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The Job Search: Joseph McKenley

May 27, 2018

The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.

Joseph McKenleyThanks to native architects Vayden McMorris, Wilson Chong, Verma Panton, Victor Patterson, Mostyn Campbell, Handel Lawson, Herbert Robinson, Rupert Bond, and Herbert Bradford, Jamaican architecture has experienced a resurgence over the last 60 years. Verma Paton also has the distinction of being one of the first female architects in the Caribbean. Most, if not all, of these pioneers received their architectural training abroad then returned home to practice.

Joseph McKenley (’17 M.Arch, Architecture) has followed a somewhat similar track. Hailing from Jamaica’s lively city of Kingston, McKenley came to Maryland, after earning his bachelor’s at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UT). After earning his graduate degree, he landed a position as a Staff Architectural Designer at Bonstra Haresign Architects in Washington, D.C.

From a young age McKenley was encouraged to follow his passions, and through his career, shape the future of Jamaica. As a child, he was obsessed by The Sims game – hoping one day to own homes all over the world. McKenley also maintained an extensive collection of architectural images on his laptop. 

McKenley was particularly drawn to simple elegance. The architecture around Kingston did not satisfy this taste. The city’s natural beauty was, however, a source of inspiration – the surrounding Blue Mountains, Red Hills, Long Mountain, and the natural harbor.

And when given the opportunity at UT, McKenley decided to try his hand at architecture. “I enjoy excellently detailed buildings where the big idea is clearly executed, and easily digestible – whether that be civic, commercial or residential. A few of the names that I quite like are Alvar Aalto, Renzo Piano, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Lake|Flato Architects,” remarks McKenley. “I remember really enjoying my first-hand experience at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark by architects Vilhelm Wohlert and Jørgen Bo,” he adds.

It is safe to say, we ought to keep an eye on Joseph McKenley in the years to come.  He artfully navigated the job search process not too long ago, and was pleased to share his lessons learned with the international graduate student community.

When you came to study in U.S. what were your perceptions? Expectations?

I was familiar with the U.S., and Maryland in particular having visited family here quite a bit before actually attending UMD. However, being here for a vacation, and living here were two very different experiences, especially because studying architecture at UMD we focused on urban issues. I expected U.S. cities to be models for what Kingston could become, but the more I studied, the more I realized all cities have unique challenges, and all cities are works in progress.

How is your field of architecture perceived in Jamaica?  Why did you come and study in the U.S.?

I believe architecture and architects are treated as luxury commodities – not as the necessities that I think they should be. I chose to study in the U.S. to open myself up to more perspectives than I was exposed to in Jamaica. Though my professors in Jamaica studied all over the world at some of the best architecture schools, I thought it would be valuable to study outside of what I knew personally, and to gain a wider perspective of the world.

How did you prepare for your job search?

I did most of my job searching through the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation's career fair. I found out who was going to be there ahead of time, made a short list of the firms I was most interested in, and spoke to them at the fair. I also looked up listings on Linkedin.

Did you have an internship as a graduate student? What did you learn there?

I had one internship as a graduate student, and it was with the architecture firm that I am currently working at now, Bonstra Haresign Architects (BHA). I learned a tremendous amount about design, and about the architecture profession. Perhaps the most notable experience I walked away with was learning how the architectural process is executed within the professional world.

What does networking mean in Jamaica?

In Kingston, to me at least, everyone is everyone else’s cousin. That makes networking both easy, and hard. Easy, because if you don’t know who you need to know, chances are someone else does know that person, and can connect you to them. It’s hard also for the same reason – sometimes not knowing someone or not being known by someone, makes job seeking quite difficult.

What, based on what you know, is networking like here in the U.S.?

I have learned that networking isn’t always about going out in search of a job, it is about learning how you can facilitate other people in their professional goals, and that by being a facilitator, finding a job becomes easier for you.

What advice or tool worked well as you searched? What did not work?

My reputation was my best tool. A number of well-respected architect-professors who taught me at Maryland wrote recommendations on my behalf. Their glowing reviews allowed my application to stand out. Cold-emailing did not work for me; reaching out to firms that I had no connection to did not result in any favorable responses.

Working as an architect has a specialized skill set? What are they? How did you convince people that you were well-prepared?

I should note I am not an architect; I cannot legally call myself an architect (yet). The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) defines an architect as, "Licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter. An architect will create the overall aesthetic and look of buildings and structures, but the design of a building involves far more than its appearance. Buildings also must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the specific needs of the people who use them. Most importantly, they must be built with the public’s health, safety and welfare in mind."

I prepared a portfolio of student projects I had completed at UMD, as well as a resume of relevant experiences. Additionally, I was also able to put myself, and my skills in front of a senior level architect at BHA long before the career fair by taking part in the HUD 2017 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design Competition. There, that very same architect, Rob McClennan, was an adviser. I used that opportunity to show my capabilities first-hand, and to develop a working relationship with him.

How did you work on your resume?

I started by making a list of all the relevant categories of information that would be useful for recruiters to know – such as work experience, and technical skills – and then I filled in the specific experiences. After some editing, I made it graphically appealing, to showcase my graphic skills, and had Kristen Tepper, Career Services Advisor at the architecture school, my older sister, parents, and peers review it.

Career aspirations? What do you hope to do long term?

I’m hoping to become a licensed architect in the near future, and to continue learning how to hone my craft so that ultimately I can effect positive change to the built environment in whichever city, and country I am practicing in.

How is a U.S. work experience or education perceived in Jamaica?

U.S. work experience and/or education is perceived quite favorably, especially when added to my Jamaican experience. The architecture school in Jamaica is the only one in the English-speaking Caribbean, and many architects in Jamaica went to school there, so the network is quite strong. Coupling my U.S. experience with my Jamaican experience allows me to be connected to that strong network in Jamaica, while also adding an external perspective.

Where did you actually obtain work? What was the process like? Any surprises?

I secured a job at Bonstra Haresign Architects (BHA). The process felt just as natural as it does working here today. I first came across BHA during Professor Madlen Simon’s design studio class. She took our class to their office to receive a design review on our design projects. I appreciated the feedback from the staff, and enjoyed the office atmosphere (and decided I needed to work there). My second interaction with BHA came when I joined the HUD 2017 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design Competition team. As I mentioned, I worked with Rob McClennan, and was very impressed by how quickly he was able to iterate multiple alternatives to any scheme we presented, and by his depth of knowledge on site planning and multi-family housing. Having had that experience, I let Rob know that I was interested in working there, and he forwarded my request to the representatives who would attend the career fair. Having had that contact, my conversation at the career fair was easy, and it lead to my landing an interview with the managing partners, Bill Bonstra, and David Haresign. Following the interview, the partners received those numerous recommendations I mentioned earlier, and eventually a summer internship offer arrived in my inbox.

After my internship in summer 2017, I worked at BHA part time during the Fall 2017 semester, where Bill Bonstra, managing partner, and the rest of the office were actively involved in the progress of my thesis project, offering design reviews along the way. I received a full-time offer in my inbox the morning of my thesis review, that both partners attended, and accepted my position shortly after.

How do you continue working on your networking? And globally?

Since graduation I’ve joined the American Institute of Architects DC Chapter as an associate member, and joined the Design+ Wellbeing Committee, Emerging Architects Committee and the Design Excellence Committee. I also keep in contact with classmates, and recent UMD graduates, going to occasional happy hours with them. For my network back home, social media like Instagram, and Facebook allow me to keep in touch.

What do you think a Jamaican mindset (or approach) can add to your job as an architect (and works with clients)?  

Architects question their surroundings constantly. Not being from the U.S., I think I question my new surroundings even more. I think my curious nature and critical thinking can lead to innovative ideas and solutions.

How is architecture perceived in Jamaica? What are challenges and opportunities? How does that experience compare with the global conversation about architecture?

The challenge in Jamaica, like many developing countries, is money. Great architecture doesn’t often reach the masses because buildings for the masses are value engineered to the absolute functional essentials in many instances. The major opportunity is that Jamaicans have proven over and over that not having a lot of money does not have to be a barrier to greatness (see: Jamaican music, art and many other success stories).

A lot of young people are deeply interested in global social issues (equity, and diversity, for example). I wonder if you have those interests as they pertain to your field of study? If yes, how do you weave this issues into your professional life as an architect?

Absolutely. One of my biggest (among many) social concerns is gentrification. As an architect, I want to see beautiful cities and I want to see development, but I don’t want to see that at the expense of displacing communities. I hope to weave that into my career here in the U.S., and in Jamaica – I’m hoping my vision of a beautiful Kingston isn’t at anyone else’s expense.

Any advice to other international students?

My advice is to be flexible, because as an international student some things will never be in your control, but also be proactive, go after what you want and make a plan to make it happen.

More information about Joseph McKenley can be found here.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742

301-405-3644
gradschool@umd.edu