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AIA Michigan Mentoring Network Helps Students Make Connections to the Practice of Architecture

Tom Mathison’s, FAIA, long-running mentorship program puts students in a safe and open space to explore their career

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

Across the profession, architects are doing more to make sure the next generation of architects understand the practice of architecture from a business standpoint, not just as a design art. Architecture schools have been building up their practice education courses, exposing students to interdisciplinary practice, and bringing them in contact with active practitioners, all with the goal of broadening students’ professional experience of how architecture works outside the halls of academia.

The AIA Michigan Mentoring Network shares these goals, but offers open and peer-focused professional guidance outside formal academic settings. Since 1999, the network has paired up hundreds of Michigan architecture students with mentors. It’s largely the work of one man: Tom Mathison, FAIA, of Tower Pinkster in Grand Rapids, Mich. Mathison says there’s “a gap in the years in between” early college, when students declare their majors, and after graduation, when aspiring architects begin Intern Development Programs (IDP) on their way towards licensure. His program aims to engage students in these years when they’re making important career decisions that will affect the rest of their careers.

Mathison’s mentors look over resumes and portfolios, help students navigate the design job market, and teach them how to work with clients. Hopefully, Mathison says, mentees learn “what it means to contribute to a community and to a project—to be part of something lasting.”

An alum of the University of Michigan’s architecture school , Mathison originally pitched the idea of the mentoring network to his alma mater with the support of the dean. “I thought we were going to get maybe a dozen, or perhaps 15 students, but actually 100 students came forward,” he says.

So, Mathison immediately began scrambling to find enough mentors to meet students’ needs, enlisting friends and colleagues. In the program’s second year, he expanded it to Michigan’s other three accredited architecture schools (Lawrence Technological University, University of Detroit Mercy, and Andrews University). Soon, Mathison had 200 mentors and students from across the nation to pair up each year. Other AIA components (like AIA Eastern Oklahoma) have since instituted similar programs

Learning to ask the right questions

The mentoring network is loosely-structured with no set curriculum. Mathison urges pairs to meet face-to-face at least twice per academic year. Each paring lasts for a year, and fifteen percent of pairs continue past the first year.

When students initially begin working with their mentors, Mathison says, they arrive with lots of specific and simple end-product questions: How do I put together a good resume? How much money will I make? But as time goes on, students come to understand that successfully practicing architecture comes from asking more holistic, collaborative questions, like: How do I get involved in different groups? How do I find certain networks of people?

Ask away. . .

Dawn Zuber, AIA, a sole practitioner in Canton, Mich., has been a mentor in Mathison’s program for several years. She enjoys the exposure to emerging professionals the mentorship networks gives her. “Being a one-person company, I don’t have the interaction with young people like big firms where they’re going to be hiring interns all the time,” she says.

Zuber says that this type of mentorship experience offers advantages that typical academic or professional settings don’t have; namely an open environment where students can ask questions without the pressures and consequences of grades or careers. “I’m not judging their performance. It gives them a way to interact with somebody on more of a peer-to-peer level.”

That’s one reason Katie Miller, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, has appreciated the mentoring network. She’s used the opportunity to ask frank and blunt questions that she wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a boss or professor, or “someone I’m really focused on impressing,” she says. As an example, Miller co-founded a business (called Roomations) last summer that connects freelance designers to homeowners for affordable renovation projects, and she’d like to ask about staying involved in it while working at an architecture firm.

Miller was paired with Matt Rossetti, AIA, president of Rossetti Associates, in suburban Detroit. During her first year as a mentee, she focused on how Rossetti Associates functioned, and in the second year, she’s had Rossetti guide her through the broader job market and look at how she can position herself in it. After she graduates in May, she hopes her experience with Rossetti will help her develop contacts in Detroit and gain more experience with how project managers function in architecture offices.

Scott Fredericks, an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, was paired with Wayne Norlin, AIA, of Mathison’s firm Tower Pinkster. During a spring break internship with Tower Pinkster, Fredericks attended 12 hours of client and other meetings, got a close look at the daily stakeholder obligations and compromises that keep designers in business. “It’s interesting to see how many people you have to keep happy,” Fredericks says. “I didn’t realize how much collaboration was involved.”

Mentees say they hope these experiences will give them a leg up over their peers, especially considering the suffering (and thus ultra-competitive) design and construction economy. However, neither Miller nor Fredericks seem too fazed by the tough luck the design industry has faced in recent months. In fact, Fredericks says the mentorship network has only reinforced his enthusiasm for becoming an architect. “I learned enough that I think I’m a little bit more prepared,” he says. “Having this experience absolutely solidified the fact that I really want to do this as a career.”

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To sign up as a mentor or a mentee, contact Tom Mathison at

Visit AIA Michigan’s Web site.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the AIA Best Practice article “Seek Out the Many Rewards of Mentoring.”

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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