Profile: Oswaldo Rivera-Ortiz, Assoc. AIA
Oswaldo Rivera-Ortiz is combining the best of two callings – architecture and teaching. Born into a hardworking family in Puerto Rico, he earned his bachelor’s in environmental design in his homeland at the University of Puerto Rico and got his master’s in architecture at the University of Southern California, while traveling the world. But he graduated into the Great Recession, and the twists of life led him into teaching. After a decade working as a bilingual teacher and an architecture instructor at Richardson ISD, he is venturing into CityLab High School’s Urban Planning program, opening students’ eyes daily to the wonder of the life ahead of them.
To paraphrase David Byrne, how did you get here? What kind of choices or opportunities led you to where you are today?
First of all, thanks for allowing me to share my story. I’m humbled by your interest in what a high school teacher does.
I studied architecture at la Universidad de Puerto Rico starting in 2002 and graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s in environmental design. I got an amazing opportunity for a year studying abroad in Seville, Spain.
Life opened a door to complete a master’s at the University of Southern California in L.A., where I had the opportunity to do projects in China, as well as do my own study abroad program for a semester. I was offered admission in Barcelona, Spain, and Aalto’s University in Espoo, Finland. Since I’d been to Spain already, I picked Finland. Later that summer of 2008, I interned at Arquiprojecta, a firm in Lisboa, Portugal, under architects Conceição and Dante Macedo. Those years were full of opportunities to grow my interest in community design, respecting diversity of perspectives and experiences. The future looked very promising.
After finishing your master’s at USC, what prompted the move to Texas?
As you know, in 2009 the economy was on the floor. I had a friend whose uncle knew someone in San Diego, so I moved close to the border in January of 2010 and volunteered for the city of San Diego for half a year, waiting for a job to come up. Nothing happened. I thought well, let me do something else in the meanwhile to pay my loans. I like kids. I like teaching. I coached youth swimming for years, and played water polo with different age groups, so I looked into Teach for America. I did interviews and didn’t get anything in California; then I saw Texas had a similar alternative certification program called TTF.
With a teacher’s pay I was able to pay my loans, so I came to Dallas. I met my wife in that program, and I became a bilingual second grade teacher in September 2010. I was an elementary school teacher, after seven years of architecture school. “Designing” kids’ future now, right? Designing future citizens!
It was a lot of social work. There are a lot of hardships, a lot of kids with very harsh backgrounds, some kids with drugs and violence in their families, some kids with immigration and deportation in their family. You get to see the real face of hardship.
And then I felt the call, you know what? You need to go back to architecture.
I had a friend in Dallas ISD who was teaching architecture, high school architecture. In the middle of the year, he said, hey, my colleague is leaving — I need someone. I think you will be great. I'm thinking I'm teaching first grade right now, I am the PTA president because there are no parents involved, and I cannot leave in the middle of the year. I cannot leave my kids.
A year and a half later, he says the same thing. I am the one leaving now; I need someone to take up my program. This time I felt the calling and didn’t hesitate too much. I got the job, but also I was about to have my second baby. I asked in Richardson, and they created a new position, so I landed in Richardson High School. They helped me out, trusted me, and that truly meant a lot.
Is there a teacher that had the most impact on you? That shapes how you teach?
Yes, definitely, one architecture teacher. His name is Elio Martinez Joffre, AIA. In Puerto Rico he was a studio professor. During my time he had the only community-design studio on campus, called Taller Comunitario (Community Workshop). One of the projects that I really loved was an eco-resort, in an area that was protected, close to Donald Trump’s golf course. They wanted to develop this area — this big green area between the rain forest, the only American tropical rainforest — and the coast, the gorgeous beaches, called Corredor Ecológico del Noreste. Now again, it's threatened because of the economy, a lot of American companies are trying to get to Puerto Rico and develop. Along with Joffre, we proposed an alternative eco-resort that could preserve the natural identity of this area and the cultural and economic foundation of the locals.
But what really struck a chord with me was that this community-design work connected with my vocation of helping others. Since I was little, my parents were always helping people, always willing to go in the middle of the night to help anyone that was in need, leave everything to give of their time, money, talent, even to people who didn’t treat them well. It became my passion to learn about the needs of communities who could benefit from my work.
What was their vocation?
My dad had a small cafeteria — a cook and business guy — for 32 years. My mom has been a secretary for 42 years working for ConAgra and now for Arden Mills, which processes and packs grain at the ports. They're both from a beautiful town in the countryside called Orocovis in the mountains, where I’m proud to be from. I grew up going every weekend to the river and fishing with my hands under the rocks. My parents grew up in poverty but in a gorgeous green mountainous area. My dad was able to buy a little piece of land, right where he was born. He's an ‘engineer without a title’, as he’s always building things for the kids, our family and friends alike, like a zip line across the river and a suspension bridge. My brother and I are who we are today thanks to their strong work ethic and love of others.
Do you have a typical student? Are they reflective of the community?
At Richardson we have about 60% Hispanic, 25% white, and the rest is black, Asian, Hawaiian, etc. Even though 60% is Hispanic, within Hispanics there are differences; you have second- and third-generation Americans and many of them came to the U.S. not long ago. So there's a good mix. I just got eight students who have been in the states just a few months and are eager to learn and be part of our community. That combined with students whose families are longtime Texans or from the South, some refugees, some military. … I believe RHS reflects Dallas’ beautiful diversity. I wish (and work for) that we all embraced that more.
Is architecture an aspiration for them? Or are they just taking it because it's a cool class?
Close to half of the kids are there because the counselors put them there based on an aptitude test or interest in construction. My class is an elective, not a magnet. I would say half, or more than half, are interested somehow or just want to see what it is. At a magnet program you select kids from a list, but in an elective you get many kids who are not interested, just placed there.
Do the other half become interested?
Some of them. Even some of the ones that couldn’t care less on day one, and the opposite happens as well. Some of the kids that thought, yeah, I want this, they realized, oh, this is too much work, or I just thought it was drafting, and materials and colors … what is this? The good thing is they save thousands of dollars learning it’s not for them in high school — for free!
What is your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for every teacher these days is distractions. No. 1 is the cellphone, of course.
No. 2 is the balance between the two types of students. I'm not a magnet, many kids don't travel to me wanting to be here. How do I teach high quality when half of the kids need something different? In the end, around 10% to 15% of my kids do go to study architecture. But the rest study related fields or come away with a basic understanding of what a design career offers, and that makes the challenges easier to tackle.
If you could wave a magic wand and only get the kids who are interested, would you do that?
I would do half and half. I would keep the kids really interested in one group, give another two or three courses for the ones who are not into it. Magnet programs are very good in certain things. But they discard so much talent; that’s because the kid who doesn't have an 80% or more in their classes can’t be part of that program. I see why they want to pick and choose; it's a great thing for the bar to be raised higher, but at the same time, I have had so many kids who didn’t engage in any class. That's why their grades sucked. And now they have engaged with us and are thriving in college.
Some of my kids just engaged because we do a bunch of field trips. In architecture, by nature, you have to experience the buildings and the city. We bring in the community as that glue; engaging the kids and serving the community. We have designed the Board of Trustees homecoming parade float three years running; we also designed outdoor community learning spaces for five Richardson schools. three of those projects won an Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) Impact Award grant — we got first and third place and it was designed by high school kids! Imagine some of those students go on different professions and bring these experiences with them… what an impact they can make!
What is your biggest success so far?
Personally, trusting God with my career, my family and all. I never thought I would have a family of four kids seven years into my marriage!
Professionally, a high school student I had my first year of teaching at Richardson HS was not the best student, he was not the most responsible, but he was interested. On the way back from a trip to Oklahoma’s colleges of architecture, he shared, “I wish somebody had told me to do better when I was in ninth or
10th grade.” In my head I was like I’m pretty sure teachers told you, but you know, nobody that you will listen to, no one that clicked. As a junior, he went with me on a two-day trip to Texas Tech, and he fell in love with it. He didn’t have the grades to get in. But he went to a smaller college preparing to transfer, and a year ago he texted me saying he got into Texas Tech for architecture. Knowing his family, his struggles, and his drive, this makes all the work worth it.
Another is my school community engagement. Richardson HS and the principals are trustworthy — they give me the budget I need, they give me permission to do so many field trips. It is amazing that they’re so flexible. And I guess it’s because the things that the kids do and produce are trustworthy, right? That trust is there. The other side of the coin is the professionals. For example, last fall we had about 25 architects come in to give feedback to the kids in just one week; every quarter we have five or more architects coming for a jury. The more than 100 professionals we have engaged with do make a difference. I do a survey as part of the final test. The kids many times say what they love is that they were in front of the professionals and they were so nervous. They're thankful that they had that opportunity to get it out of their system. I have one student who just graduated and she told me: ‘If you hadn't asked me to present in front of teachers, in front of professionals, I am so shy I would not feel so confident right now.’ “
Finally, I’d say increasing the number of girls in the program is something I strive for. We started at 16% female five years ago and are now at 45%. Everyone is now seeing that architecture is not for boys only, and hopefully other STEM carriers will keep that trend going.
Almost all of your teaching career has been a parenting career as well. Does that change your perspective on teaching or architecture?
It takes a village. Nobody knows how true that phrase is until you step in a classroom, in a learning space, and especially a high-need learning space. I even became president of PTA because there were no parents involved. My wife and I have taught for 10 years, and we became parents in 2013. Even when we were already involved in the communities we taught at before we became parents, now that we have our little village at home, the need of having family and friends supporting us raising our kids increases the urgent need of community support every family has. Our students need to see how critical a strong community is to everyone around them to thrive. I believe architecture has a unique advantage in showing this to our students and their families, as we can make physical improvements in our built environment directly from our design and collaboration efforts. For teens, seeing is believing, and doing means being convinced that this might be for them. It answers so many questions of why their neighborhood is the way it is and why they are called to make a difference.
It doesn't sound like you have any spare time. Any hobbies?
I grew up swimming and playing water polo for 18 years, going to state level and representing my island Puerto Rico. I love sports. I have done triathlons; I did an iron man as well. I barely have time to exercise right now. My focus is on my family, my four kids and my courageous wife, and my faith journey. I need to be home. A few months ago I did this Catholic men’s program called Exodus with exercise, prayer and fraternity; in a month I lost 17 pounds from cutting out junk food. I thought I was skinny already…
I go to St. Joseph Catholic Church and I do ACTS retreats. Every year I help organize our retreat. The reason why I have done this for 10 years is in part because of the church community I love.
My wife, Carmen Diaz, works in Garland ISD teaching High School engineering. Her students won an A4LE Impact Award, which I mentioned earlier, with her colleagues who teach architecture. The downtown Dallas Park[ing] Day event, her kids won an award in 2017 – then our RHS students won the next two years.
It’s really funny because we typically don’t compete. But we both love working with teenagers, opening the doors of design-build projects, collaborating with other teachers and industry professionals, other schools and colleges. We help each other with curriculum, project ideas, and at the end, we share the passion of exposing kids from a young age to the power of design and the urgent need of community inclusion.
What questions should I have asked that I haven't asked yet?
The possibilities of collaborating. For example, at my wife's CTE High school in Garland (GRCTC), three weeks after it opened, they participated in the event Park[ing] Day Dallas. In those three weeks, they came out with an award-winning installation, not just among high schools but among professional firms. It was a collaboration between engineering, architecture, graphic arts, manufacturing, and robotics; all those kids involved, they built it, they installed it, it was amazing. They had a clear vision of what such a space could do in an urban setting, as well as a great plan to use the installation to benefit an elementary school afterwards.
The last thing I would say is engage K-12 design education! Do a project with us! It can be a one week or a one month charrette where you intervene with the kids once or twice, maybe include a site visit or video-conferences. It doesn't have to be that big of a deal. Or it can be big! Jacobs just engaged our 2nd & 3rd year students in a semester long Federal St. Tunnel redesign project, and gave scholarships as awards. BECK helped three high schools to design and build a bench, but also did a competition with 5 teams designing a specialized school during 2 months. Gensler guided 3 teams of students designing an art installation and an interactive bench for our campus community. BC Workshop design and built 5 Little Free Libraries in high-need communities with 4 of our students, throughout a full year, in honor of the 5 officers who died in July 2016. Every student should have the opportunity to engage in collaborative projects like those.
Do you have a favorite architect?
I am not into starchitects! I like Barragan. I love colors. I love life. Architects, we will wear black until something darker comes up. Where's the color, the icon for the tropics? I need that color!
Another comes to mind as well — a type. I love community design. I love when architects engage communities, sometimes for profit, sometimes not. And that's what I try. I have learned so much from working with different communities like environmentalists, drug-embattled areas, and poverty barrios, but also from BC Workshop here in Dallas and in the Rio Grande Valley. My school’s studio Taller Comunitario does an amazing job in community design as well, which I have developed to know as my calling.
Since I was little, I felt that my calling is to help others. Based on that, instead of being in an office where I could earn more than a high school teacher, I achieve the biggest purpose for my life in a public school classroom. I have seen the impact of ‘hoods’ with lack-of-design or low-quality design, what an impact it has in people's lives, what hardships it imposes and how that crushes lives in low-income places — high-crime, high-violence places with low sense of belonging. Hardship is happening right in front of us.
Design has a say. So that's why I'm passionate about spreading the word and letting everyone know that architects are crucial in life, in urban, suburban, rural areas alike, anywhere. Look at Barcelona, how amazing it is to walk in Barcelona, Pasadena, Sevilla, Stockholm, Edinburgh, Old San Juan, Bogota, the list goes on.
Why isn't Dallas such an amazing place to walk around, with the money and the space that we have? We don't have space constraints, right? That combination of urban design, community design, and empowering the future citizens to be active game-changers, inclusiveness makers, it all boils to creating great human experiences for all. That's one of the biggest reasons I am passionate about what I do.
This interview, conducted by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, principal at BRW Architects, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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