A Glowing Success Story from the ACE Mentor Program

Walmer Saavedra, former ACE student

Walmer Saavedra, former ACE student


In an effort to make the architecture, construction, and engineering workforce more representative of the public at large in which it serves, the national ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Mentor Program was founded in 1995. ACE provides opportunities for high school students, particularly students of color, low-income populations, and women, to learn about the industry through engaging activities and simulated real-life projects lead by volunteer mentor architects, construction managers, and engineers at weekly meetings hosted by their respective offices.

Diversity in the practice of architecture is highly valued at Valerio Dewalt Train Associates. Christine McGrath Breuer, AIA, a principal at the firm, joined ACE’s local Chicago Chapter Board of Directors in 2015. VDTA provided volunteer mentors from our architecture studio and along with construction managers from LendLease, engineers from Thornton Tomasetti, and eager high school students, formed an ACE team.

Our most recent team from the 2016-2017 school year received 1st Runner Up prize in a national high school design competition for their design proposal for the Obama Presidential Library & Museum. They won $1,000 that was added to the total scholarship amount of $182,000 that was given out to college bound ACE students. Additionally, they were one of two teams who got to present their project in front of the entire Chicago ACE Chapter and their friends and family at the end of the year awards ceremony, in front of nearly 1,000 people!

To get a more indepth look of who is an ACE student and the effects of an ACE experience, our current ACE Team Leader, Jennifer Cooper, AIA, has caught up with ACE alumni Walmer Saavedra. Walmer was a standout student from our 2015-2016 team. He truly impressed all of the mentors with his leadership skills, architectural knowledge, and work ethic. His stellar performance on the team earned him a coveted summer internship position with Lendlease that has been extended to a part-time job throughout the school year. He recently completed his freshman year in the architecture program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Walmer in the woodshop

Walmer in the woodshop

Walmer in the woodshop

Walmer in the woodshop


Jennifer: Where are you from?

Walmer: I’m from Guatemala. From the southern border of the country. I came to the U.S. when I was seven. I've lived in Washington, D.C and Chicago, on the south side, and north side as well.

Jennifer: Where do you live now?

Walmer: On the southwest side, by Midway airport.

Jennifer: What high school did you go to?

Walmer: Lindblom Math and Science Academy.

Jennifer: When did you first become interested in architecture?

Walmer:  When I was younger, my grandma says that I used to draw these boxes with zigzag lines, which would be the stairs, and I would draw rectangles for the windows. I guess when I was five years old I started getting into architecture.

Jennifer:  But without really knowing what you were doing?

Walmer: Yeah. At Lindblom, I took different types of engineering classes every year: design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering. That’s how I started getting into drafting and AutoCAD. I googled what fields used those tools and saw architecture. That’s how I decided to start diving into that.

Jennifer: How did you hear about ACE?

Walmer: That year, in the engineering design course, my teacher, he was an MIT alum, an electrical engineer, he had a flyer for ACE and he's like, ‘Hey you should apply.’ So I applied and I did all the requirements and then I got in. My first ACE team was with Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture,  Jacobs Engineering, and Turner Construction. That's how I got into ACE and it was pretty cool going to those high rise office buildings.

Jennifer: What did you enjoy most about participating in ACE?

Walmer:  I'd never been to an architecture firm before. Seeing the offices and conference rooms, and all the models was really exciting. I also enjoyed interacting with engineers, architects, and construction managers. Having all those different people together to help you with a project is very unique.

Jennifer: Yeah that’s great. What did you learn from the program?

Walmer:  I learned teamwork and how a design process works. In the program, we start brainstorming, then we gather precedents. We search online  and try to get inspiration for the projects. We select a couple and determine what we like from each one. Then we combine them and keep doing iterations and reviews until we have a final design.

Jennifer: Have you noticed you're doing a similar process at school now?

Walmer:  Yes, I'm a freshman in the school of architecture at UIC now. The program is very artistic and iterative. We do iterations of a design fifty times. It might get repetitive but from that collection of designs you pick the best one. It's a similar process to how a real firm works.

Jennifer: Do you feel like your experience with ACE gave you a leg up on your classmates?

Walmer:  Yes, for sure.  

Jennifer: You introduced us to your classmate when you brought him with you to speak at this year’s ACE team “College Night.” You mentioned that you felt like he's a really good student, and deserved similar opportunities to you, but didn't get to do ACE. How did ACE position you better to go into architecture?

Walmer: I think that there are a lot of students who have the capability of becoming really good architects, but they don't have the opportunities, they don't get to interact with professionals in the field. They don't come out to a professional office and they don't learn to design like I did.

I co-founded a chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architect Students (NOMAS) at UIC.  We organize firm tours, and  we're planning an event with the Chicago Architecture Foundation where they teach us how to design personal logos and branding. That's how I took what I got from ACE and implemented it at school.

Jennifer: That is awesome. You're making the opportunities that were available to you through ACE available to other students through NOMAS?

Walmer: Yeah, exactly.

Jennifer:  What do you enjoy most about architecture and design?

Walmer:  I think the possibility of creating something out of nothing. My professor, Francesco Marullo, says that architecture sets the framework for possibilities. So architects, through what we design, we allow things to happen, allow people to live in those areas, to work. I think that’s something no other career can offer. That’s I why I think architecture is so important.

Walmer Saavedra

Walmer Saavedra

Walmer Saavedra

Walmer Saavedra


Jennifer first became an ACE mentor in 2011; over the years she has mentored numerous students. Walmer really stood out among the rest with his great work ethic, positive attitude, and eagerness to take advantage and share all of the opportunities ACE made available to him. She and the other VDTA ACE mentors are currently leading another successful ACE team and continuing to work with more great students and future architects, construction managers, and engineers.


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