9 to 5 Series Explores Architecture Professions for Liberal Arts Students

Tue, November 12, 2019
9 to 5 Series Explores Architecture Professions for Liberal Arts Students

“Your voice and your perspective [about the world] are so critical. There have been so many times where I am the only brown person in the room and having that ability to advocate for my community has been invaluable,” Melissa Henao-Robledo, landscape architect, said during our second installment of the 9 to 5 series.   

On Tuesday, November 5th we sat down with Henao-Robledo, who also serves as a Design Commissioner for the City of Austin, and Leslie Wolke, a Wayfinding Technology Specialist, and founder of local firm, MapWell Studio, to talk about the importance of intersectionality in their two distinct but related fields.  


In our conversation, we learned how wayfinding, a field within architecture that is short for “finding your way,” is implemented in order to help make physical spaces more navigable, inviting and accessible to everyone, including communities of color.

Wolke discussed her experience implementing wayfinding technology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. With over 19 million square feet (that’s about 19 Barton Creek Malls!), she had to ensure every hallway and elevator were easy to navigate for all patients and visitors, taking into account their significant amount of stress and anxiety. 

“Conversations with patients and research revealed to us that chemotherapy actually affects your ability to perceive colors,” Wolke said. “We took this into consideration when choosing, for instance, the color palette of our signage.”

Wolke also mentioned that her team increased the level of fingertip reverberation when designing the touch screen technology implemented around the hospital after learning that chemotherapy also impairs patients’ sense of touch.  


For Wolke, it wasn’t her degree in art history so much that defined her professional experience, but rather the odd jobs she worked during college that set her on the path of tech and innovation.

From learning how to make PowerPoints to uploading data to American Online (AOL), she compared her journey to like being a girl scout earning badges with every position she held.

“My career has been getting a series of badges,” Wolke said. “There is always something new to learn. Focus on developing your skills rather than pinning down your job title. The job you’ll have in the future may not even exist right now!”    


As for Henao-Robledo, after changing her major three times (from social work to photography), moving cities, and working the odd job here and there, she found herself in the world of landscape architecture.  

“I finally went to graduate school to become a landscape architect,” Henao-Robledo said. “But after four years, and $60,000 in debt, I realized I needed to figure out how to be me.” Henao-Robledo encouraged students to be confident in their skills and to reframe their lack of knowledge and experience as humility and a willingness to learn. 

As a first-generation American and first in her family to graduate college, Henao-Robledo realized that her background informed the way she designed and tailored spaces, and more often than not, her perspective was more mindful of diverse communities than her colleagues’. 

“If you are designing a space without anyone in your team reflecting the community you are designing for, you are missing the whole point,” Henao-Robledo said. “We need more diverse voices to contribute to how we build a world around us. Whatever your background is, you have something to contribute.”  

Coincidentally, Wolke and Henao-Robledo’s paths crossed the previous weekend during a meeting for the EastLink Trail project by the Austin Parks Foundation. The project, a 5.1 mile urban trail running through Central East Austin, according to Wolke, is centered around a community engagement approach that values the input of the diverse constituents that will ultimately be affected by the trail. Wolke’s firm has been tasked with developing trail signage, which will include neighborhood landmarks and community history. 

This project was of particular interest to Latino Studies and sparked a few ideas among us as to how we could extend our relationship with the project beyond the conversation. But, more importantly, it was yet another example of how both fields are contributing to the wellbeing and inclusion of diverse communities in Austin, a public good that is undoubtedly important to many of our ethnic studies students. 

The goal of the 9 to 5 Series, from the outset, has been to introduce our students to new fields and careers that might seem out of reach for liberal arts students, as well as showcase fields in which doing good doesn’t mean settling for a non-profit salary. 

The winding professional paths of our most recent visitors should reassure students who don’t have it all figured out yet, or haven’t even decided on a major, that not everybody’s journey is the same. Todo tiene su tiempo, all things at their own time.  


Special thanks to Nayeli Sanchez, chair of the Mexican American Cultural Committee, for helping moderate the conversation! 

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