When Liliya Luhavaya entered the Coalition of Community College Architecture Programs’ national design contest this spring, she was hoping she would be chosen as one of the top contestants. When she found out that she won first place in one of the country’s only design contests for community college students, she could hardly believe it.
“I was so surprised...I think I read the message from Professor David Bertram five times to be sure that I understood it right," said Liliya.
Looking at the detailed renderings of her design, it’s no surprise that Liliya earned first place. But producing such high-quality work for her class was no simple task since she only learned English in the last few years.
Originally from Belarus, Liliya moved to the United States in 2018 after her husband obtained a green card through a diversity lottery. She explained that she “decided to leave Belarus many years ago because […] the political situation is very bad.” Liliya can even remember a time when she was young when food had to be rationed.
When she came to America, Liliya settled down in a Russian-speaking community near Northeast Philadelphia. She first started practicing her English while working as a truck driver with a friend who spoke a little bit of English. “He always pushed me to speak with someone [the people] in the warehouses, and I was very scared, but it helped me to start to speak English,” she said.
Liliya then completed a series of English as a Second Language classes at Community College of Philadelphia before beginning her program in Architecture, Design and Construction. Although she had pursued a different career path when she was living in Belarus, Liliya had an interest in architecture since middle school, and decided to use her move to America as an opportunity to pivot.
“In middle school we had a [hand] drafting course,” said Liliya. “We didn't have computers or cell phones. I was so impressed with hand drafting. I liked it so much that I helped all my classmates who needed help. I decided that I should be an architect and I should build my career in something like this.”
When Liliya applied to the national design contest, her own experiences made her well-equipped to respond to the contest prompt. Contestants were tasked to create a “Center for Conversation” where people “experience community through conversation and shared experiences.” It was encouraged that the center be a space for formal dialogue, casual conversations, and individual reflection. […] to encourage a community that inspires creativity and tolerance of all.”
Liliya designed a space made of rounded, organic shapes which would symbolically smooth all the “sharp corners which exist between people and inhibit open dialogue.” The building features a library, meeting rooms, a gallery, a courtyard, a green roof, green walls for air purification, rainwater collection technology, a playground, sustainable building materials and more. She created both a detailed digital rendering (pictured right) and a physical model.
Of her creation, Liliya explained, “My main influence is my move from [Belarus] to the United States, because in the United States, [there are] really a lot of different cultures and a lot of different people. It's important to gather them together to create communication between them.”
Liliya also described her experience at the College as an example of how a Center for Conversation should be. She credited helpful professors like Patricia Valdez for empowering her to use the knowledge she learned in her ESL classes across disciplines. When she was putting together her submission, she had a community of professors to advise and guide her, especially professor Michael Stern, professor Ariel Vazquez and professor David Bertram.
In fact, when her tutor recently asked Liliya what place feels like home to her in the United States, the College was the first place to come to mind. "For me nowadays, it's CCP because it's a really friendly atmosphere,” she said. “There are friendly people, friendly professors, friendly students, and I always find someone to [talk to]. It's something like the Center for Conversation. It gets people from different generations [and] from different cultures together and creates something that they can do together and [a place where they can] grow together.”