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Proposal Combines Student Debt Relief with Community Design Support

Let’s repay architecture student loans with community service

By Shervan A. Sebastian
Manager, AIA Federal Relations

Public service loan assistance programs have for decades been a driving force in attracting talent to some of America’s neediest and underserved regions and sectors of the economy. Programs as varied as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps as well as the medical, legal, and dental professions have all employed these incentives to provide communities with talented, civically engaged professionals, while offering one of the most coveted forms of support for financially burdened graduates: student loan assistance.

What might a national design service corps look like for the architecture profession? The AIA is proposing legislation that offers architecture school graduates loan re-payment assistance opportunities similar to those offered to graduates of other professions who contribute their services to their communities. The National Design Services Act (NDSA) provides student loan assistance for architects who work at community design centers by securing grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to reduce loan balances of participating students. This proposal, which is not yet a law, but is being presented to members of Congress, would increase the support available to design centers, furthering their role as a connective tissue between the architecture profession, architecture students, and local community stakeholders. HUD will either apply loan repayment funds directly to loan balances or provide grants to community design centers specifically for the purpose of loan repayment. Ensuring that these types of design opportunities (which might be completely pro bono without the NDSA) are more affordable for emerging professionals encourages a more effective relationship between young architects, design centers, and the cities they serve.

Elizabeth Miller, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Community Design Collaborative (CDC), has spent years working with architects to reinvest in underserved neighborhoods across Pennsylvania, and would love to see them paired with student debt relief. “Community design centers are a great resource for neighborhood revitalization,” she says. “They would be a beneficiary of placements via a future National Design Services Act.”

Loan relief in other professions

Medical and legal loan repayment assistance programs at hundreds of U.S. schools offer financial assistance to those in the professions who provide services to educational, public interest, and government programs, as well as to low-income and underserved regions across the country. These programs work directly through schools with scholarships, or through participating firms and agencies, as the NDSA specifies.

Medical students participate in the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Scholarship Program and the Students to Service Loan Repayment Program, which can provide up to $120,000 towards student loan repayment. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services recently unveiled a new program that dedicates $9.1 million to recruit medical students to work in designated underserved regions. Law school loan repayment assistance programs at more than 100 law schools encourage work in the public interest sector and lower-paying legal fields. It’s time aspiring architects obtained access to the same types of opportunities.

A recent AIA survey of more than 600 architecture students indicated that loan concerns are very much on the mind of design professionals. Sixty-three percent say student loans have affected their career growth, and 52 percent expect to take at least 10 years to repay loan balances. These loans are exacting a high cost on vulnerable young designers struggling to establish themselves: 59 percent of young architects say that student loan concerns have lead them to consider leaving the field of architecture entirely.

Furthering the profession

Camille Cazon, a former AmeriCorps volunteer at the CDC, says her experience undoubtedly broadened her career. “I felt part of a larger community working towards an agenda of design activism,” she says. “I acquired important skills: managing design/build projects, event coordination, project management, and graphic design. More importantly, I learned to be a better listener, to assess the situation, and to respond accordingly. Working at the collaborative taught me to ask provocative questions, to encourage innovative thinking, and to foster collaborations.”

Take the Sheridan Street Housing project, for example, a concept that began as a pro bono design incorporating both private and subsidized funding. The CDC worked with local Philadelphia groups and volunteers from Interface Studio, which designed a stylish, contemporary housing prototype for a strip of vacant land featuring sustainable design elements such as recycled building materials, solar hot water panels, and strategically placed windows to maximize daylighting.

Cazon greatly appreciated her work as an apprentice in Philadelphia, and sees these kinds of opportunities as vital to the profession. “In my career,” she says, “I have been fortunate to be involved with two community design centers that funded my time through the AmeriCorps program, which meant that by the end of each term I received an education award that I used to pay back my student loans.”

These kinds of projects can also be developed by design centers housed within universities, such as the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center. Elizabeth Gilboy, the center’s director, describes how her organization is helping to change the landscape of Virginia’s communities. “The Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech assists communities, neighborhood groups, and nonprofit organizations in improving the natural and built environments through design, planning, and research,” she says. “By integrating the learning and working environments, the design center provides students with a perfect bridge between the classroom and future professional work.”

For the Patrick Robert Sydnor Civil War–era historic site and log cabin in Mecklenburg County, Va., the Virginia Tech design center received funding through the Virginia Department of Forestry Urban and Community Forestry grant. The aim was to work with the community and stakeholders to create a conceptual master plan for the site, and for the preservation and rehabilitation of the Sydnor cabin. The master plan includes a sustainably designed visitors center, the rehabilitated cabin, and an educational walking trail.

By assisting architecture students and emerging professionals with student loan relief attached to the kinds of projects that would attract many young designers interested in design activism, these programs relieve the financial burdens of architects while reinvesting in disadvantaged American communities. It’s a model that has worked with AmeriCorps, and, with some variation, in other professions as well. It’s time to ensure that the high cost of an architectural degree can be aided and supported through young architects’ willingness and ability to restore and repair communities in need.

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The Community Design Collaborative’s Sheridan Street Housing project in Philadelphia. Image courtesy of the Community Design Collaborative.

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The Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center’s Patrick Robert Sydnor Civil War-era historic site and log cabin in Mecklenburg County, Va. Image courtesy of the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center.

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