ACE Mentor Alums Discuss Design and the Program’s Far Reaching Impact

Longtime mentor Andrew Sommerville sat down with fellow mentors and ACE alumni Alan Mui and Hector Reyes to reflect on the program’s impact, and their collective passion for design.
During weekly meetings, ACE project teams review design concepts together as a group.
Mentors standing in the back row, starting second from left: Alan Mui, Andrew Sommerville, Cary Lancaster, and Hector Reyes. (Lauren De La Rosa, standing on the far right, became a full-time intern following this program)

Our studio has been an active part of ACE Mentor Chicago since its inception over 20 years ago. I became a mentor after joining Perkins&Will, and in 2016 took over leadership of the group to build on the foundational work of previous leaders Aimee Eckmann (Past President and current Board Member), Jessica Figenholtz (Director Emeritus) and Cary Lancaster.

The ACE Mentor Program connects high school students from historically disadvantaged communities with practicing professionals in Architecture, Construction and Engineering for a hands-on 20-week program. In the Chicago chapter, over 300 students from more than 70 area high schools (primarily Chicago Public Schools) participate each year. Through the ACE program and its participating companies, students have the opportunity to earn academic scholarships and paid internships, and participate in a 7-week design-build apprenticeship program.

I was excited to sit down with my fellow mentors and ACE alumni, Alan Mui and Hector Reyes, to reflect on their personal experiences and the broader impact of the program. We all share in ACE’s mission to build a more unified, inclusive, and diverse workforce and are dedicated to continuing these efforts at Perkins and Will.

Hector (left) at the 2007 student presentation event. Mario Romero (right) pursued his passion for architectural software, and now serves as our office’s Digital Practice Manager.

Tell us about your experience as a student in the ACE program. What did you learn in the program you may not have otherwise learned? 

Alan Mui: My experience with ACE has come full circle in many ways. I enrolled in the program during my last two years at Lane Tech High School. In my first year, I was part of the Perkins&Will-led team. I remember my first time setting foot in the studio, inside the prestigious IBM Building. I thought to myself as a high school junior from an immigrant family, “Wow, I don’t belong here.” However, thanks to the mentors I quickly warmed up. The level of professionalism, met with such friendliness, was something I didn’t expect from a large company. The amount of patience and eagerness to teach me something, not to mention after-hours, was inspiring. Standing beside the view on the 36th floor overlooking the rest of Chicago, a vision of my future became a bit clearer.

That was 13 years ago. I have now been working and serving as a mentor at Perkins&Will since graduating from Iowa State University. Although I’m no longer a student, I am still learning from ACE today, if not from students’ ingenuity, then from my fellow mentors’ wealth of knowledge. Even when students and mentors are different every year, the spirit of ACE has always remained the same and the cycle continues. If I am half as inspiring to my students as my previous mentors have been to me, I’d consider it a success. It’s safe to say the most valuable lesson from ACE is that it showed me I can be more than an Architect: I can be a guide to younger staff and other mentees looking for their own path

What was the most important aspect of ACE for you?

Hector Reyes: I came from Lane Tech like Alan, and it’s a high school with an architectural curriculum. We were exposed to the different possibilities for a career in architecture. However, we weren’t given a clear idea of what a workday would be like, or the environment. ACE really opened my eyes to how much work architects do to procure a project and the collaboration it entails with consultants during the process of design. ACE gave me exposure to the architectural studio environment that many people do not get to experience before they choose a major in college, let alone the scholarships and internships that are given to students before they attend college.

What role does diversity, inclusion, and engagement play in the design profession at large?

Alan Mui: We need diversity in architecture so that we can truly be a part of the communities we are designing for. Community-minded designers and developers are advocates for minorities when major decisions are being made. We have the responsibility to speak for those who are not often heard, in order to improve the impact of future development. Including and engaging diverse cultural groups allows us to accurately access community needs and come up with more fruitful solutions for these neighborhoods.

As a person of color and a mentor in ACE, I serve to encourage young people to join architecture, no matter their gender, race, or ethnicity. If more diversity is seen in architecture, we could see a further increase in interest and accessibility in this profession, especially those from minority cultures, thus shaping the future of architecture positively.

The benefits when different cultures are recognized are boundless. People with diverse backgrounds naturally contribute diverse ideas to teams, which spurs creativity at the design table. Architecture affects the lives of everyone in a community. By reflecting the population, we would have better perspectives to fuel innovative thinking.

As a mentor now, how did your experience as a student in the program affect the way you work with your students?

Hector Reyes: I remember well how overwhelming life can be as a student. Everyone comes from a different background. So, as a mentor, I know how important it is to get to know each student and to understand their interests. Being able to share my experiences in ways students can relate to can be an impactful way to engage them. As a mentor, I can see that students are more comfortable asking someone questions who went through the same experiences. To this day, I keep in touch with my ACE mentor whom I have known for over 10 years. I aspire to do the same with the alumni who reach out to me for guidance.

Alan and Hector with their high school architecture teacher, Jesse Berlanga.

Tell us about a time when you met someone who told how a project had somehow uplifted them, or improved their life—what did that person say, and how did it make you feel?

Hector Reyes: Working on the Sarah’s Circle has been a very rewarding experience for me. From engaging with the client to knowing the core values of the organization, it has made me proud to be part of this project. During the groundbreaking , a Sarah’s Circle client gave a speech on how her life has changed because of the support she received when she was faced with homelessness and in desperate need. She is now a member of the Sarah’s Circle community and continues to work with the program, to extend her hand to help other women like her get back on their feet. Knowing how impactful this new Sarah’s Circle location will be to so many other women is something I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute to.

What message about design’s positive influence on the world would you most like to get out there?

Alan Mui: As a designer, I believe that design can affect the quality of life in our communities through creative involvement, both within and even beyond our practice. I may not have the financial resources to help the poor or be able to dedicate my entire life to a cause, but I do in many ways want to make a contribution to our social fabric through my work. As architects, we can help raise public awareness of critical social and environmental issues.

While some may have gotten into the profession for other reasons than simply influencing the built environment or drawing cool buildings, the reality is that by studying architecture we learn so much more. The education facilitates the development of critical thinking abilities, which can be applied to solving problems and addressing situations using our creative lens. Having a design background means our social responsibility is not limited to needs related to the built environment or environmental issues; it is also valuable in strategic planning, organizational design, or implementing community culture to benefit society. Exposing design as a career option to younger kids through ACE is a great way to start nurturing the next generation to think critically. Any young minds that we can help to unlock their creative potential is a blessing to our future.

Alan learning CAD during his Lane Tech High School years.

To donate directly to your local ACE affiliate program to support student programs and scholarships, find your chapter’s webpage here. We also encourage industry professionals to register as mentors with their local affiliate, or start an affiliate chapter in your area. Here’s how.