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In 2015, a small group of Chicago Public School teens met over the course of nine months to design what has become the signature teen program of the Chicago Architecture Center.

by Jessica Cilella, Web Editor

The group even wrote a mission statement: “The Chicago Architecture Center Teen Fellows explore the past, experience the present and design the future. As a dedicated community of hands-on learners, Teen Fellows question and identify how the built environment applies to their lives.”

This winter, the first class of 16 students graduated from the intensive, 2-year Teen Fellows program. The 2017 Class of Teen Fellows spent two years immersed in architecture, design and urban planning every Saturday and school holiday. Spring break study trips took them to Taliesin West in Arizona and to New York City. A design-build project in partnership with the Sweetwater Foundation in summer 2016 laid the groundwork for Fellows to be ready for summer internships in 2017 with leading architecture and design firms around the city, including SOM and Studio Gang.

The keynote speaker at graduation, JGMA Architects Founder Juan Gabriel Moreno, hosted Teen Fellow William Cryer as a summer intern. He said he was endlessly impressed with the professionalism he saw and knew that even if the students decided not to pursue architecture as a career, CAC’s program had set them up for success. “I want you guys to walk away knowing you can take architecture wherever you want to go,” he said.

Teen Fellow Rafael Gallardo attended Benito Juarez High School when he won the Newhouse Competition. He is now a freshman at UIC. “Even though I’m not pursuing architecture as a career, CAC and architecture in general helped shape the way I think,” he said. “I don’t feel like my ideas would be as strong or as open-ended if it wasn’t for CAC.”

Paul Joanes, a Curie High School architecture teacher, said the Teen Fellows program “gives the kids a chance to explore the city, ”and gives them a sense of ownership over it. One of his students, senior Nayeli Rodriguez, said the other Teen Fellows became “a second family.” She expressed gratitude for the chance to “travel, explore new things and talk with professional architects.”

Cassandra Zizumbo, another senior at Curie, interned at Holabird and Root. When she graduates, she plans to pursue a degree in interior design at Judson University. “I want to thank CAC for teaching me and taking me to different places like Arizona and New York,” she said. “I would never had gone there on my own.”

Gabrielle Lyon, CAC’s vice president of education and experience, said the Teen Fellows have helped CAC serve the community better. “You remind us about the diversity and possibility in the world,” she said. “You design in ways that relate to your personal experiences, which haven’t always been represented in architecture. We are all the better for your visions and your designs.”