Is Pregnancy a Barrier to Success in Architecture? Examining Challenges Faced by Expecting Mothers
Becoming a licensed architect is NOT an easy journey, and the AREs are notorious for being extremely challenging.
But what would you do if someone told you that you must be bedridden and aren’t allowed to study for the AREs?
That’s exactly what happened to Harp Cosgrove.
We all know that tests are hard, so it can be heartbreaking to have something happen that can turn your world upside down while studying. Today, I’m honored to share Harp’s incredible story about her ARE journey, becoming a mom, her challenges, and how her perseverance shone through.
Harp Cosgrove is from central California. She started her undergrad up in Fresno, and then she came down to NewSchool of Architecture in San Diego, where she finished her degree in architecture and worked for some fantastic companies like RadLab and The MillerHull Partnership.
Following graduation, she worked with Architects HGW before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she really found her voice and place in architecture. Some unexpected life events led Harp and her husband, Bill, to move back to her hometown in Fresno, California a couple of years after. After getting used to their new life and welcoming a baby girl, Harp went back to school to get her license. Since then Harp has completed her CSE and received her Architect’s License in California.
When Harp’s not busy working, you’ll find her baking sugar cookies with royal icing or spending time outdoors with her husband, daughter, and dog.
Harp grew up on a grape and almond farm in Sanger, Fresno. Despite all the open space and no architectural buildings, her passion for architecture started at nine years old. "A family friend had a daughter who went to school for architecture. She had all these models in her house, and I remember thinking it was so cool that she got to make doll houses for school." Harp jokingly recalls.
Harp was a straight-A student in high school at the top of her class. As someone with so much ambition and drive, it seemed strange to her that she didn't have any clear plans after she graduated. She finished high school during a recession, so getting into any college was hard for her. A family friend put her in touch with the head of a small program at Fresno City College. It was her first time hearing about accredited schools, NCARB, and what it means to be an architect. And she loved all of it.
"That's when I finally understood everything," says Harp.
TAKING A BREAK
“The exams are a marathon, not a sprint.“
After grad school in NewSchool, Harp got engaged and married and felt she needed a breather. She ended up waiting a few years before starting to study for the AREs because she knew that once she started, she wanted to give it her all and not stop until she was done.
Harp explains how the break she took was CRITICAL.
“I knew it would be better just to take a breather after years of intense design school and prepare myself for the next step. I’m so glad that I did it that way.”
She talks about how she realized that you could plan everything and tell yourself how you will do it, but sometimes you forget that big things can happen simultaneously, making it hard to deal with them all at once.
Architecture school takes so much of our energy and attention from friends and family; diving right into the exams can do the same. It makes sense to take a short break, work, and enjoy every step along the way as you go after your goals.
STUDYING FOR THE EXAMS
After she and her husband moved to Philadelphia, she knew that was the time she wanted to start studying for her exams and work toward getting her license.
She planned to take them in only six to twelve months. She started at the end of 2019 and then had one unexpected failure. "It really threw me off for a little while. It taught me how to work with what I have," Harp says. Soon after, she had to stop studying because of difficulties with her pregnancy, even though she only had two more exams left (PPD and PDE) and was ready to take them.
Sadly, Harp had hyperemesis throughout her pregnancy. Initially, it was so advanced that she couldn't even look at her phone without feeling sick. After being rushed to the emergency room at eight weeks, the doctors told her she couldn't spend a single calorie on anything but making her baby. When she heard that, she put everything on hold. She recalls,
“It was so soul-crushing. I was already reaching a good point in my career, getting comfortable in the office; everything was falling into place, and having to take a step back from all of it abruptly and unexpectedly was a tough pill to swallow.”
Harp talks about how that time in her life made her realize how important it is to keep work and identity separate and to take a deeper look at who we REALLY are. “Architecture is personal,” she says. “It’s basically saying “my idea is THE idea.” I agree with everything she says. As architects, we really put much of ourselves into our designs and jobs. We must learn how to keep our work and personal lives separate to embrace our situations fully.
Her postpartum journey wasn’t a walk in the park either. After such a complicated pregnancy, it was hard to learn how to be a mom, care for a baby, and figure out who she was outside of architecture. In addition to missing work and the COVID pandemic still going on, Harp recalls feeling alone most of the time while adjusting to the stay-at-home mom life for a whole year. “It was challenging to accept all of it and say; this is where I am now. We can decide to keep going or to walk away. Whichever way we go, it’ll be okay.” Harp says.
It's hard enough to study for the AREs but even harder to do so while learning how to be a parent. So if you’re a new parent or a parent with young kids, go easy on yourself!
Assess your time
You don’t need 30 hours a week to study. With a baby, making a daily schedule to study is impossible. Once you have a baby, your brain will be divided forever, half on the baby and the other half on everything else. You have to be honest with yourself about how much time you have. Do you have days off? How many hours in those days will you be free? How can the hours be used? “Realistically, I can make a million schedules, but my baby’s going to do what she’s going to do, and I really can’t control that,” she says.
Study what you know you haven’t covered.
If you've been studying already, you've probably covered many topics. All you really need to do is brush up on your knowledge and dive deeper into the details. Harp recalls spending only 4 hours a week studying because that’s all her free time. If you’re working, you're already learning a whole bunch of stuff through daily practice! At the end of the day, these are words and things that we know, use, and see. So, even if you've decided to start studying later, you've already done some studying at work.
If you’re like Harp and I, your mind is ALWAYS ticking. Even when we moms say we won't do the laundry or dishes, we end up doing them anyway! Harp also suggests leaving the house for a few hours and studying at a coffee shop. You'll have fewer things to distract you, a hot cup of coffee, and the drive itself is a great way to decompress.
Another great tip Harp gives in this interview is to check out forums and see what people say are the most likely test topics. The list that NCARB gives out is ENDLESS. So try to focus on the topics that will most likely get picked up.
Create a system
Harp had a way of trying to learn more about things she didn't know yet. She would put a 1, 2, or 3 next to every question she asked. 1 means she's read enough on the topic, 2 means she needs to study up, and 3 means she doesn't know. She would brush up on the 2s as quickly as possible, and then she would study the 3s for as long as needed.
Don’t stick to the NCARB list
Expand where you’re getting your knowledge. Harp says you shouldn't just use the sources on the NCARB list. If you can, watch YouTube videos and even listen to podcasts! It would be best to look into what everyone says about the subject.
It IS possible not to spend every waking moment studying and still pass. The key is EFFICIENCY. Parenthood forces you to release perfection even if you don’t want to, and it creates efficiency because you have to. It creates a fire in you to get things done as quickly as possible because you don’t want to be too focused away from family.
If you’re in your 20s or 30s, are in the middle of reviewing, and want to start your own family. Honestly, it is a challenge, but we should embrace the other beautiful things we want to do in life. The most essential thing Harp says is,
"Don't let your job take over your life."
In architecture school, we're used to putting everything and everyone on hold, going to the studio, and just designing. But that isn't how you should go about the exams. Exams are a part of life and not your WHOLE life. The best thing you can do is incorporate the exams into life. Know that exams will always be there and you'll have other things going on. Plan around them as best you can, and try to be as dedicated as you can when you get to that point.
PASSING THE EXAMS
Harp's last test was in December, and she had a great stamp party to celebrate passing! With all of her family, friends, and the cutest stamp cake ever! Harp jokes that it's normal to feel like, "Okay, what now?" after finishing the exams and that it's hard to unlearn studying habits and have fun again.
I remember when I passed my exams and expected a whole shift after getting my license, but life just went on. I had to force myself to celebrate and consciously appreciate where I was at the moment. Looking back, I realize I wanted to be in the position I am in right now, and I have to remind myself of that. Celebrate every milestone and be grateful for what’s GREAT in the NOW.
BEING A MOM
NCARB reached out to her to speak on her experience and Harp was so proud to shed some light on how different the licensure experience can be when it overlaps with major life events. You can read her article here. Harp’s story resonated with so many people that she wrote an open letter to mothers. The statistics of women and moms not passing the AREs shocked her and inspired her to write the open letter. Her goal was to encourage and empower women who feel like they have to choose between career and family.
One of the hardest things to do is to be a mom. So, adding architecture school or the AREs on top of that can be demanding. We undergo physiological, emotional, and mental changes when we have a baby. So hearing encouraging words from someone who has been through the same things can be just the push someone needs to get to that finish line.
Harp’s story is probably one of the most inspiring and relatable stories I’ve ever heard, and I’m so glad I got to talk to her. Being a mom and going through architecture is a challenge, but she is living proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other.
Thank you, everyone, for tuning in this week for this beautiful and uplifting story. I hope it inspired a fellow architect or mom as much as it inspired me.
Remember, it won’t be easy, but it’s totally possible and WORTH IT.
Feel free to reach out to Harp or me if you have any questions, need someone's brain to pick, or want to dive deeper into the whole topic of being a parent throughout the craziness of the AREs. Thank you so much, and I will talk to you next week!
Connect with Harp on LinkedIn or Instagram @har_preet
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