Liberation

It’s the 16th of the month, which means it’s time for my mid-month round of bill paying. This time around, however, there’s one less to worry about. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to start off 2014 with a (relatively) clean slate — and with the help of a small monetary gift from Santa Claus, I have successfully paid off my student loans. It only took 13 years and one month… or, in other words, 157 easy installments, plus one big push at the end. Nothing to it. (Ha.)

Shawshank-Redemption-scriptI didn’t think that this day would ever come (when I started paying the loan, six months after I had graduated, the total amount was so large that it was difficult to fathom)… and now that it has, to be perfectly honest, it actually feels a little strange. (The curse of being anal-retentive and perpetually anxious, not paying that bill is actually making me uneasy, as if I’ve forgotten something… I suppose it will feel a little more real on the 16th of next month…?) The payment has been part of my monthly routine for my entire adult life. Many things have changed in that time — I’ve owned three different vehicles, moved several times (my varied rent payments eventually giving way to a mortgage), each living arrangment with a different type of utilities and set of providers, and somehow managed to finance an engagement ring and a wedding band — and all along the way, my loan payments have always been there, ever vigilant. The monthly payment amount might as well have been tattooed into my forehead; it’s only changed twice in that thirteen year period — once, when I consolidated my five separate loans into one, under a new loan carrier (which reduced the monthly payment by half), and a second time, when that carrier rewarded my repayment with a reduction in my interest rate (a whopping half-percent, but hey, it was something). Paying off the loan balance came with little fanfare — not that I was expecting streamers and confetti when I clicked “Submit Payment,” but a congratulatory email, maybe? Farewell and thank you for your business? Remember us when your kids start college? (Update: I did indeed receive a simple yet sincere letter of congratulations from my loan provider, just over one month after making that final payment… so apparently it took at least that long for it to become “real” for them, too?)

Along the way, I’ve read countless articles about managing your debt, including some very sound advice for paying off your loans faster; some of my favorites, such as “Just pay more against the principal!” (Thank you, faceless financial adviser — you do realize that a college graduate is reading this, right? I’ll cut back on the ramen noodles this month…) and “Skip the daily Starbucks run!” (Hello?! I can’t afford to buy coffee at Starbucks, BECAUSE I’M PAYING OFF MY SCHOOL LOANS!! Sheesh…), make the issue seem somewhat trivial, as if the problem were the fault of the student, not the system. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last year, the country’s total student loan debt currently surpasses $1 trillion, and about 9% of all consumer debt is student loans (which is an increase of 3% from a decade ago). In December, CNN reported that the average student loan debt, per person, was $29,400 in 2012. I realize that I’ve been very fortunate to have been gainfully employed since I graduated, giving me the ability to continue to make those monthly payments consistently. The economy, particularly in recent years, hasn’t been as kind to many others. It’s no mystery why student loans have become our country’s latest debt crisis — it’s relatively easy to get a loan as an 18-year-old, but nearly impossible to pay it off when you’re 23 and unemployed.

Last year, I came across an article about lobbying efforts by the AIA and AIAS for student debt assistance, allowing graduates the opportunity to exchange pro-bono design services for loan forgiveness, very similar to established programs (like the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders) for other professions. The proposed National Design Services Act would promote the work of community design centers and collaboratives in underserved areas, allowing architectural graduates the opportunity to do meaningful work and receive some consideration for their debt in return. To say that this is an incredible idea would be a severe understatement — this is just the sort of humanitarian effort that would appeal to many graduates from architectural programs, who could use their skills to make a difference in communities in need, and help with the debt issue certainly wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at.

For more information about the NDSA, including ways you or your chapter can assist with legislation in your area, click here. Or consider joining the AIA for lobbying efforts at the state or national level, where you can help by speaking directly to your elected representatives, putting a very real face to a very real issue.

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Be IN the Room

Tonight’s the night. AIA Pittsburgh is hosting its annual Design Pittsburgh awards ceremony and gala. The event is promoted as “celebrating excellence in (regional) architecture and design, [and] honoring those who create it.” Our chapter produces several major events per year, but this is by far the largest and probably the most well renowned. It’s become an industry-wide event, allowing ample opportunity for networking against the backdrop of design excellence in our region. I can guarantee you that I will enjoy chatting up some of my fellow professionals, some of whom I haven’t seen since last year’s event. I can guarantee you that I will likely drink more than a few “Corboozies” along the way. I can also guarantee you that I will be one of a very small percentage of young architects in the room.

This fact never ceases to amaze me. Architects — particularly young architects — are often quick to point out that the profession is dominated by “old white men.” However, the vast majority of that same demographic seems not interested in doing anything to change it. Maybe its the cost of the ticket, maybe its the stigma that the AIA just ain’t cool, or maybe it’s the thought that, as a young architect, you just don’t belong in the room. None of these things are true. Young architects are just as much of a part of the profession as the more seasoned professionals — last I checked, the words “honoring those that create it” didn’t come with any exclusions. We make our contributions in different ways, but they are no less important than those of our project managers and senior principals.

During a committee meeting earlier this year, we were discussing this particular phenomenon. One of my former colleagues put it very adroitly: whether or not you see any value in belonging to a professional organization like the AIA, whether or not you think that the ticket is too expensive, if you care at all about your career, “sooner or later, everybody has to decide that they need to be in the room.” You need to be perceived as a part of the collective.

I will openly admit that I was very apathetic as a young professional. My first few years out of college, I rarely took advantage of these types of opportunities. My biggest reason? I didn’t feel that I had anything to offer. It turns out that I was completely wrong, but I didn’t find that out until much, much later… and I wish that I could have some of that time back. My involvement with the AIA has made me feel like much more of a part of my local architectural community, as well as the national organization that we belong to. It’s shown me that there is much more to the profession than just the three walls of my workstation, or the project currently in my browser.

This post is not meant to be a “bang the drum hard for the AIA” type of post. It’s not even necessarily advocating one the form of community involvement over the other. But it is about taking part in the community, and growing beyond your comfort zone. It’s about choosing to see the value of being in the room. (And yes, there are many other ways in which to do that, not just through the AIA, but this is the one that I’ve chosen.)

Whether or not you join us tonight, no matter which projects win our awards, I can tell you one thing for sure: It’s going to be one heck of a party, a celebration of our collective achievements over the past year, in a room full of talented, creative professionals. I’m proud to be in that room. If you do join us, seek me out, and let’s marvel together over the incredible community that were fortunate to be a part of. Let’s be in the room together. Might as well grab another Mintamalist while we’re at it…

Anatomically Correct

Allow me to confess to one of my not-so-guilty pleasures… I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.. This coming Thursday marks the 10th season premiere, and I will most likely be in front of my TV when it airs. I’ve seriously watched the show since the very beginning, when it began its life as a mid-season replacement before becoming a Nielsen juggernaut and next-morning’s-watercooler television, complete with companion soundtrack(s).

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Early influences: Dr. Carter…

What I like most about Grey’s is its focus on the youngest members of Seattle Grace’s medical staff — the surgical residents. They are young, ambitious, and fresh out of medical school. They make mistakes. They have career-defining successes and soul-crushing failures. In other words, they are just like us. And in spite of the slightly declining quality of the show in recent seasons, despite all of the crazy plot devices over the years (Izzie resurrects a deer! Owen stabs pigs! George gets hit by a bus! A plane carrying 75% of the cast crashes in the woods!), it’s that dynamic — the uphill stuggle that comes with being at the lowest rung of the professional ladder — that keeps me interested.

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…and Dr. Dorian.

(I’ve already noted the dearth of architectural role models in primetime television, so instead, I look for inspiration tangentially instead of directly. I’m drawn to depictions of the coming-of-age story, which I feel is at the core of any internship experience. Medical series tend to be rife with this dynamic — in college, I became an instant fan of ER thanks to Noah Wyle’s earnest portrayal of John Carter, and Scrubs, which drew humor out of Zach Braff’s inexperience, was one of my all-time favorite comedies, especially during the first few years of my internship.  I looked at these guys — doctors, not architects, but equally as wet behind the ears — and in their perseverence in the face of constant challenge , I saw myself.)

But back to Grey’s, which seems to strike a balance between ER’s melodrama and Scrubs‘ tongue-in-cheek zaniness… A subplot near the end of the eighth season involved the residents … wait for it … preparing for, and taking, their board certification exam. Really. The drama came less from the exam than from seven years’ worth of interplay, seeing these characters simultaneously encouraging one another while competing at the same time. Even the results were as varied as the personalities themselves. Cristina passed with flying colors… Meredith handled the challenge competently and confidently… April failed miserably. Probably the most realistically, Alex (who was originally not even going to take the test in the first place) felt the pressure of being left behind by his colleagues, and rushed in at the last minute to sit for his exam. This arc –about a professional exam, mind you — lasted for several episodes. Imagine, for a minute, if the setting of this show was the architectural profession instead of the medical one. Would the exam settting have the same inherent drama? Would anyone want to watch? Would we have to call the show Graphic Standard?

(If there ever were a weekly series about architects, I’d hope that it would contain this kind of dynamic — the passing of the baton to a new generation, the transfer of wisdom that comes with experience. And if they need someone to play the good-looking lead character, with perfect hair, living in his Airstream trailer out in the woods… give my agent a call.)

"...I can't beleive they used to be us."

“…I can’t believe they used to be us.” (Grey’s Anatomy episode 9×08, terrible screen capture by the author)

To me, one of the most effective parts of the show has been its dedication to refreshing the cast through a new crop of surgical interns. We’ve watched the core cast develop and grow, over the course of seven seasons, into confident, experienced professionals. This past season, in their place came a new group of recent graduates — recurring guest stars last season, now promoted to the regular cast — and it’s through their perspective, their inexperience, that we are able to appreciate how far their peers have come. This was illustrated quite poignantly in one of last season’s early episodes (x9.08, “Love Turns You Upside Down,” for those of you keeping score at home), which saw the interns pull their first grueling 24-hour shift. On their way out of the hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted, they literally run into their mentors, now level-headed fully-minted physicians, acting during a triage situation.

Two groups, at opposite ends of the spectrum, with only time and experience separating them from one another. The students have become the teachers, and with a new group of interns, have an opportunity to share what they themselves have learned. The silence is broken when one of the interns exhales: “I can’t believe they used to be us.”

http://youtu.be/8muVZ4nnriM