December 22, 2022
Since she was young, Phuong Nguyen has been passionate about design and the spaces around her. After coming to Nebraska from Ha Long, Vietnam, she immersed herself in interior design and architecture, earning a B.S. in interior design in 2014 and an M.S. in architecture in 2017. Today, she’s an architect at BVH Architecture — where she’s worked on projects that uplift communities — and a mentor for international students in the College of Architecture and those interested in design, architecture, engineering and more.
I came from Vietnam. I am Vietnamese. I left my home in Vietnam 11 years ago to come to America, with the hope for a better education and a brighter future. I went to school at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln because I heard they have good architecture and interior design programs. So I got a bachelor's in interior design and a Master's in architecture. I graduated in 2017 and was offered a job in Omaha so I decided to move here. It’s very different here from my hometown in Vietnam for sure. My hometown in Vietnam is a hot spot for tourism with its location along the ocean. It’s more quiet and peaceful here, people are super nice. I really enjoy it here.
What originally drew you to architecture?
Ever since I was little, I have loved to draw and felt I have a deep appreciation for art and spaces. I knew that I wanted to have a career in something design-related that allows me to be creative, such as interior design or architecture. When I came to America, I decided to get an undergrad in interior design and a graduate degree in architecture, so that I would be able to do both the inside and outside of a building.
I first chose to study architecture because it’s a creative profession and I was intrigued that the things I design could be realized in real life. The more I get to study and practice architecture, the more I realize my passion for space, people and the environment, and that being an architect/designer will give me the opportunity to create a better living environment for people with different cultures and needs.
Talk a bit about your current job.
I’m currently an architect at BVH Architecture. We have offices in Omaha, Lincoln and Denver. I work in the Omaha office. A day in the office could vary depending on how many meetings/site visits I have, what project I’m working on and the phases of the projects as well. Sometimes it’s just head-down focus work, sometimes we would have design charrettes where we pin up progress and collaborate on different design options/solutions. Sometimes we need to go to construction sites to see construction progress.
At BVH, we also have different activities to spice up our work days throughout the week, such as Monday Mealtime where we get food catered from a local restaurant to help support local, but also to spend time eating together. Every Thursday, we have Thursday Activity Club, where we could either have someone present a project they work on, a trip they just went on, or even just play games or go grab a drink together. We are also encouraged to do community volunteering.
I feel very fortunate to be able to have a job that I love. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored doing architecture, I’ll be tired but I won’t be bored.
Outside of work, I dedicate time to mentoring students—from high school students who spark an interest in architecture, construction and engineering via the ACE mentorship program, to college students majoring in architecture and interior design. I’ve been reaching out to international students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Architecture, to offer academic mentorship and assistance on job opportunities. Having been in these students’ shoes, I understand how isolating it could be as one of a few members of an underrepresented group, especially when there is no one else in the room that can relate to your perspective. I volunteer my time to mentor, not only because I simply enjoy helping these students, but also for the students of color that I encounter to see that they are represented, that if I have a chance to share my passion and perspective, they would too.
What are some of the projects you’ve had the chance to work on?
I had the opportunity to work on some wonderful projects the past couple years at BVH. The Charles Drew Healthcare Clinic in Benson was one of them. Working with the client, our design team and Ronco construction were able to transform a building that was once a Goodwill, into a clinic dedicated for young adults and teenagers in the Benson neighborhood. We started the design process by asking the question, how are we going to create a space that showcases Charles Drew’s mission of “All are welcome”, pays tribute to the historic and artistic vision of the Benson neighborhood, and caters to the teenagers and young adult population. We went ahead and looked at the characteristics of each of these entities to find emerging themes and melt them all together to create a design that’s specifically catered for Charles Drew Benson. The project was a success. The client was very pleased with the design process and so happy with the final result.
Is there anything you hope to accomplish through architecture?
Architecture is all around us, and architects have a big impact on shaping communities and enriching people’s lives. Buildings shape our experiences: from your childhood home, to your local library, to the school you go to and meet your friends, etc. A well-designed environment can make us happier, feel safer and heal faster.
I am on this beautiful journey of learning about myself, and a journey of amplifying voices. I am still so young in my career, and there is still so much for me to learn. So I want to just be a sponge soaking up as much knowledge as possible, continue to hone in my skill sets and build connections.
You’re one of 17 participants in the AIA Next to Lead program. What is it and why are you passionate about it?
I was honored to be selected as a participant in a pilot program organized by the American Institute of Architects called Next to Lead. It is a leadership training program for diverse women in architecture. Their mission statement is “to create an architecture profession that serves everyone, we must include everyone.” I feel so fortunate to meet and be surrounded by beautiful, strong, talented, badass diverse women from all over the nation. We meet monthly and get training on various necessary leadership skills. I’m so thankful for this opportunity and have learned so much.
Equality and diversity in architecture have always been an aching matter to me. Exclusionary aspects of architecture studio culture such as attendance, required resources, work hours, competitiveness, all cater to and reproduce a wealthy, white, male profession. There’s a lack of diversity in faculties and reviewers to represent different groups of students from different backgrounds. In professional architecture practice, while there has been improvement, women and people of color are still underrepresented. The absence of representation of these diverse groups directly translates to inequities within the profession, as well as missed opportunities in business.
With the shift in demographic in the next decades, the architecture profession needs to become more diverse in order to stay relevant. Conversations need to happen, about slavery, equity, history. Creating an equitable built environment is a fundamental skill the profession is expecting from graduates. We need to prepare students for their chosen career, and as educated citizens. We need a diverse curriculum that challenges the traditional practices and education of architecture. We need to create a culture of diversity, inclusion and equity, where everyone’s voice is heard, where differences are celebrated, where the underserved and underrepresented are embraced and given equal opportunities to grow and thrive that others have. Only through diversity and inclusivity, we can remove barriers between communities and create architecture that is inclusive, exciting and sensitive.
I want to work with AIA National and AIA Nebraska, contribute my efforts to improve the diversity and equality aspect of the architecture profession. I want to continue to speak up and to advocate for the voices of people of color in our profession, for us to have opportunities to open up, to share our truth, our story, our perspective and our passion. And I believe that this leadership training program that I’m attending would help me grow as a person, a professional, and an aspiring future leader. I hope that one day, with hard work and dedication, I’ll be able to make positive changes, to become a better person, a better architect, as well as paving the way for others who face similar challenges.
Is there one thing you learned in your time at Nebraska that you’ve taken with you and continue to use every day?
Be kind, work hard, and never stop learning.
What advice would you give to a college student looking for a job they’re passionate about?
It’s so important to do something you love and have fun doing. It makes your everyday job feel less like work and allows you to stay motivated. So find out what you’re passionate about and pursue your dream. But you can only go as far as you allow yourself to. So be your own champion. Start actively seeking out opportunities early by attending career fairs, expand your network by meeting with your professors, peers, academic advisors, and past alumni. Be authentic in your approach and how you present yourself. Stay humble. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. That’s the only way you can grow.