Building a Strong Foundation: COD Alumni Praise Architecture Program for Laying Groundwork for Strong Skillsets

Michelle Binet

By Angela Mennecke

After earning a Pre-Architecture associate’s degree at College of DuPage, Michelle Binet transferred to Illinois Institute of Technology to complete her bachelor’s degree. While she says she felt prepared for the transition academically, the class sizes, compared to COD, were jarring.  

“IIT is a great school, but the classes can be so large that the professor might not know who you are or if you even came to class that day,” she said. “The professors in the COD Architecture program, specifically Jane Ostergaard and Mark Pearson, created a studio family. They created the foundation that I needed to push myself to be a better student and to stand on my own when I transferred.”

Binet now works at AECOM, a global engineering firm headquartered in Los Angeles, as a lab designer in the science and technology department, working with high profile clients such as Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation and DOW Chemical.

“If not for the faculty at COD guiding me along the way, I don't know where I would be in my career,” she said.

COD Architecture program Coordinator and Professor Jane Ostergaard says that providing individualized attention to each student is what makes the program unique. Her motivation stems from her own college experience.

“When I was a freshman in college, the architecture faculty brought me and my classmates into a lecture hall to give us an overview of the program and discuss expectations,” she said. “The program chair said, ‘Look to your right and to your left. Only one of you will graduate.’ And that was being generous because there were 90 students in my freshman class and only 14 of us graduated four years later.”

While some large university and college architecture programs have a cut-throat attitude, Ostergaard and her fellow COD Architecture program faculty are focused on inclusion and helping each student reach their fullest potential.

“We aren’t lowering the bar,” Ostergaard said. “We are giving students the tools they need to succeed to ensure they meet that bar. After leaving COD, students are going to be going into a program that has that intense competition, but we help them get there and achieve great success.”

Michael Sandrzyk, a recent COD Architecture program graduate, says the program’s educational standards parallel any prestigious university.

“The COD Architecture program is competitive, if not better, then most universities in the country,” he said. “When you transition to a four or five-year professional degree, you don't feel like you're behind and in a rush to catch up. In fact, I often found myself ahead of my peers.”

Sandrzyk works at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture in Chicago, specializing in mid-rise commercial and mixed-use design. He’s currently working on designing a 46-story office building in Toronto, as well as a performance theater on the north side of Chicago.

“COD provided me with the insight and resources I needed to push forward within the profession, and I haven't looked back since,” he said.

Kristina Sutulaite discovered that the hands-on experience was one of the Architecture program’s biggest assets.

“My professors made sure that every project allowed for my peers and I to explore our strengths while enhancing our understanding,” she said. “Most of what I learned was put to the test when I was asked to design and build models, create actual structures and demonstrate my understanding through physical materials. Not only was this the best method of comprehension, but I was faced with tasks and questions that pertain to architects every day.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sutilaite landed a job as a design assistant for Soucie Horner, Ltd., working on both residential and commercial projects.

“I finished my journey at COD with much more than I imagined the school could offer me,” she said. “Not only has my passion for architecture reached new heights, but I learned time management, networking and problem-solving skills that are going to carry me through the remainder of my professional and personal life.”

Students gain not only career success from the program, but also a network and community of support.

“The COD community extends COD and we really emphasize this point,” Architecture Professor Mark Pearson said. “Not only do we invite alumni back each year for portfolio reviews, but every year, I bring students, who are transferring or thinking about transferring, to tour architecture studios and connect them with students and faculty in the department. They get pointers on the transition from COD to a big university.”

John Benoit, a licensed architect at EWP Architects in Oakbrook got his start at COD, and while several years have passed, he still feels a strong connection to the COD community.

“The COD Architecture program became the essential foundation in my life,” he said. “I learned my profession. I made the connection that got my first job. I met my wife and graduated debt-free in two years with the skills I needed to finish my degree at the top of my class. It’s unbelievable how tiny the world is and how connected our little COD family is becoming. I can't go two weeks without finding another connection, not to mention we now have three COD alumni working together in our office.”

Jairo Ortega, who serves on the COD Architecture program advisory committee, works as a construction manager for a real estate development company. He credits COD’s tight-knit community for his career success.

“Since graduating from COD, and with the help of the COD architecture faculty, the architecture community continues to keep in touch and help the next generation of architects,” Ortega said. “We continue to share our ideas and experiences to motivate each other to be the best that we can be. Outside of COD, I continue to successfully spread this sense of open-community at home and at work to develop teams for personal and professional endeavors. If it wouldn’t have been for COD and its community I wouldn’t be the leader that I am today.”

The Architecture program at COD provides students with the artistic, technical, technological and theoretical expertise necessary for careers and further education in architecture and related fields. Students can choose between a number of degree and certificate programs that will enable them to pursue careers and upgrade skills in a variety of disciplines. In addition, the program includes pre-architecture programs that offer affordable tracks toward earning advanced degrees from baccalaureate-granting or professional architecture programs.

Learn more about the COD Architecture program

Picture caption: Michelle Binet earned her pre-Architecture associate's degree from COD and now works at a global engineering firm, AECOM.