Mathematics graduate Afina Fayez hopes to help diversify the architecture field

by | May 28, 2024

An Opportunity Scholar, Fayez is headed to the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis this fall.
Afina Fayez

Afina Fayez, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a minor in studio art, will be studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis this fall. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Afina Fayez recently spent some time wandering around downtown St. Louis and taking a close look at all the buildings.

As Fayez and her future classmates in the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis walked around, they considered ways to revamp certain buildings and drive growth in the city. She found herself growing nostalgic for the architecture of the past – something that’s serving as a major inspiration as she embarks on her own career in the field.

“I feel like a lot of the designs nowadays are just made for practicality, and aesthetics kind of went away,” Fayez said. “A lot of the buildings downtown are still maintaining that kind of design. As long as it’s useful, it works – there is not an artistic touch for a lot of stuff nowadays. But it’s not always about just the practicality – it’s the place you’re living in.”

Fayez, who graduated from the University of Missouri–St. Louis earlier this month with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in studio art, purposely chose to stay in St. Louis for grad school in order to serve the community and stay close to her family, who immigrated to St. Louis from Bangladesh in 2016.

She enrolled at UMSL as part of the Pierre Laclede Honors College Opportunity Scholars Program, which provides an all-inclusive four-year scholarship and residential package to top St. Louis-area high school students who are underrepresented in their chosen field or are the first in their family to enroll in college.

“As an immigrant, I already came from a pretty low-income family,” she said. “My parents were supportive in saying that they would be able to pay for college, but I knew that was not possible for them. I’m so grateful to UMSL for getting an opportunity to study and get out without any loans. Once I got accepted into the Opportunity Scholars program, it was set in stone for me that UMSL would be my choice.”

Fayez found the campus to be extremely welcoming during her visits, and she enjoyed the small class sizes and closeknit community of the Honors College. As a student, she got involved on campus as a member of the Muslim Students Association, serving as treasurer from 2022 to 2023. She and the rest of the leadership team focused on introducing additional programming to increase involvement on campus, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group collaborated with the Indian Student Association on a Ramadan dinner that saw a large turnout and hosted National Hijab Day on February 1, which was selected as the best cultural awareness program at that year’s Student Leadership Awards.

Fayez initially started out as a physics major at UMSL but felt her passion for the subject start to wane over time, especially as classes moved online during the pandemic. Since she was already minoring in math, she began taking extra math courses and ended up enjoying the classes so much that she switched her major. The minor in studio art was a way to give in to a much-loved hobby since childhood and learn the different techniques and skills she’d need to work as an artist.

Architecture was a natural way for Fayez to combine her interest in math and love of art, and she only grew more interested as she began researching the field. She found that many designs, particularly for public restrooms, are not as inclusive or accessible as they should be. She also learned that only 17% of licensed architects are women – and women of color are even more underrepresented in the field – and felt compelled to push for more representation.

“I feel like we need more people in the fields that are more aware of some of the issues that people will face, instead of just being a specific demographic,” she said. “Having people like that definitely helps to create more inclusive spaces. That could mean a place of gathering, a place of community. I feel like we’re slowly getting a little bit more towards the individualistic side and forgetting that we are, at the end of the day, a community and everybody needs to come together for something to happen. Trying to do that through architecture would probably be one of my main goals.”

As she looks ahead to starting architecture school in August, Fayez feels like her experience at UMSL has set her up well for her next steps. The smaller class sizes allowed her to get more hands-on experience and one-on-one time with professors, and she feels that being pushed out of her comfort zone – particularly in social settings coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic – has prepared her well for interacting in the professional world.

“I feel like a lot of the application process, a lot of the stress about grad school, got mitigated because I’ve had that experience at UMSL,” she said. “I really got the help from all the professors that I needed; they were there for every step of the way to get me through to apply and get accepted. Even now, they’re very supportive of the things that I’m going to do in the future.”

Faculty members including David Covert, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Mathematics; Kate Votaw, an associate teaching professor in the Honors College; and Ann Torrusio, formerly an associate teaching professor in the Honors College, all proved to be pivotal mentors for Fayez, offering advice, answering questions and helping with letters of recommendation.

While Fayez is still in a little bit of shock that her four years at UMSL have come to a close, she’s looking forward to returning to campus often and maintaining connections with the Honors College and Opportunity Scholars program. She wants to pay it forward both to the community at UMSL and in St. Louis more broadly, as she felt immediately welcomed upon immigrating to the city nearly a decade ago.

“Getting that welcoming feeling from people was a big memory for me,” she said. “And I still feel like there’s so much the community needs overall from us. I really want to stay back and help the people out. As much as it is a beautiful city, there’s a lot of issues that we also need to resolve as time goes, and housing is definitely one of those. I think architecture plays into that, so working on those projects would be another one of my goals for sure. Knowing that St. Louis is home to a lot of immigrants, I’m really trying to give back and serve the community more than what I already have done at UMSL.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske

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