Featured Member - Isela Martinez, Assoc. AIA

Isela Martinez knew at an early age that she wanted to design buildings; as a 2018 recipient of the Jason Pettigrew Memorial ARE Scholarship, she'll soon be doing so as a licensed architect.


Isela Martinez, Assoc. AIA, is an emerging professional at LS3P in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the path she took to that position is a remarkable one. At an incredibly early age she knew she wanted to design buildings, but balancing work and family occasionally complicated her architectural dreams. Fortunately, thanks to an incredible amount of fortitude and commitment, she’s now a 2018 recipient of the Jason Pettigrew Memorial ARE Scholarship and is ready to cross the licensure finish line.

Most people say they don’t remember being very young, but my earliest memory is from when I was 5 or 6 years old and decided that I wanted to work in design. My father owned his own contracting business, and I found his career very exciting and inspirational. Every time I saw something he built, it’s indescribable how I felt. It was something I knew deep in my heart: “This is what I want to do.”

When I was 8 years old, I woke up at 5am and sat by the door so I could be there when he left for work. He said, “Go back to bed,” and I pleaded with him to let me come to work. Of course, he gave in. They were working on a roof that day and lugging materials up a ladder. He gave me a McDonald's breakfast but all I wanted was to go up on the roof to see how the roof was being put together. He said, “It’s too dangerous,” and I pleaded again, and he caved again. He said, “Sit here and do not move,” and I just sat there while all these guys brought shingles up. I was in my happy place.

When I got older, around my freshman year of high school, my dad was submitting plans to the city for approval. One day he said, “Get two pencils, a ruler, and a clean piece of paper. I need you to draw this up for me.” I was so excited. It was a small addition. He said, “You can do it. Pay attention and take your time.” I did it, and it got approved. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be an architect.

For more on architecture scholarships and support for students, visit ArchitectsFoundation.org.

Receiving the Pettigrew scholarship feels like confirmation of those dreams. I really feel like my life has been a whirlwind, one thing after another. My father passed away when I was 15; I married a Marine at the age of 21, who then went off to war; and I had a child when I was still in college. I had all the reasons not to become an architect. But I remember the talks that my father and I had; they kept me going. Every time it became difficult and I felt like giving up, I remember him saying that if I worked hard I would eventually accomplish my dreams.

The scholarship reaffirmed that this dream of becoming a licensed architect is meant to be. It was a moment when I thought, “This is the right time.” My husband retired earlier this year, and he is my biggest supporter. I have four kids now; three boys and a girl. My daughter is 10 and leaves notes in my lunchbox, “Mommy, you can do this.” I am ready to get licensed.

My kids go to a K-8 school that I helped design. It was completed earlier in 2018. I’ve always wanted to design schools; I haven’t been able to dive into that typology too deeply yet, but I was part of an all-women team who designed this one. My kids, of course, are very proud of their mom, and their friends don’t always believe them: “No way, your mom didn’t make this school!” I know my kids are watching, and I want to provide the same example for them that my father provided for me. I want them to know the value of working hard, not giving up on your dreams, and believing in yourself.

I think I earned the scholarship because I am not only pushing myself, but I am hoping to inspire others as well. Maybe it’s the mother in me. I enjoy encouraging others to reach for the stars. I have put together an ARE study group in Wilmington; we’re up to 11 people. It’s a learning process; I don’t always know what I’m doing, but everyone has responded positively, we are all learning a lot from each other. We have reached out to young professionals in other offices, to connect with and encourage those who may also be struggling.

It takes a team sometimes. Supporting other emerging professionals, in my firm or otherwise, has been one of the best things I have ever done professionally. We are all in this together. —As told to Steve Cimino

Your AIA membership provides you with a variety of benefits including access to continuing education, professional and career resources, networking opportunities, and more. Explore your AIA member benefits today.

Image credits

Isela Martinez - trimmed hero image

Isela Martinez

Isela Martinez - Student Services project LS3P


Isela Martinez - Surf City