Architect mentorship sees exponential growth


Back in 1999, Tom Mathison walked into a room full of University of Michigan architecture students, ready to offer an open-ended opportunity to connect them with a mentor.

He didn’t plan on much, just to present the chance to place about 15 students with a professional architect.

When he was finished, approximately 100 students signed up.

“Architecture students get into school and have questions, questions every student has to some extent,” said Mathison, a co-founding principal at Grand Rapids-based architecture firm Mathison Mathison Architects.

“An architect can help them with those questions. It was at that point (at Michigan) I knew that I struck a nerve and there was a hunger to connect with real practitioners.”

The mentors and mentees connected infrequently, but enough for many to form a connection and be effective in helping answer questions and expose the students to projects and jobsites.

Originally, Mathison’s idea for a mentorship was to keep architects in West Michigan, but it quickly grew well beyond the region.

“Our talent would leave here and go there or stay for school and move away,” Mathison said. “What we found was we wanted to attract them back to West Michigan. I had just recently served as AIA Michigan president, and I got to know architects and students.

“I was in a unique position to try to put them together.”

The second year, Mathison went to all four accredited architecture programs in Michigan, and from there, for about the first 15 years, it was his job to single-handedly connect the students with professionals — some years had 250 students.

Those students came from all over the country, and Mathison’s mission of bringing students back to Grand Rapids was all but lost, as he then set out to connect students from home states, ending up with mentors from 22 states and multiple countries.

“We grew it pretty fast, and it was time consuming and became beyond me,” Mathison said.

At first, he developed a network of others to help, such as Michael McCulloch, who was a professor at University of Michigan, but now at Kendall College of Art and Design. He now advises the students at the Kendall Master of Architecture program and is a member at AIA Michigan.

Kendall has 13 students who, if not already, likely will participate, McCulloch said.

“It’s a really positive program,” McCulloch said. “It’s really important for architecture students to grow a network of people they can get to know and advance their profession through. These students can have a statewide, nationwide network through it.”

McCulloch, who was a mentor for several years, said the relationships could have a lasting impact on both participants, especially the students.

“It’s an inside view and a perspective of what it’s like to be part of the profession and chat about plans for the future and navigate the process for an architect’s license,” he said. “It sure makes the process a lot more clear and offers a sounding board.”

A few more years later, Mathison asked the American Institute of Architects Michigan if the organization would take over the program, as he felt he no longer had the resources to continue and didn’t want it to fizzle away.

AIA Michigan Operations and Events Director Evelyn Dougherty now manages the program. Representatives hit all five architecture schools, show a quick PowerPoint and take questions before offering a link for an online registration and questionnaire.

Mentors range from early professionals to seasoned veterans and various specializations, and are matched accordingly with the answers the students give.

Now, through AIA Michigan, the program has 55 mentor and mentee pairs. If a student from Georgia at U-M wants a mentor from their home state, Dougherty reaches out to AIA Georgia.

“Not every state has a program,” she said. “But we’ll help them with it. We don’t really have any barriers to how far we’ll go to help.”

Mathison has presented the mentorship program at conferences nationally, and other AIA chapters, including Oklahoma and Colorado, have replicated it and made it their own.

“The idea is it’s free and just an opportunity to have a relationship and make it what you want,” Mathison said. “By and large, it’s been successful. I’ve had students contact me years later saying it was life-changing for them. Now, it’s about making the profession stronger.”

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