From Architect to Educator: The Inspiring Journey of Mimi Van Kirk | Member Spotlight

Mimi Van Kirk’s journey from architect to teacher is a compelling narrative that resonates with architects, designers, and educators alike. Moving from Chicago to California during high school, Van Kirk’s exposure to her father’s civil engineering work and her mother’s interior design magazines planted the seeds of her architectural career. Her path, defined by a decision in high school to switch from drama classes to architectural drafting classes, set the stage for a remarkable professional journey.  

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Early Influences and Educational Foundations

Mimi’s exposure to the world of design began with her father, a civil engineer sent to California to start up a branch office to oversee design of San Jose sewage treatment plant and the secondary wastewater treatment facility for EBMUD. This, coupled with an increasing interest in architecture, subtly directed her to apply only to colleges offering Architecture or Interior Design.

Admission to Cal Poly, SLO and the years that followed solidified her passion for the field. She easily embraced the school’s motto of Learn by Doing. The hands-on experience resonated with her and later surfaced in her teaching years.

Navigating Professional Challenges

Entering the workforce during a recession in the 1980s presented its own set of challenges. Mimi persevered, securing roles with firms like Mackinlay, Winnacker, McNeil in Oakland and Bernard Stein, Architect in San Francisco. However, her life took a turn after the birth of her first child and wanting to prioritize family she took an indefinite hiatus from the workforce in 1989.

During this period, Mimi’s dedication to architecture found expression in consulting jobs and maintaining a balance between home and work life. Her tenure with Friedman Brueggemeyer, Design Build in Berkeley stands out as a cherished chapter.

The 2008 recession brought fresh hurdles, revealing the evolving landscape of the architectural profession. Mimi found herself at a crossroads, recognizing the impact of not embracing emerging technologies like computer-aided design (CAD) on her career.

Pivotal Shift Towards Education

In an unexpected turn of events, Mimi’s journey took a remarkable shift. Spotting an opportunity on Craigslist, Christmas night, she stumbled upon a position to teach architecture and engineering to high school students, something she had always thought she would enjoy.

Mimi was hired by Mission Valley Regional Occupational Program (MVROP) in Fremont to launch a new Civil Engineering and Architecture course at the MVROP Center and an Introduction to Engineering Design course at James Logan High School in Union City. Both were courses from Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a curriculum developed to offset the lack of young people entering those fields, relative to available jobs existing in America.

Creating Impact Through Education

Mimi found the curriculum to be a good guide, but had many stimulating ideas, based on her Cal Poly studio experience and work experience, to integrate into the program. Her goal was to create a comfortable environment where students could experience the spirit of fun and creativity, of collaboration and support, of respect and challenge and of curiosity and desire; all components she associated with the profession.

Through many varied assignments, including design projects, sketching, hand drafting, structural concepts, cost estimating, universal design, sustainability, heat loss and gain, storm water run-off, wood frame construction and extensive practice using Revit, Mimi is pleased to have been able to give the students a good overview of these fields and most importantly, a chance to, “Learn by Doing”, and see if the work resonated with them.

Mimi’s commitment to her students extended beyond the classroom as she actively facilitated internships and connected them with industry professionals. The class had generous support from several in the community, many of them EBAIA members; Theresa Ballard (Pyatok Associates), Thuy Fontelara (Elements Structural Engineers), Shabnam Jahangiri (LCA Architects), Ramiro Torres (TOPA Architecture), Jon Larsen (Jarvis Architects), Wally Gordon (DLM Architecture), Ken Beebee (BART).

Mimi estimates that between 800 to 1000 students went through her program, and shares hundreds of success stories of students pursuing architecture and engineering at prestigious institutions and finding careers in architecture, validating the program’s efficacy.

Current Pursuits and Future Endeavors

As Mimi embarks on a new chapter at Chabot College this coming January, teaching architectural graphics, her enthusiasm remains undiminished. Her journey from architect to educator is a testament to the possibilities that unfold when passionate professionals invest in the education of future architects and designers.

Mimi Van Kirk’s narrative echoes the sentiment that life’s twists and turns can lead to unexpected and fulfilling destinations. Her commitment to education has not only shaped her own story but has left an indelible mark on the lives of students fortunate enough to cross paths with this dedicated architect-turned-educator.

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