The long and winding road to AIA Fellowship
A newly recognized FAIA describes his journey from application to investiture
I knew I was going to be in trouble when, at AIA's 2013 Convention, the incoming chancellor of the College of Fellows greeted me with, “Ed! When are you applying for Fellowship?” My first thought was, “I think I’m getting a big hint,” followed by, “Why not me?”
My first step was to look up the Fellowship page on AIA.org. It explains that Fellowship is one of the highest honors the Institute can convey, and that a Fellow is someone who has raised the profession of architecture in some manner. There are many ways to do so: design, practice, service to the Institute, and government or public service. The following step is usually to click on the submission requirements and get your first dose of reality as 20 pages of requirements appear. If your home chapter has a Fellows Committee, contact them and find out their process for determining and preparing candidates for nomination.
Next was finding a sponsor. AIA does not care where your sponsor is located; all that matters is he or she knows you well, is accessible for continuing updates and reviews, and will get your references to write and submit their letters.
I refer to the FAIA application as a master’s thesis on steroids: it is a very focused and comprehensive presentation of your professional life’s work, in no more than 40 pages. Focus is a very important facet of this process, starting with the 35-word statement that leads your application. It needs to be a succinct, attention-grabbing statement that sets an overarching theme; you will likely be writing and rewriting this statement all the way to the deadline.
At the end of the day, it is your application. Don't forget that.
Don't worry about overselling yourself; the chair of AIA DC's Fellows Committee indicates that a good statement should make you slightly embarrassed by your achievements. Elevation to Fellow means that your work and accomplishments have enlightened and raised the broader profession of architecture. When preparing your application, consider how your work has rippled across your firm, other firms, the architects you work with, your clients, and stakeholders.
It is never too early to start collecting examples of your work and accomplishments. If you have written or are mentioned in articles, gather those as well; publications are a separate section of the application. References are equally important. Your references need to know you well—both personally and professionally—and attest to your accomplishments and suitability for elevation to Fellow. Don’t ask a big-name architect to write a letter if they only know you in passing. Also, make sure you have several backups in place; life happens, and one or more of your original seven may not be able to write that letter in time.
When it comes to the 20 pages of requirements, read them carefully and follow them to the letter. You do not want your application disqualified for a minor mistake like an exhibit not being signed or a requirement accidentally being skipped. Along those same lines, make sure your licenses are current and paid up, along with your AIA dues. Also, check on your continuing education requirements to ensure the proper amount of Learning Units and HSW units. I had to take one last HSW course to get my total above the minimum required.
When preparing your application, consider how your work has rippled across your firm, other firms, the architects you work with, your clients, and stakeholders.
Any estimates as to how long this process takes are likely to be doubled by the time it is over. Keep in close touch with your sponsor throughout; a good one will be both friend and critic. Remember that when your package is read and reviewed by the jury, it must stand on its own merits. Assume you have no friends on the jury and that you will have to impress them from the get-go. With between 250-300 applications to review, they will spend a maximum of 10 minutes reviewing, commenting, and voting on your application. Make your point directly and early, and continue pushing that point throughout the entire application.
You will inevitably get comments and suggestions from your sponsor, coaches, friends, and colleagues. Everyone means well and wants you to succeed, but at the end of the day it is your application. Don't forget that.
Ready to submit?
Two weeks before the FAIA submission deadline, you should have 98 percent of your application complete and be dealing mostly with finishing touches. Keep an eye out for common miscues, which often include:
- Not getting a signature on one or more exhibits in Section 3
- Not being current on continuing education requirements
- Missing one or more letters of recommendation
- Not being current on AIA dues
- Missing exhibit(s)
- Missing an endorsement letter from your chapter president
There are also common-sense concerns to watch for, like proper spelling and grammar. Make sure the text is readable and that all text and images are aligned and situated properly.
The seven jurors who decide on Fellowship certainly have their hands full. Each of the jurors gets a share of applications to read in their entirety. The piles are randomly assigned, but there are some controls: a juror does not get to read applications from his or her firm or chapter, or from candidates they know personally.
Several months after my submission, I checked my phone one morning to see a new message from AIA. I opened the email and read the first line: Edmond George Gauvreau, FAIA.
My immediate reaction was elation; I was so happy that all my hard work had paid off. At the same time I felt a great sense of humility, knowing that I had just received an honor only 3 percent of AIA members receive. Countless talented architects had been equally as successful but either did not apply or applied and were not chosen. As such, my next response was to thank everyone who helped me along the way: my sponsor, my references, professional associates who added quotes, exhibits, family, and friends.
As a member of AIA DC, new Fellows are automatically made members of the Fellows Committee and tasked to coach one or more candidates for next year's class. In my view, that is simply the first step of giving back to the profession. As one of the “3 percent,” our responsibility is to help others rise up and raise the level of practice for architecture, our clients and the general public.
Ed Gauvreau, FAIA, is the Chief, Planning Branch for the Installation Support Division, Directorate of Military Programs, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He became a Fellow of the AIA in 2017.
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