By Joelle Jefcoat, FAIA
I always knew I wanted to be an AIA Fellow. From the time I finished my professional degree, I knew my goal was to be elevated to the College of Fellows. I can remember checking the “years of practice” requirement when I became a registered architect in 2004 and joined the AIA to see when I would be eligible to submit. Hint, it’s 10 years. Looking back, I know that goal was rather ambitious, but I believe it set me on a path to leadership within the profession of architecture.
I knew I would not wait until I had a head full of gray hair to get that “F,” so I began thinking about how I could shape my career to better not only myself and my future family but also the profession. I decided that I would develop a specialty so that I could distinguish myself and my career. As much as I loved the design, and excelled in design studio through college, I knew I had talent and interest where many architects don’t. I had a passion for the business and management of architectural practice. I thought about getting an MBA and looked into executive MBA programs but couldn’t commit. It didn’t feel like the right fit for me.
In the meantime, I began serving the AIA at the national level in 2007. I applied to and was appointed to serve on the national AIA Diversity Committee, then the AIA Board Strategic Initiatives Group, and later the AIA Board Community Committee. I also began mentoring high school students through Explorers, volunteering at elementary school career days, and speaking as a professional practice panelist to architecture students at UNC Charlotte about architectural internship and licensure.
Over the years, I moved into the role of Project Manager on a variety of projects. I learned a lot about new alternative project delivery methods and emerging building information modeling technology. The practice of architecture was rapidly changing, perhaps shrinking, and I knew I wanted to do something about it.
Then something happened that changed my life. The client for the project I was managing stopped paying and my firm needed to retain counsel to secure payment. I began working with the lawyer and with my firm’s new General Counsel, who had just recently filled a new corporate position within my firm. Something clicked almost instantaneously. I wanted to do THAT.
With seven years of architectural practice under my belt, I found myself sitting in a lecture hall taking the LSAT and applying to law school. I got accepted and realized my life was moving on a whole new, exciting trajectory. I enrolled in a part-time evening law school program in my home city and dove right into reading and briefing cases and learning the rules of evidence, civil procedure, constitutional law, criminal law, and more... all while still working full-time at Perkins&Will.
With the full support of Perkins&Will’s General Counsel all along the way, I graduated with my Juris Doctorate in 2012 and became Associate General Counsel of Perkins&Will. I was intimidated, nervous, but mostly excited to help architects solve complex problems, avoid disputes, manage risk, review contracts, and make informed business decisions. I began speaking, teaching at UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture, and became active in my state AIA-Bar liaison committee which actively follows state legislation affecting design professionals.
In 2018, I decided it was time to begin planning for my AIA Fellowship application. I started by contacting architects I knew who were recently elevated to the College of Fellows. I asked them questions about their process and if they would share their submissions with me. All of them agreed and were helpful, insightful, and encouraging. I collected 9 past successful submissions and studied them. Each one was beautifully assembled, concisely written, impressive, and voluminous. I downloaded all the materials from the AIA College of Fellows application website and began thinking about what Object I would submit under, what my 35-word summary statement might be, and most importantly, who I could ask to be my sponsor.
Luckily, the last question answered itself. One of the recently elevated Fellows who I spoke with was my office’s Managing Director, Zena Howard. When I told Zena I was considering submitting for fellowship, she said she thought that was a wonderful idea and offered (before I could even ask) to be my sponsor! I couldn’t think of a better sponsor, and as the process played out, I now see how generous and meaningful her offer was. Zena not only guided me along the way, but she also recommended me to the North Carolina Fellows Committee for nomination, helped me organize and collect what I needed for my submission, retained a freelance graphic designer and writer to work on my submission, and most importantly, offered constructive feedback as we developed my story.
Zena and I decided in mid-summer of 2018, that I would submit in October of 2019 for the 2020 jury in Object Two: Practice Management. Some common themes I heard during my research process were to focus on the “ripple effect” of my accomplishments and service and to show nationwide influence. I spent the next year focused on how I could do that better. I actively sought out more speaking engagements, responded to calls for authors, and because I had been appointed to the AIA Risk Management committee the year prior, I presented at the 2019 AIA Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas. I also lobbied my state legislature to pass a crucial bill protecting architects from uninsurable contractual indemnity provisions as AIANC’s member representative. It passed and sparked more states to create their own statutes. Ripple effect!
In early summer of 2019, the AIANC Fellows Committee officially nominated me for Fellowship and I began the intensive process of preparing my submission. I am fortunate to live in a state with an active Fellows Committee that leads a rigorous kickoff and review process in support of the chapter’s nominees. We have two pinup sessions during the summer where the nominee receives critique in all aspects of his or her submission. The committee includes a writing consultant to assist in the formulation of the candidate’s career “story” which is immensely helpful. The committee also discusses the nominee’s reference letter writers, to ensure that each theme from the nominee’s summary statement and each exhibit are supported by a reference letter and that the letters show geographic reach.
Submitting for AIA Fellowship was tough. It comes a close second to preparing for the bar exam. Potential candidates should not underestimate the time and emotional commitment necessary for submission. It will consume your summer if you are doing it right. Submissions must be carefully written, starting with the critically important summary statement that encapsulates your submission and captivates the jury. The narrative must be results-oriented and weave a common thread through all 30-40 pages of the submission from summary to significant work to the exhibits.
My advice to those considering submitting for fellowship in Object 2 is:
- Focus your mindset on building a body of influential work. Speak, write, lead, mentor, teach, and be active in the AIA.
- Gather information on the process and requirements. Go to aia.org/awards/7076-fellowship and make use of the wealth of materials collected there on submission.
- If your state does not have a Fellows Committee with a rigorous candidate nomination and review process, find one that does and see if they will let you participate with their candidates.
- Assemble a team. You cannot go it alone. You will need a sponsor who knows you very well who has the time and energy to dedicate to sponsoring you. I highly recommend working with a graphic designer unless you’re really good at that. Submissions must be beautiful as much as substantive. Writing is important. Consider a writing consultant too. Ask around for a recommendation. The writer I used books up a year out.
We all felt good about the body of work I had to use in support of my submission, but it took some time and hard work to refine it. Toward the end of the summer of 2019, during my last pin-up, we dug deep enough to strike gold. All the seemingly different things I had done in my career so far – teaching, speaking, law school, advocacy – actually synthesized into the specialty and purpose I sought. My career focus is and has been safeguarding the profession of architecture’s future despite the influences of change. That’s my mission. It’s what fuels my career. That’s the nexus of my summary statement. We all high-fived.
Rather than being something to earn and put on my headstone, investiture in the AIA College of Fellows has been a mid-career capstone. It’s something that has catapulted me to a new level of achievement and influence that will serve me exceptionally well in the rest of my career. Now I can say that I got the first “F” of my life, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
View a sample AIA College of Fellows application by Joelle Jefcoat, FAIA.
(Return to the cover of the March 2022 PM Digest)