February 3, 2015

Beliefs: Special Ed to Architect

This is a guest blog post from a friend of mine, Michael Riscica, who also has a blog. We both attended NYIT at the same time, but didn’t really connect until several years later after we had both became licensed and started blogging. You can check out his website and other social media outlets below and in his profile by clicking his name at the closing. Take a read

After a long journey, last year I finally became a licensed architect. What I brought home the license not much changed in the moment, but I am now seeing, very clearly, my career moving towards being Young Entrepreneur Architect, a direction I never believed it would take.

Most of my life I struggled with believing in my own capabilities; personally, professionally and even sometimes physically. Luckily everything worked out beautifully but as Steve Jobs said: 

“...You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”

Special Ed and going to college
As a child I hated school. College wasn't even an afterthought. It was a miserable experience for me every step of the way. Very quickly everyone learned I had zero patience for sitting in a classroom learning about stuff that happened 300 years ago without any pictures to prove it. I also struggled with reading and writing and spent my entire education in special education classes, until I graduated 12th grade. 

After graduation I had extremely low self-esteem further perpetuating the idea that college wasn't for me. My high school education focused more on preventing my dropout, rather than preparing me for college. I worked several mediocre jobs and on a whim decided to give community college a try. I enrolled in an architectural drafting program after I played around with AutoCAD one day and thought it was fun. 

My whole world changed once I started to draw. I very quickly learned I loved drafting with a pencil and a computer.  I learned that I had a great ability to think three dimensionally. I ran circles around everyone in my classes with my drawings and models, too bad I was studying “Drafting”, not “Architecture”. 

The school I went to made it very clear they weren’t in architecture school. They taught drafting, not design. Yet encouraged their students to continue their education at a real school of architecture. Could I even handle architecture school? After a few years of disbelief, I decided to give it a try and enrolled. 

Going to architecture school
New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) was my first choice, despite the expense and my lack of confidence. I ended up going to Boston Architectural College (The BAC) which allowed me to work full time and attend school at night. The BAC wasn’t as much of an investment. Despite this, I wasn't sure if I would ever graduate. I believed I lacked a lot of resources to complete architecture school, and had a very little academic track record. I wasn't completely sure what I was getting myself into. 

All of my beliefs changed the more architecture classes I took. I surprised myself when I realized how my passion and excitement for the topic just kept growing. I truly fell in love with architecture while living in Boston. It went from a college major or a day job, to a personal obsession that kept me from sleeping. 

After two years in Boston and learning what I was actually capable of, I finally decided I needed to get out of this 40 hour a week work/study situation that I despised and decided to apply to study full-time at NYIT as an architecture student.  

I finished my education at NYIT and cannot think of how my architectural education could have been any better. I traveled to Europe several times with the school, worked on many special projects, rode my bicycle across America and made some incredible relationships.

Becoming a licensed architect
I felt I had proven myself having completed my degree thinking it stopped there. Becoming a licensed architect wasn't even a thought. I didn't think I could pass all those exam and jump through all the hoops. In fact, at one point I took a two year break from the process and wasn't sure if I would ever finish it. I was going to just let my exams expire. 

In November 2013, I realized that not finishing what I started was the source of a lot of frustration and pain. At that point I actually wanted my architecture license and felt that after all the projects and crap I had gone through, I deserved it. Just the last three exams were holding me back from having it. 

I readjusted everything I ever believed about the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE) and actually rearranged my entire life around finishing them. During this time I also mentally shifted my beliefs from seeing myself as “a really talented Architectural Intern” to “being a licensed Architect”. 

I started to very aggressively attack my remaining three exams. I spent the entire year of 2013 studying and taking them.  I even failed the Building Systems exam during this time and had to wait six months to retake it, but I passed my last test in October and had my license in December 2013. 

The Profession
Ready to hear a juicy architect confession? I actually hated working in the cubicle architecture office world for most of my years as an Intern. Sure, I was a great draftsman and a great employee, but for a long time I had hard time showing up every day. 
I believed all the negative things people say about the profession. I believed the pay sucks. I believed the premise that you work for other people your entire life and if you’re lucky you’ll get into a good firm that may let you design something. 

My attitude changed when I “zoomed out” and started to understand how my contributions played out in the big picture. They changed more when I started seeing my projects get built and then they changed completely once I started taking on a lot more responsibility and having my own clients. 

I now believe architecture is a lifestyle and there’s a lot of responsibility with being an architect. It’s not just a job. I also now believe it only rewards those who hustle. I don’t know if I can change those beliefs, after what I've seen. 

Change your beliefs
People ask me all the time “When did you know you wanted to be an architect?” and I start with  “Uhhhh…” and start blabbing about community college, but the real answer is, “One day when I was 20 years old and sick of washing dishes at a stupid chain restaurant at 1:00 am.”

My story isn't unique
Shortly before I graduated architecture school, I realized one day that I was one of many who had a similar story. Several of the most talented architecture students in my program were also in special education programs and struggled significantly with their education prior to arriving at architecture school. Thankfully my education prior to architecture school had very little influence over the direction of my life. 

I share all these stories because when I changed my beliefs about what I could achieve, it unlocked so many other areas of my life. Every one of us is capable of achieving much more then we believe we ever could. 

Michael Riscica


  1. A really beautiful and honest retrospective story.

    Architecture is a most noble profession. All the elements of art, engineering, perspective, and site become harmonious when the execution hits the marks. You know it when you see and experience it. Built structures live beyond one's life and can be inspiring and everlasting pieces of history. A heavy burden, for sure!


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