Finding Balance in Architecture School

Finding Balance in Architecture School

By Aliyah D. White.


Now that I have earned my B.S. in architecture, I want to shed some light on the effect such a rigorous academic program can have on student health and offer some tips that helped me find balance in school. Architecture itself has been shown to have the capacity to positively affect mental health. However, being in school for it is a completely different story. During my time in school, I knew plenty of students who would work themselves sick in sustained periods of barely sleeping and eating, so here is some advice for students (and newbies to the workforce) that can also apply to people outside of the architecture field as well.

I always loved school when I was growing up, but when I became an architecture student, I found unexpected challenges in and out of the classroom. I was involved in multiple student organizations, doing research with professors, and working 2-3 jobs by my junior and senior years. Luckily for me, putting my physical and mental wellness high on my priorities list has become second nature after over ten years of practice. This is not the case for everyone. It is incredibly easy to fall victim to the unhealthy work culture that permeates architecture schools. Finding a good work-life balance is vital.

The most important thing I can say when it comes to work-life balance is this: GET SOME SLEEP. In my experience, all-nighters are not worth it, and there’s an abundance of evidence that lack of sleep, in whatever amount, is detrimental to your health. During my time in school, I only pulled two all-nighters. The first was in the fall of my second year at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. It was also one of my first semesters learning how to use Rhino and Adobe Illustrator for architecture – and it was while I was home with my parents. It turned out to be harder and more time-consuming than I expected. I sat in my little corner of my mom’s home office and worked from 6 pm the night before my review to 8 am the next morning. By the end I had a project that has not seen the light of day since — and hopefully never will.

Avoiding all-nighters ended up being very beneficial for both my studies and my health. Making a schedule to track all of my assignments in and out of the classroom allowed me to efficiently meet deadlines, avoid overworking myself, and successfully complete my tasks. I kept strict boundaries for myself such as not letting what reviewers had to say about my work — whether negative or positive — affect me too much, avoiding comparing myself to my peers, not staying at my studio desk past 8 pm (a rule that I admittedly broke more often than I would have liked), and waking up before 9 am every day. Waking up early incentivized me to go to bed early as well, so most nights I got plenty of sleep. I avoided becoming obsessive over my schoolwork because I had other passions that needed taking care of. I personally do not operate well when there is only one activity, project, or interest occupying my mind.

Aliyah pointing at screen, defending undergraduate thesis.

Other than being sure to get plenty of sleep to fuel my studies and extracurriculars, I also found time to just exist. Studies show that the mind is the most creative when it is idle. However, finding stillness during a busy day is not easy. If you struggle to find time to do nothing, you can try my method. After classes and during work sessions I would simply look out of a window for five to fifteen minutes (there’s a great article, here, about the benefits of this). In semesters that I would get lucky with the location of my studio, my desk was in front of humongous two-story bay windows, so I would look outside while listening to music or the commotion of frantic architecture students around me. I wouldn’t think about my work or my responsibilities, I would just exist and idly people watch. The art of observing was, and still is, my favorite form of relaxation. I have been fortunate enough to be assigned a desk at work in front of a big window with a view of mountains, trees, and cars passing by. In truth, this is something I have done since I was little and before I knew of the potential benefits, so I have always enjoyed taking my little “window breaks”.

View through office window at Luxor, our Charlottesville office location.

Another important part of finding balance in school was a method my mom taught me when I was young — which I still credit for my healthy work-life balance today. It is the 8 Dimensions of Wellness model, conceptualized by Dr. Peggy Swarbrick of the School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. She defines wellness as, “A conscious, deliberate process that requires a person to become aware of and make choices for a more satisfying lifestyle.” I suggest that people of all personal backgrounds keep an updated priorities list that covers their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, financial, and environmental health. There is a comprehensive guide towards using the wellness model co-written by Dr. Swarbrick, here. Now that I am out of school, I mainly work towards physical, emotional, environmental, and occupational wellness on a day-to-day basis, but am sure to give attention to all 8 long-term to maintain my overall wellness.

Making it through the hustle and bustle of architecture school is rough but doable. If I did not find a groove that worked well for me, I never would have made it, so find what works best for you. It is worth it.

The Importance of Mentorship

The Importance of Mentorship

On today, National Mentoring Day, Aliyah shares about the importance of mentorship and her experience.


When I was in high school, my mom convinced me to join a dual-enrollment vocational program that would allow me to spend half of the school day learning drafting skills. I spent my junior year in engineering design as a prerequisite for the architectural design class I took in my senior year. Both classes were taught by a Black architect. It was the first and last time I had a Black teacher in my architectural education. At the time I did not take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the road ahead of me, and though I am not one for regrets, I do wish that I had.

I did not make meaningful connections with Black mentors or professors until my final year of undergrad at UVA.  I ran into some difficulty with my undergraduate design thesis, which aimed to design a Black student center for the school. I was in desperate need of extra opinions on my work from people who understood where I came from.  Fortunately, there were three Black faculty members at the time that I could talk to outside of class.

I am not the best when it comes to networking. However, this is not because I am not good at talking to and connecting with people. It’s because I generally prefer to be on my own, so my people skills often only come out when they must. Learning to depend on others has been an important part of my journey and takes work every day. The time I spent talking to those people in school affirmed my experiences and encouraged me to continue doing my best despite the obstacles I was facing. They helped equip me with tools to defend myself and the conditions I set for my project.

When I finally had the opportunity to talk with Black advisors, I realized how much easier my time in undergrad could have been. It changed my outlook on my future as a designer and storyteller for the better. Finding people who have gained wisdom from being in the positions that you want to be in is invaluable. They can point you in the right direction for ideas, inspiration, and solutions. Mentorship is a major key to success and using the knowledge of those who came before you can prevent a lot of heartache and headaches.

Aliyah with her teacher in highschool. She holds a poster while winning third in a high school design competition.

Pictured, Aliyah with her high school teacher after she placed 3rd in a regional design competition during her senior year.

Black Women in Architecture

Black Women in Architecture

By Aliyah D. White.


According to The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), just under .5% of licensed architects working in the U.S. in 2022 were Black women. This means that out of the 121,603 licensed architects working in the U.S., 2,492 were Black, and 566 were Black women. Becoming an architect is by no means an easy path – even without considering factors that disproportionately affect people of color. It can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in degrees and exams. Additionally, it takes an average of 13 years to become a licensed architect according to NCARB. The high cost and required level of dedication are factors that keep many people from pursuing architecture, but the added lack of representation can make it especially difficult for Black women to chase after the profession.

I have been drawn to architecture ever since my 7th grade science teacher pointed out how much I enjoyed doodling houses on my schoolwork. However, that enjoyment has not stayed with me through the years like it may have for many others. It has been a ten-year battle of deciding every day that my chosen path is worth it. For me, architectural design provides a way to find and express stories through space. As an architectural designer, who also writes avidly about the Black experience, this means that I feel a responsibility to uncover the ways Black people have been forced to move through space in history, how we have struggled and flourished through that movement, and how we can find better rhythm while moving through present-day constructed spaces.

Though I have dealt with these issues my entire life, they are only recently coming to the forefront of many peoples’ minds due to a heightened awareness of racial disparities in the country and abroad. In large part, this is due to a lack of representation – and consequently a lack of understanding the adversities people of color face as they move through the constructed environment. When Black women do not get to enter the room, we lose the opportunity to influence decisions and solve issues regarding the ways people move through space. Moreover, the people who are gaining entry are missing out on the unique perspectives and understanding we bring to the table. To be a good architect is to be a good listener while in the service of others. To be a great architect is to be a great empathizer while in the service of others.
In the Community: Kids Choir with Mariya

In the Community: Kids Choir with Mariya

We’re so proud to have such involved people at Gaines Group Architects who are committed to giving their time to the community. This week we highlight Mariya Chesnov. Mariya is a designer on our team that previously attended Massanutten Technical Center (MTC). You can learn more about MTC here.


Outside of her designer role, Mariya helps to lead the kids choir program at First Russian Baptist Church in weekly practices and services on special holidays and celebrations, like Christmas and Easter. Below, Mariya answers a few questions about her involvement with kids choir.

Kids stand in a line in the front of church and one holds a mic to sing. Other kids sit in pews behind.
Kids sing at First Russian Baptist Church


How did you first start helping with kids choir?

I started doing kids choir back in 2021 after I got baptized. I’ve always loved serving so I wanted to have a new way to serve the Lord. I love kids and singing so that was one of my top options.

What do you do specifically?

Specifically, I do the poems and verses for the choir. When we participate in church I basically give each child a small poem to learn to say in church.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what it’s like to work with the kids?

It can be stressful and challenging with 50 kids at times but I am so happy I joined because I get to serve the Lord with some of my closest friends with a passion that we have in common. There are many other ways to serve but to me children are so pure and wholesome. It is a beautiful reminder to me that the Lord wants us to be like them, trusting, humble, and forgiving.


Thank you Mariya for your time, energy, and gifts that you share with the kids in our community.

A rising tide raises all ships

A rising tide raises all ships

A rising tide raises all ships is an interesting concept, but what does it have to do with our local economy? Look to Shenandoah Valley Partnership (SVP).

The economic health of a community is a complicated thing to fully understand. There are many moving parts to a local economy and it is constantly changing. Do you have a thriving business community? Is it growing or shrinking? Are there available workers with the right skills? Are there potential sites for future expansion or relocations? Are the local businesses supported in a way to allow them to thrive? Is there training available to ramp up the workers skills as needed? There are so many variables that impact our local economy and this doesn’t even start to consider government regulations, taxes, land cost, construction cost, cost of living.

With so many things that could impact viability for a new business to locate here or for an existing business to expand across multiple jurisdictions – who’s there to help? That’s the role of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership (SVP).

As an organization, SVP has been working across the valley to provide the forum for cooperation and collaboration that encourages businesses to establish operations in the Shenandoah Valley. They do this through capital investment and job creation, serving as an advocate for existing business expansion, and assisting with regional workforce development efforts.

As the current Vice-Chair of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership and a long-time board member, Charles has invested his time and energy in supporting these efforts for the last 7 years. He is now also serving on the Forward 2028 campaign to support the SVP 5 year capital campaign. SVP is focused on three key areas to support local economic vibrancy: talent attraction & retention, business retention expansion & attraction, and sites & infrastructure. If you are invested in seeing a vibrant local economy, please reach out to learn more about how you can invest in the Shenandoah Valley Partnership and support the idea that a rising tide raises all ships.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What do you want to be when you grow up? What a huge question that we ask students to answer at a point in their lives when they are just working on figuring out who they are at that moment.

Hosting high school students in our office has become a regular occurrence over the years. We believe that mentorship is not only a key component to the future of our industry, but simply put is the right thing to do. We want to help students figure out the right path to take before college, to answer the question What do you want to be when you grow up? Or at least what do you not want to be when you grow up. We have had students from a wide variety of high schools around the valley join us with some going on to architectural school and some finding out through their time in our office that architecture was not the right path for them. This year we hosted a student, Ryan, from Eastern Mennonite High School. (past job shadow blogs here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here)

Here is his story:

The question, ‘what do you plan to do after graduation?’ is really hard for a high school student to grasp as the scope of opportunities and jobs available to them is unknown. So for my junior year, I signed up for an internship at Gaines Group Architects. This is a 12-week internship (job shadow) where for about an hour and a half each day before heading to school I had a chance to be in their architectural office to see, hear, observe, and learn.

While most people would assume an architect’s job would be to design immediately on computers, Charles directed me through the thought process and the restrictions real life can play on a project. We looked online for a plot of land for sale and brainstormed our ‘client’ and their requirements. These things would play into my clients’ budget and restrictions on how I could design the house. For anything I wanted to design, I needed to justify value for the design decision. 

I was given the goal of making a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 1300 square foot house. This right off the bat was extremely difficult because a lot of the standard living sizes for several rooms would require more square feet than I was provided. Charles used this to help me realize that sometimes, customers might come in with unrealistic goals and it is our job to find the best compromise for them. This house is for a younger family with 2 kids so it needs to be large enough for the family but also big enough that they could resell it if/when they are ready to upgrade.

I learned several of the basic principles for designing a house from sketching to spending the first couple of weeks just designing and reiterating the house on paper. I learned how to draw different wall thicknesses and how to think reasonably space. By the end of the first month, I had completed a paper sketch of the house for my ‘client’ that was 1614 square ft.

I have always loved designing and creating new things with my hands or on online design programs, and drawing the house on paper was my favorite part of the process. The next step was for me to learn another design software, Trimble Sketchup

Trimble Sketchup is an online CAD software that allowed me to design the entire home on my Chromebook. This process is what I spent the last 9-10 weeks of the internship working on. I learned, experimented, and then implemented new and different building techniques into the house. I was able to import furniture and utilities to create a complete 3D model of what the house might look like if it was built in real life.