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City Tech’s Monika Nowak Wins Competitive State-wide Vanguard Award

At an age when most girls are totally into playing with dolls, Monika Nowak knew she wanted to become an architect. “I realized that there were more than just pretty pictures behind all the beautiful houses,” she says.

“In addition to the design, I was very interested in all the technical aspects of a building,” she continues. “My desire was to learn about all aspects of building construction, including design, construction management and the technology involved.”

Fast forward a couple of decades. Nowak, now a sophomore majoring in architectural technology at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), is one of seven students, out of 93 applicants from throughout New York State, to win the coveted 2009-2010 Vanguard Award, sponsored by the Career Options Institute.

The award recognizes the accomplishments of outstanding secondary and post-secondary students, both male and female, who are enrolled in Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs that are not traditional to their gender.

In Nowak’s case, architecture, still a male-dominated field, hooked her because “without knowledge of the technical aspects of a building, we are unable to achieve successful design.”

But Nowak’s path toward City Tech’s architectural technology curriculum was neither smooth nor easy. A native of Poland, Nowak grew up in the city of Plock on the Vistula River, about 68 miles from Warsaw. She came to the U.S. for the first time at age 18 to visit her maternal grandmother who lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This was just a vacation and she returned to Poland.

But in 2000, when she was 25, she visited again. This time she decided to stay, even though her family, which included her parents and sister, were all living in Poland. The decision to leave them was daunting, but she found motivation for her decision in the “big differences between living in the U.S. and Poland.” Most specifically, she appreciated “the cultural diversity and openness” the U.S. offered. She also found Americans to be very helpful, positive and optimistic.

Once here, Nowak supported herself as a babysitter for a Polish family and as a personal assistant for an American businesswoman. She also worked for a construction company and said of it, “I liked this job so much that I knew it was time to advance.” So, encouraged by her employer, she enrolled in some English classes at Teachers College, Columbia University, and also took accounting courses at City College.

She was now at a crossroads. Should she go to college?  For a while she was helping her sister to pay for her schooling back in Poland. And when her sister completed her education, Nowak thought, “It is time to do something good for myself. I knew I could not advance and expand my knowledge and skills without going to college, especially since I was not going back to Poland.”

Today, at 35, Nowak lives with her husband in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, holds down a full-time job as an assistant project manager at Milrose Consultants, a Manhattan expediter of documents and drawings for compliance with building code and zoning requirements, and has accrued 61 credits toward the bachelor of technology degree in architectural technology.

Since beginning her journey toward her degree, Nowak’s family, especially her husband’s parents, has been her greatest support. As she puts it, “Everyone is very proud of me, which gives me motivation to go for what I like best.” And Lia Dikigoropoulou, her architectural technology professor, describes her as “one of the top students in our department. She is extremely focused, mature, dedicated, and performs very well.”

With an eye toward the future, Nowak realizes that she has to be “familiar with the newest materials and design trends, including sustainability design as this will have a big impact on the environment.”  She knows that a design project encompasses “more than just blueprints and drawings. It must also include specifications for materials, scheduling and means and methods of construction to assure the safety of the building.”

Looking ahead, Nowak would like to work as an architect with a company that specializes in the restoration and renovation of existing New York City landmark buildings. She notes that this “would be the best way to use my technical and design skills.”

In speaking about her architectural technology classes at City Tech, Nowak praises her professors as being a “big part of this [learning] process,” with many of them providing “great inspiration for my design projects.”

Nowak knows that “in architecture we have to wear many hats, like in real life. I think women can handle this juggling of responsibilities best as we often have to shift our priorities between family and career to make sure we keep both under control.”

In addressing her choice of a nontraditional career as a female in architecture, she explains that “nontraditional choices are important for the 21st century workplace as changes in society and gender roles are shifting.” She emphasizes that “we should be allowed to do the job we like,” and continues, “People have different characters and skills, and thus can perform different types of work that are not necessarily gender specific.”

Based on her very positive experience, she advises other students considering nontraditional careers to “pursue your dream and choose a career you will be happy with.”  And in referring to the City Tech architectural technology program, she acknowledges that “this program opens so many possibilities for future work in the architect’s office, building management and even in the construction field office.”  She concludes, “There is always space to grow; especially with the technology advancements that can help us to develop our skills.”


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