“My mother has taught me most of what I know about life. She emphasized tenacity and empathy, showing me how to stand up for myself without standing on others. She exemplifies morality and genuine compassion, even in the face of difficulty or unpopularity, explaining that doing the right thing may be difficult, but if it will make life better or easier for someone else, then it must be done. She taught me how to be self-reliant, living her own life as a playbook for how to move forward when the people around you are telling you that you can’t or shouldn’t. The most important lesson I’ve learned from her, and the one I aspire to put into practice every day, is that to change the world, you first change yourself - how you see the world, how you live in it - and then invite everyone else to come with you.
“I had forgotten most of the following story, until my mom reminded me during a recent conversation about feminism. It was the first time I had been so explicitly denied a dream, and I'm proud of how I responded, even as a young girl. I had forgotten what it was like to be so unabashedly fearless, to brashly question the inequalities that surround us every day.
“When I was five, I stood on a chair and declared to the entire universe (at that time the extent of the kitchen), that I would be a princess. I was a classic five-year-old: if I could be anything, I wanted to be a leader who had the resources to be generous and benevolent. And I wanted to wear dresses every day. When I was eight, I pointed to a little blob on a globe and asked my Dad what ‘Vatican City’ was. When he told me, I declared, again to the kitchen, that one day I would be Pope. Imagine the good you could do with an entire city's resources and the simple responsibility of being a benevolent, kind person. It fell to my parents to inform me that, in fact, I could not be Pope. And that moment changed my entire perspective on my place in the world. Here was a problem I couldn’t solve, a barrier that I couldn’t overcome by simply working hard. I challenged my parish priest on the subject of this injustice to the extent he would walk the other way when he saw me in the school hallway. In the end, being Pope did not become my quest, but the experience taught me to identify the inequalities I faced in my life because of who I was and the latitude that society allowed me. The more I looked, the more I inequality I saw for myself and others. And the more I saw, the more I realized that standing up for myself really meant standing up for everyone else too.
“Looking back, I cannot truly say if my obsession with the built environment began when I was eight and wanted to lead a city. But eighteen years later, I have earned degrees in both Structural Engineering and Architecture. Now, I spend my days working as an architect, a designer of buildings and cities trying to improve the world in which we live. And I am beginning to find ways to support women and silenced voices within these cities, and within the architecture profession. I don’t need titles or declarations or fancy clothes, as a princess or the Pope, to accomplish any of it.
“One of the most frustrating aspects of the design process is that there is no answer, no point at which you can definitively say, ‘We’re finished. We got it right. We’re done.’ There is always more: more iterations, more options, more analysis. It is in this way that design reflects life. I, my identity and personhood, am a design project just like the buildings that I work on each day. As people, we are always under construction. There are always more ways to refine how we engage with each other and society, and how we operate in the world around us.
“My advice to first-year women is to see yourself as the designer of your life. With that comes the agency to decide what qualities you want to exude and what experiences and opportunities you want to pursue. But being a designer also means that sometimes you’ll have bad ideas, or the execution will be less than perfect, or it might fail entirely and you’ll want to start again. And that’s okay. Living is a constant process of becoming and unbecoming, of success and failure. We are iterations of our previous selves, and our future selves will build upon every aspect of who we are now. ‘Being’ is an ongoing, iterative process of self-reflection, analysis, and design.”
Catherine Joseph graduated in 2012 with a degree in civil engineering. At Duke, she conducted research as a Pratt fellow and NAE Grand Challenge Scholar, studied abroad in Sweden, and represented the University at the 2010 World Future Energy Summit. She currently practices with 3XN Architects in New York City, is a 2019-20 Forefront Fellow with the Urban Design Forum, and teaches Building Structures and Systems for Adaptive Reuse at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).