Louis Smith (1997)

Path to Licensure: By Any Means Necessary
Louis Smith
Licensed 1997

The greatest burden for minorities pursuing licensure may be the uncertainty of whether your level of success is due to your own lack of effort or to the racist tendencies in a profession where people who look like you are greatly under-represented. My approach to this was to try and move forward every chance I could in whatever path was open.

The result of that was that I applied for licensure shortly after receiving my undergraduate degree in the early 1980’s. At the time, the licensure law there said that the rules that were in effect for applicant were those in effect at the time of first application. This meant that no professional degree was needed. I did need a great deal of experience as an “intern” before qualifying for the test.

It was unfortunate for me that I graduated in the midst of a recession. The large firm I had worked for part time during college and full time for two summers laid off half their staff, over 250 people. I was among those let go. In search of experience I offered to work for free for architects around the area that I admired. I was not accepted into any firm even for a non-paying position. As a result I spent several years in interior design and office interior firms doing architectural support work. I received partial credit for these positions. Following that, I spent several years working in housing code enforcement for the city of Detroit and in community redevelopment efforts of various kinds. Again I received partial experience credits for that.

Eventually I had to work for an architectural firm again in order to meet the last requirements to sit for the exam. I found work with a local firm, at somewhat less than I had been making in community development. It was ironic that, less than a month after I had completed the time I needed to sit for the exam, I was laid off.

I first sat for the exam in 1996. It was the last en masse group exam given in the state of Michigan. I passed eight of the then nine segments in the 5 day, 9 segment, 44 hour marathon exam session. I found the group experience intimidating because of my lack of a traditional career path. My work history was littered with jobs that were almost but not quite architecture. However, one of the benefits of the en-masse testing was that those who had completed a section would gather and compare notes about what worked and what did not, what they knew or did not know.

To my surprise and delight, the non-traditional work I had done was suddenly very useful. My redevelopment work had required knowledge of zoning and land regulations. These items were essential to passing the predesign portion of the exam. Yet they were things that most interns had not been exposed to. I passed 8 of the nine segments, missing the design segment.

Therefore, I became one of the first to take the new individualized computer exam. The design portion was split into two halves. I took the two halves as soon as I could and passed one and not pass the other. On my third attempt, I passed the remaining portion of the design exam. I found that the segmented exam helped with my greatest problem with the exam: excess creativity. It hurt me that the correct answer to the exam is always a simple box that meets the requirements. Yet, that is essentially the case.

(Now, living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina I am struck by the possibility that some architects feel that that is always the best design and more creative possibilities do not seem to get built.)

My path to licensure started in 1981 with my undergraduate degree. It was 1997 before I was licensed. It is not that it had to take 16 years. It simply did. I persisted and kept moving forward with what opportunities I could find or make. I kept in mind what the requirements of the moment were and worried little about future requirements. Take the lucky breaks if you get them. Do the hard work, if you must. There is a place for you. It just might not look like what you are expecting.


Check out Louis’s work here.

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