11.23.2015

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

It's been over a year and a half since I started testing, but I can finally say that I'm done:  I passed the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) on Saturday.  (Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm an architect, though - until I get my papers back in the mail, calling myself an architect is still a criminal offense, as the license application itself helpfully points out.)  Here are a few thoughts about all that.

The Prep

As soon as I finished IDP, I applied for CSE eligibility.  That process took from August until October.  Once I was eligible to schedule an exam, I gave myself six weeks to study and scheduled for November.  I used the materials we had in my office:  the 2012 edition of the David Doucette suite of materials and the 2011 edition of the Archibald Woo study guide, plus some flashcards of unknown source.  I thought both sets of materials were underwhelming, to the point where I seriously considered going through them with a red pen and mailing the results back to the authors.  The Woo guide lacked basic editing for grammar and sentence structure -- I found the grammatical errors so distracting that I had a hard time concentrating on the material.  The Doucette guide suffered from terrible formatting -- it was annoying to read and had very little material per page, since it's basically formatted for the web.  Both guides were out of date, lacking updates for the 2013 code cycle and other basic information (for example, the California Department of Fish & Game has been renamed the California Department of Fish & Wildlife since 2012).  I would strongly recommend getting the latest version of the materials, to avoid the confusion I had trying to figure out what information was still correct and what was outdated.  I think both Woo and Doucette have updated versions available with the 2013 code updates.  In any event, I went through all the materials I had available.  I thought the practice questions for both guides were particularly bad, since the answer keys were poorly written and made me question the validity of all the answers.  As it turns out, the questions also didn't reflect the actual exam questions very well.

Exam Day

The California Architects Board (and probably all the boards within the Department of Consumer Affairs?) contracts with Psychological Services Inc (PSI) for their licensure exams.  If you want to image what a PSI test center is like, picture the worst Prometric test center you've ever been to, then bump it down several notches on the classiness/cleanliness scale.  This place was downright depressing.  It was in a nameless office park that was so hard to find, I passed it while driving by it very slowly even though I knew roughly where it was supposed to be.  The only potentially positive aspect was that they did have lockers, despite the warning e-mails I received to the contrary.  So no, you don't have to leave your wallet and phone in your car for someone to steal.  The test center is so unprofessional, though, that they use binder clips on the locker keys, with the locker numbers printed out on regular paper and then cut out and taped to the binder clips, instead of key fobs like they have at Prometric.  Very classy, PSI.

The CSE is 3.5 hours long and is administered without any breaks.  Apparently it is also much longer than all the other exams administered by PSI, since I was one of the last ones seated for the 9am start time, but was the only person left in the test center by the time I finished.  The exam is in three distinct parts, so there's really no excuse for why there aren't any breaks.  Does CAB just like to torture us?  In any event, as you can see from the e-mail you receive from PSI when you schedule your exam, there are actually two project scenarios and one general section.  If you have an old study guide like I had, which claims there is only one project scenario, ignore it.  You still have one hour per project scenario section, so it's one hour for scenario #1 (30 questions), one hour for scenario #2 (30 questions), then 90 minutes for the general section (70 questions).

My experience was that the questions were significantly harder than the practice ones I studied, but not, as the study guides claimed, because they were confusing or poorly worded (that, in fact, was my experience of the Doucette questions, not of the actual exam questions).  Rather than simple "what is X" or "when do you do Y" type questions, they were generally scenario-based, asking what you should do in different situations.  I wish I had studied the AIA contract documents more, studied the California state agencies less, and studied the building code more.  I tried to keep track of the questions I really didn't know or felt very unsure about, and noted about 20 to 25 of them.  Based on the Woo book, I thought I could pass if I missed about 20 at most, so I assumed I would be right on the edge of passing.

The Results

As soon as you complete your 210 minutes of torture, and emerge from the exam room around 12:30 pm sweaty and shaking, having not had a chance to eat, drink, or use the bathroom since 8:45 am, the test center guy has you sit down while he pulls up your results.  Small talk isn't really possible at that point.  Finally he turns the screen around and points at your results.  In my case, by some miracle, it said "Congratulations" and I nearly collapsed on the desk.  Immediately I blurted out, "That means I won't have to come back here in six months!" to which the guy managed a laugh.  Thanks for that, test center guy.  I didn't really mean to insult you, even though your test center is horrible.

I'll never know if I passed by a high or low margin, but overall I felt poorly prepared and extremely nervous throughout the exam.  I wish I could have been better prepared if only so I wouldn't have had to feel so terrible for the entire 3.5 hours.  Alas, I don't know of any better study materials, so I hope any future test-takers out there can find some!

And Now?

The big question - what's next!  First of all, thanks to all my family, friends, and co-workers for supporting me through this crazy 20 months of almost non-stop testing.  It's hard for me to believe it's really over!  I hope now to have more time to devote to writing less-terrible posts here, and finishing up some other projects that have been lying around the house forever.

Once I get the official papers delivered in the mail, I will finally be licensed, and I will also get to order my stamp.  Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for what icon I should put in place of the stars on the typical California stamp design.  A tiny Millennium Falcon perhaps?

11.02.2015

On the Border: Part I

This past July, I traveled to the US/Mexico border with a group of folks from First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto.  Our goal was to learn about what happens at the border, what it looks like there, and what, if anything, we should do about it, including whether to become a sanctuary for undocumented individuals (see Sanctuary Movement below).  We were a group of high schoolers, college students, younger adults, and older adults, and we were mostly unfamiliar with US border security and what life is like at the Arizona border; we discussed what we knew before the trip, and it was just things we'd read in the news.  Despite this limited knowledge, we were eager to learn more.

My own interest stemmed from my 2012 trip to Israel/Palestine, where visiting the wall was one of the most powerful experiences I've had.  The border wall separating the occupied territories from Israel is an architectural weapon, used deliberately and actively to acquire territory, restrict development, and deny access.  I wanted to know how my own country uses its border walls, although admittedly the situation here is different.  We are at peace with Mexico, although one might not guess that from the way we treat our neighbors.  I didn't even know what our border wall looked like, but I was determined to find out.

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July 12th-13th, 2015


Arriving at the Tucson Amtrak Station

We started our journey by spending 24 hours on an overnight train from San Jose, CA, to Tucson, AZ, changing trains in Los Angeles.  Most of us spent the time reading The Death of Josseline, a nonfiction account of various aspects of the Arizona border situation.  Looking back, it was amazing how many people and places we saw that were described in the book.  I would recommend it if you want a more journalistic take on what we saw.  As for Amtrak, I hope I never have to take a train overnight again - at least, never again without access to a sleeping car.  It was pretty miserable, and none of us slept well.  We arrived early Monday morning at the Tucson train station where we were met by our intrepid guide, Indira, from BorderLinks, the nonprofit educational group who organized our trip.

The BorderLinks facility in Tucson is a humble affair, a converted office building that still has stained acoustic tile ceilings, converted cubicles for dorm rooms, and no sign on the outside.  Inside, there's an office, a kitchen where the staff prepares vegetarian meals for the visiting groups ("delegations"), the dorm area, and some showers.  The group's sole purpose is to educate visitors like us about life on the border, and provide us with ways to meet the people who really know what's going on.  All the staff members we met were enthusiastic about their mission, knowledgeable, and ready to help us learn more about Tucson and immigration policy.

Southside Presbyterian Church



Our first meeting was with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church  in Tucson, who was one of the leaders of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s-90s.  This group risked imprisonment to help asylees from Central America find new homes in the US.  At the time, thousands of Central American refugees were fleeing violence in their home countries; some of that violence was partially funded by the American government.  The US government, because of its involvement in the upheaval, refused to recognize these refugees as legitimate, claiming they were simply looking for better jobs.  In fact, some of the individuals who were caught by the US authorities and returned to their home countries were later killed.  The churches on the Arizona border, recognizing this injustice, decided to defy US law and harbor the illegal refugees, assisting them in traveling to other cities or to Canada where they were relatively safer from being deported.  John spoke to us about his experience and the history of the movement.  Though retired now from ministry, he is still an activist and meets with groups like ours to keep the memory of the former movement alive.

Today, a new Sanctuary Movement has formed around the unjust policies that are used to deport individuals with no real reason to be deported - those with families, including American citizen children, who have lived in the US for years or decades, are upstanding community members, and some of whom have even been trying to gain legal status for long periods of time.  The new movement seeks to halt deportations, rather than to move people to safety.  Southside Presbyterian is still at it, and has hosted several people since they re-started the Sanctuary Movement in 2014.

After our meeting with John, we went to Southside and met with current pastor Allison Harrington, and with Rosa Robles, the woman who is now in sanctuary at the church.  Rosa has been there over a year, having failed to receive a stay of deportation after being found to be in the country illegally during a minor traffic stop.  She's been living in Tucson since 1999, has two young sons, and no criminal convictions.  Southside is working to get her deportation case closed so she can return to a normal life.  Rosa graciously met with us for a few minutes, sharing her story, as she must have done hundreds of times to friends and strangers alike.  It was her birthday, and as we were leaving, congregation members were setting up a few flowers and balloons.  She is not able to leave the church building, and cannot attend her son's baseball games, school events, or other normal things -- so even her birthday is celebrated inside the church.  She described how difficult it is to live day after day inside, worried that by stepping outside, she could be arrested and deported.  Current US policy allows situations like hers to happen:  Her deportation order could be closed by a judge or ICE official, since her case falls under prosecutorial discretion, but until some official takes that action, she has an outstanding order of deportation.  By longstanding unwritten policy, immigration officials will not enter the church to remove her, so she stays inside, waiting for some official action that will allow her to leave.  ICE officials have stated that they are not interested in deporting her, but without any papers allowing her to be here legally, and with no way to gain legal status, she is stuck in limbo.




After meeting with Rosa, we met with her lawyers and helped make signs advocating for her, in honor of her one year in sanctuary.  Her legal team was working hard to create some motion in her case, hoping that with enough signs and community support, the right person would make the decision to close her deportation order.  It has worked for them before in other cases, although so far, not for Rosa.

While we were there, I met an activist who asked what our group's story was.  I told her I'm an architectural designer who's interested in the ethical aspects of architecture.  She was curious about what that could be, since she knew another architect who seemed uninterested in the kind of activist work that she did.  I described my understanding of how architecture can be used for good, or for bad ends -- think of prisons that are used unjustly to incarcerate large numbers of low-level offenders, especially young Black men, or the border wall used to divide families.  I asked her about the Mariposa Land Port of Entry, which was recently featured in Architect magazine.  She noted that while it's much better than what was there before, it still treats pedestrians like criminals, forcing visitors to walk through caged areas.  (We didn't get to visit it ourselves, so I can't confirm for myself, and the GSA doesn't share the floor plans, for "security reasons.")  I think she was surprised to consider buildings in this way, and said she would share these ideas with her architect friend.  I hope she does; I think more architects need to be activists in our involvement in which buildings get built, since they are such major expenditures of our capital, talent, and resources.  I hope I can help more people to think about the ethics of architecture in this way.

To be continued in Part II.

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