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‘Coming to America’ : Journey of an Immigrant Architect

This piece was written by Srivarshini Balaji, Associate AIA, LEED Green Associate, about her journey towards becoming a licensed architect as an immigrant in the United States, highlighting the particular challenges she has faced along the way and offering an intimate perspective on how to maintain focus, strength, and a positive perspective while working your way toward your goals


Six years ago, I decided to venture out of India to pursue a Master’s degree in Architecture in the U.S. My primary aim was to expand my horizons by exploring the design strategies and construction techniques used by Architects there. I was especially interested in green architecture and was eager to learn as much as I could. With this goal in mind, I dove head-first into the process of applying to university programs. My first attempt at applying was, unfortunately, crude and naive, with little ground-work on my part. This ultimately resulted in my receiving only one invitation to join a program on which I was initially on the wait-list. Not willing to be hasty, I took a year’s break and made a more concerted effort. I focused on determining what U.S. university programs were looking for in an applicant. I researched prior work done by university alumni and used what I had learned to redo my portfolio; I incorporated better presentation strategies and reworked some of my earlier designs. After all this work, an invitation to enroll in the master’s program in sustainable design at the University of Oregon along with a one-year scholarship was my first taste of success.

Prior to landing on U.S. soil, I attempted to prepare myself for any potential challenges. I knew my peers would be the crème de la crème of architecture students from across the world and I wanted to be competitive, so I familiarized myself with as many design programs as possible. In-spite of all the effort I put in, I was caught wrong-footed on something that I should have anticipated in hindsight: the imperial system of measurement. I had spent my entire life up to that point working in the metric system and apart from mere unit conversions, I found it challenging to visualize objects that were measured in feet and inches. In other words, spatial planning proved especially difficult for me. To overcome this challenge, I spent time doing grade-school problems to internalize the imperial system. In addition, I worked on solving multiple space riddles in my free time where I would attempt to visually estimate the dimensions of spaces in feet and inches. After many hours of effort, I finally was able to think in feet and inches.

 Photo credits: Sabina Poole

Photo credits: Sabina Poole

Despite preparing myself for a strong and competitive peer group at the University of Oregon, I was taken aback by certain realities. In India, people follow a timetable in life; education is strictly the domain of the young. In the western world, this isn't always the case. I had peers in the same age group as my parents and I was frankly quite intimidated by their wealth of experience. But in time, I saw these individuals as assets rather than adversaries and frequently sought their advice. Ultimately, I owe a lot of what I know today to my diverse student peer group.

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Although graduate school presented me with a multitude of obstacles, I stayed positive and never lost sight of my purpose with a little help from my surroundings. The architecture program at U of O utilized the city of Portland as an urban lab and apart from providing endless sources of inspiration, it served to brighten my mood and strengthen my resolve. It truly is a beautiful city with so many examples of innovative green architecture; the Twelve West building with a windmill mounted on its roof, Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt federal building are a few that come to mind.

During graduate school, I realized there was a lot I still had to learn, and I could only hope to do so by augmenting my U.S. education with U.S. work experience. Furthermore, I began to understand the importance of becoming a licensed architect. Obtaining licensure in U.S. is far more challenging than in India and the level of difficulty is a testament to the high value  placed on the quality of the architectural design process. Before I could address my goal of licensure, I needed to secure my first job, a task that proved to be no easy feat. As many would testify, landing your first job out of school is hard; it needs a lot of ground-work with a fair measure of good fortune. So, I absorbed as much as I could from the University's Career Center. I switched all my Facebooking time to LinkedIn profile time, tweaking it to the point that my friends began to consider it as an example to aspire to. All this effort, along with a lot of active networking, landed me multiple job offers to choose from for my first architecture job in the U.S..

Out of the multiple offers I received, I chose LRS Architects primarily because of their multi-disciplinary work; they weren't pigeon-holed into any one specialty and I felt that such a firm would provide me with the most diverse exposure early in my career. I was also impressed by the effort they put into orientation, which lasted for nearly a week, at the end of which I was assigned a mentor. Additionally, I greatly benefited from their approach towards assigning me work; I was given challenging design problems and I wasn't helped until I was absolutely stuck. Although this was frustrating at first, I quickly realized its value; it made me a better problem solver and a better designer, which in turn alleviated my project manager's workload. This foresight was laudable. LRS also strongly encouraged me to manage my time efficiently, a skill that serves me well to this day. After tentative first steps, I soon began to love my job and looked forward to each work-day.

Unfortunately, my time in LRS and Portland was cut short. As an immigrant worker I needed to be sponsored for an immigrant visa, the infamous H1B. In recent years, the demand for this visa has outstripped its supply, which forces immigration authorities to grant these visas on a lottery basis. The probability of getting through the lottery was 25 % on the year I applied. I was quite disappointed at not being selected in the lottery and even more disappointed in having to leave the country a little more than a year after beginning my employment at LRS Architects. All was not lost, however, because I was dating my soon-to-be husband who was working in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. We got married six months after I left the U.S. and I came back with him on a H4 visa, the visa for dependents of H1B visa holders.

One of the principal drawbacks of the H4 visa is the fact that dependents who are on it are ineligible for employment. Typically, an immigrant family would wait for the H1B visa holder to obtain his or her U.S. permanent residency, at which point all members of the family would be eligible for employment. However, the wait for permanent residency has become unbelievably long for immigrants who originate for populous countries such as India and China. H1B visa holders are thus forced to resort to ceaseless renewals of their H1B visa while they wait, while their dependents are in turn forced to stay dependent in every sense of the word. Read: not allowed to work.

Despite the grim circumstances, the administration offered some respite at the time: dependents of H1B visa holders who were on the path to permanent residency would be granted the ability to work through the issuance of work-permits dubbed the "H4 EAD". My husband and I pursued this route, the whole process taking nearly a year. In the meantime, I saw a valuable opportunity and chose to use my downtime to pass as many architecture licensure exams as I could. I recognized that I would never again get to focus completely on passing my licensure examinations. With that dedicated focus, I am proud to say that I successfully passed five out of seven required examinations before I finally received authorization to work, and I began employment at my next (and current) job later that year.

I am now employed at Aedis architects, which is a mid-size firm located in downtown San-Jose. I chose to work at Aedis because they specialize in the education sector, an area I had no prior exposure to and wanted to explore. After working here for over a year, I'm particularly fond of the close-knit atmosphere in the workplace. I am also learning about project management and construction administration which comprise a fair portion of my responsibilities. By leveraging my education from the University of Oregon and applying all I had learned at LRS ,the management at Aedis recognized my strengths and growth potential and promoted me to Assistant Project Manager within my first year of employment.

However, immigration troubles are never too far away. The work-permit I am using, the H-4 EAD, is the source of much contention and the battle for its survival continues to play out in the courts today. While merits and demerits of work-permit are a matter of debate best left to other forums, revocation of the H-4 EAD consign me and other H-4 visa holders to the status of dependents ineligible to work. The growing uncertainty compelled my husband and I to explore opportunities outside the U.S., with Canada being a favorable option. If you find yourself in a similar position, I strongly encourage you to formulate a viable backup plan. Uncertainty in immigration and other aspects of life is inevitable, but backup-plan places you in a problem-solving mindset, which is far more helpful and therapeutic than getting trapped into a fatalistic, negative way of thinking.

In retrospect, I am happy with the goals I have accomplished so far in the U.S.: getting a strong education, becoming employed at a firm, being promoted to a project management role, and completing some of my licensing exams. I am also excited for the goals I am yet to reach: becoming a licensed architect and having the option to venture out with my own practice. And while setting and accomplishing goals is important, I give far more weight to all I have learned, the friendships I have made along the way, and the chance to rub shoulders with some truly great professionals. Ultimately, the journey always has a more lasting impact than the destination.

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