IIDA Student of the Year Sydney Peña: From Graduation to Junior Interior Designer

Sydney Peña, Associate IIDA, the 2019 IIDA Student of the Year, and interior designer at Axis Architecture + Interiors recalls her first month on the job and shares her journey from graduation to the professional world. 

I recently completed three enormous life moments in a matter of a few months—receiving my college diploma, marrying my best friend, and starting my first full-time job—things have been very exciting for me! So exciting, that I wanted to share with future designers a little bit about my journey from graduation, finding my first job, and my first month as a professional designer.

Know what you want, and build a community that can help you get there

I had participated in the IIDA Student Mentoring Program during my last semester at school, and my mentor helped guide me through the different phases of my job search. I decided to look at smaller to mid-sized firms in hopes that a boutique firm would provide different experiences and opportunities than the larger companies I had interned with. I wanted to work on many different kinds of projects and to feel more connected to my community and coworkers. Also very important to me was finding a firm with a culture that felt familial and collaborative and would provide opportunities to grow as a designer.

I found my job through a mutual connection in the industry. Although I didn’t know anyone at the time who worked at Axis Architecture + Interiors, my current firm, a designer I knew in the community did and introduced us. It’s crazy how your network really can open up opportunities.

Today, I am an interior designer at Axis Architecture + Interiors, located in downtown Indianapolis. Axis is a mid-sized commercial architectural design firm that serves civic, corporate, healthcare, housing, industrial, and retail clients.

Stepping into professional life is all about learning and goal-setting

I am on a team of four designers, three of whom are architects. I report to my mentor, who is a senior interior designer, daily, and every week I report to my project manager who is an architect. Since my firm is made up of a few dozen employees, the studio is organized into two large teams made up of different roles, that then break out into different smaller teams based on the needs of a project. Getting to work with people who have different backgrounds than me has been a wonderful learning opportunity.

My first week was all about feeling out the company, the structure, the people, and its leadership. I spent time getting acquainted with the way the firm operates and started familiarizing myself with the scope of the work. I was pulled on a couple of projects, met a ton of people, and had my first client meeting. I attended quite a few lunch-and-learns and set up a time with my manager to go over my short-term and long-term career goals.

During my second week, I dove a bit deeper into everything. With the first two projects I worked on, I got to work directly with the partners of the firm. Getting to collaborate frequently with leadership is a unique opportunity to have as a young designer and makes you feel more comfortable with collaborating, talking, and presenting in front of others—especially with people who are in senior roles.

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Peña accepting her 2019 IIDA Student of the Year Award Photo by: Jordan Fuller

Detail, specify, notate, and repeat

In my third week, I dove even deeper into the projects I was assigned, utilizing Revit quite a bit. I attended an on-site Revit training session and learned new tricks from my mentor to “work smarter, not harder,” which I enjoyed. For the most part, I felt like school had prepared me for the “real world,” but of course real-world projects are more comprehensive than school projects. I realized that school projects left room for things to get swept under the rug, but especially working for an architecture firm, I’ve learned you can’t leave things up for interpretation. Detail, specify, notate, and repeat!

By my fourth week, I felt that I was getting the hang of things, even though I still felt very new. I began to understand what my role was, and what everybody else’s was too. During this first month, I used a lot of trash paper; sketched concepts; took on a lot of “redlines”; pulled finishes; called on reps; created many renderings utilizing Revit, Enscape, and Photoshop; and created presentations to help communicate my design to clients.

IIDA student programs provide growth opportunities during and after school

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “drinking out of a fire hydrant,” that’s essentially what my first month was like. My advice to future designers is to spend your first month absorbing all that you can—be a sponge. Ask a lot of questions, listen, be patient with yourself, and find a person you can confide in as you navigate this new terrain whether it’s a friend, co-worker, or mentor. Write down your goals and keep them visible so you can refer to them as a reminder of where you want to be, and what steps you are taking to get there.

Involve yourself with IIDA while in school (and after!), because it provides you with community and opportunity once you’re out of school. Join this year’s IIDA Student Mentoring Program! You could gain a mentor that can help guide you through landing your first job and act as a valuable connection to the professional design community.

 

 

 

 

IIDA Mentor Spotlight: Onisha Walker

Onisha Walker, Assoc. IIDA, shares her experiences as both a mentee and a mentor with the IIDA Student Mentoring program. 

I participated in the IIDA Student Mentoring Program as both a mentor and a mentee. I was a mentee during my undergraduate and graduate student years, and I’ve been a mentor for the past two years. Being a mentee in the program really helped to inform my education, and I saw it as a valuable part of my overall curriculum. I mentored under a few designers as an undergraduate and with an industry rep during my graduate program. It was an opportunity to get out of the classroom and get experience interacting with real-world professionals and being involved in their day-to-day.

I feel that both designers and design professionals across many different roles can benefit from mentorship. Networking is a huge part of our industry, and mentoring is an easy way to meet up-and-coming designers—and potentially, the people you’re going to work with someday. It can be just as important to connect with students as it is with principals at major design firms.

“It’s very important for me to be a mentor because design students need to see designers of color with varying backgrounds in the industry—representation is important!”

As a mentor, I love learning about the new classes that design students are taking, and what their goals are for when they graduate. It’s a great way to start a dialogue about the realities of life after college, and the “what now” scenarios that almost everyone goes through at some point. I also believe it’s important for me to be a mentor because design students need to see designers of color with varying backgrounds in the industry—representation is important!

I have worked in multiple sectors in New York and North Carolina at A&D firms, and I am now at a furniture dealer and have completed graduate school on top of all of that, which is not something you hear very often when learning about the industry. When I was a student, I did not know of or see any designers that looked like me or took that path that I wanted to take. I decided to use all of my experiences to encourage students as much as I can to make their own path, especially because this industry thrives on new, fresh, and innovative perspectives and ideas.

On a typical day of mentorship, I like to start the day by introducing my students to my colleagues and helping to make them feel welcome. I then usually sit down them down for an informal chat to get to know the students and give them a chance to ask me questions related to design, my job, or anything else they are curious about.

Then I will bring them in on a project that I am working on and talk them through my process. At this point, the questions start to flow and we get a great dialogue going. Input is important, and it matters to make the mentee feel like they are truly living a “day in the life of a designer.”

One of my last mentees was a student that was an IIDA Campus Center President and a part of our local IIDA chapter. We really got to know each other and had some great discussions. She remained a part of the chapter, serving on the board of directors, and is now part of the Communications team of which I currently serve as VP. We work together all the time! It came around full circle, which was really nice to see and reinforced to me just how important nurturing students is to our industry.

Registration for the IIDA Student Mentoring Program is open through January 31, 2020. Learn more about participating.