in Thailand, she felt lost. “It felt like I had no foundation,” she remembered. “But I came to know myself better because I did not know where to stand. It’s probably something architects can all relate to. We learn from suffering.”

Students wanted to know about the professors’ experiences as women of color in the field of architecture. Professor Chow, who went to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, remembered her university being male-dominated. “I did not experience personal prejudice, but saw it on other levels, including among faculty,” she recalled. Professor Choksombatchai had a similar experience in graduate school. At Harvard, there was only one woman professor, and she found it hard to find female role models as a young architect.

The professors then turned the question to the students. One female student replied that she noticed that many male professors speak differently to female and male students and often hire disproportionate amounts of male interns. Another student brought up the socioeconomic bias, noting how expensive studio and overall education in architecture can be.

Students and professors also discuss the different kinds of jobs architects can choose, and the professors gave advice on how to know when you’re going in the right direction when working on a project. “In any creative field, there is sometimes a right or wrong, but never any absolutes,” said Professor Choksombatchai. Professor Chow added, “The more you practice, the better you get.”

At the end of this relaxed but serious discussion, students left with personal and professional insights from two professors very different from the topics they might hear them cover in a standard lecture course or design studio.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant