Grad School Q&A: Michael Spory ’11, architecture

Michael Spory ‘11 finished his photography and art degree at EMU and applied to graduate programs in architecture, then realized he needed a break. He deferred admission, traveled and worked in media communications before beginning studies in Iowa State University’s three-year professional Master of Architecture program. He is now an architectural designer in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the design and engineering firm Stantec.

What has been your post-EMU studies and/or career path?

In my senior year at EMU, I applied to graduate programs to study architecture. (Although I had never even taken an architectural design course, I had ended up with all the necessary prerequisites.) I got accepted, but was burnt out and almost completely broke, so after graduation I set out with a buddy on a crazy cross-country road trip with no job lined up and less than $500 bucks to my name (God bless my parents). Somehow, while sitting at a rest stop in Montrose, Colorado, I snagged a marketing and communications position with MennoMedia (the publishing agency of Mennonite Church USA) and could thus afford groceries, rent and student loan payments for a little while. I deferred admission, spent a year learning new professional skills, regaining my academic curiosity and saving a little cash. In 2012, I enrolled at Iowa State University’s Master of Architecture program and moved halfway across the country to Ames, Iowa, hoping I’d enjoy a profession in which I had never even taken a class.

Three years, two internships, and many late nights later, I left Ames with my diploma in hand and all my earthly possessions in my car, and moved back east. During my final year at ISU, I had taught an undergraduate design studio which I thoroughly enjoyed, so when a temporary teaching position in EMU’s art department became available, I applied and was (again, somehow) offered the role.

The following year, I found a position as an architectural designer with Stantec, a large design and engineering firm with a small office in Charlottesville, Virginia, that focuses on educational design for K-12 clients. I love designing civic buildings like schools, engaging with communities to design spaces that improve learning, inspire wonder and provide opportunities for everyone, regardless of privilege. On the side, I occasionally teach and work on several side gigs in photography and design, while also studying for my licensure exams.

How did your undergraduate academic studies and professors prepare and inspire you for your graduate studies and/or current work?

The real-truth answer is this: I found that aside from professors’ expertise in their fields and research, or their own complicated lives – EMU professors cared. They cared about the world beyond themselves, about the least of these, about me as a whole person – not just a number on a class list, but as someone with potential – and their expertise and guidance helped transform this relatively unskilled farm kid into a creative professional making sense of a world desperately in need of beautiful things.

I vividly remember a conversation in the art building during my senior year, when two professors I deeply admired (who still teach there) started talking to me as if I was their peer. I was shocked, but then realized the magnitude of the gift they had given me – that I might be someone whose ideas were worth something, unrefined as they may have been. They went to bat for me, sharing wisdom and offering recommendation letters and eventually, teaching strategies when I had the unique privilege to return as a colleague.

And I started believing that as co-creators with God, we have voices to contribute in our own corners of the world, voices and hands that offer hope and beauty in spaces that can be so dim. Graduate school and my eventual architectural career would help refine those ideas, but I credit my professors at EMU for that initial reckoning, that what we do with our careers, our ideas, and our lives matters deeply, and that my design work is moving toward God’s shalom rather than just working for the one percent.

EMU helped instill in me how to be a bridge between disciplines, how to search out the unexplored gray areas, how to synthesize and integrate in the gaps to uncover the unexpected and unforeseen.

How did your extra-curricular activities prepare you?

All the stuff outside of class always felt just as important in making me feel fully human when the stress of schoolwork could be overwhelming. Staying active with intramural sports kept me sane, and getting involved with the Student Government Association (SGA) all four years helped forge new leadership, communication and networking skills (including how to lead a meeting well) that I still lean on today.

What about your experience at EMU has made you distinctive when applying to graduate school or jobs?

I have always been a bit of a Swiss-army knife, as my academic curiosity never quite fit neatly into the box of a single academic program. Because I did not initially declare a major before finally setting on photography, art and communications, EMU allowed me to take tons of diverse classes that helped in unforeseen ways (I still credit “Poetry Writing” and “Economics 1” as two of the most influential classes I have ever taken) while also developing those intangible qualities that made all the difference for me. I learned to explore writing, crafting stories and arguments alongside research and theory. I painted a mural in an airport. I researched eco-machines. I spent an earth-shaking semester on cross-cultural in South Africa and Lesotho. I drew (a lot). I was a residence hall leader. I was in a musical. I interned with the marketing department. I had breakfast with the university president. I had professors who became mentors. I helped craft my first strategic plan. I took photographs. And I found that all those little things added up to be big things – that the unknowably broad, complex and nebulous world of design was looking for students like me who had not just learned skills, but had cultivated curiosity, bridged disciplines, sought wisdom, wanted to see the world differently, and had the audacity to think they could imagine and create a world that did not yet exist. Apparently, that’s what designers do.

What attracted you to EMU?

EMU wasn’t my first choice, but it was very familiar – my three older sisters are graduates – and it felt very comfortable and welcoming for a kid who did not know what he ultimately wanted to study. I had sneakily thoughtful admissions counselors and professors who reached out after I visited, and I fell in love with the Honors program, which made it more financially feasible, though I was intensely intimidated at how smart my soon-to-be friends were. EMU felt like a place to make a go of it, and that was confirmed the moment I landed on campus – I knew it was where I was supposed to be all along.

What are some favorite memories of your time here?

Haha, oh boy. Late night procrastination trips to IHOP. Spring break trips to New Orleans to build houses. Thinking cereal was an appropriate dinner “dessert.” Dumpster diving on Friday nights. Taking intramural floor hockey WAY too seriously. Saturday brunch at the caf. When the first-ever SGA strategic plan inspired other administrative departments to craft their own. Drawing classes with charcoal and taxidermied birds. Living off the grid in the Lesotho mountains, taking bucket baths and seeing more stars than you can imagine. Taking communion from Desmond Tutu. Speaking proudly of my work during my senior art show. Not speaking for three days for an experimental social project. Food fights with housemates in our first off-campus apartment. Jumping up and down in an empty computer lab at my first grad school acceptance letter. Deep conversations with friends who would become like brothers and sisters.

If you could talk to your college-age self, what would you say about what it means to be part of the EMU community?

For me, the enduring and surprising legacy of EMU is the people it cultivated and the worldview that those people shaped in me of seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. But to college Michael, I would repeat perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, in a small and cozy office chat with incomparably wise Professor Judy Mullet as I was considering what I was to do after graduation: Follow what shimmers.

And, I would add, Follow what shimmers, when it’s easy and when it’s hard, when you are unsure of where to go next, when life falls apart, when God seems far away. Look at what is dull in the world beyond EMU, and make it shimmer.

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