Moore alum Sophia Le ’21 is an interior designer at JacobsWyper Architects, where she first started as an intern after her graduation. In her new role as an interior designer, Le has the opportunity to return to her alma mater to work on Moore’s upcoming campus renovation projects.
Her higher education journey started at Temple University studying biology—about as far from studying Interior Design at Moore can be. We connected Le with current Interior Design student Elisa Zanetti ’23 to chat about Le’s professional, educational and leadership path to this point in her career and her advice for current and recently graduated students.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length.
Elisa Zanetti: What originally brought you to Moore?
Sophia Le: Before making the decision to go to Moore, I visited numerous accredited colleges in Philadelphia and New York to find a perfect fit for after I graduated community college. What originally attracted me [to Moore] was scholarships. Moore opened the door for me to finish my BFA in Interior Design when all the other doors were shut due to expenses.
EZ: Yep! [laughter]
SL: During the portfolio review, I felt that Moore was happy to have me. The Admissions team listened to my story, valued my portfolio, spoke to me about my inspirations and who I wanted to be as an interior designer. That experience felt inspiring and I could see myself growing here. I joined the Visionary Honors Program which allowed me to complete my degree and get where I am today.
Lastly, Moore being a small school was another factor. My educational experience before Moore had always been in a highly populated, fast-paced and competitive environment. There wasn’t a focused approach with students. Moore’s studios are small and intimate, which allows students and teachers to establish connections. These kinds of environments benefit learning the most, so having teachers who are able to focus on your work and how you can improve was very important to me.
EZ: All very good reasons, I would say.
Can you talk a little about your thesis project? It earned you the George Leon Excellence in Design Award. What was your thesis about? If you want to, please talk about the process of getting it completed.
SL: My senior thesis is called "Alternative Learning Environments for Public Primary Education." This topic focused on how interior design can create better learning environments for public education. I devoted almost a year of research into public education since there are so many layers of how it is structured: how people learn, what types of environments inspire learning and systematic setbacks that affect public schools all around the US. My inspiration for this project was to approach this ideology of "work hard, get a degree and find a job to live happily ever after." Education is no longer this simple and needs to evolve to better support teachers and students. The one-size-fits-all approach leaves a vast majority of learners behind and resources are scattered. My main goal for this project was to create adaptive, flexible and safe environments for children ages 5–11 since children are the foundation of development.
As a future designer, this topic required tons of research into Montessori and Waldorf methods as well as the mind. The book that impacted my research the most is Creative Schools; The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Sir Ken Robinson. All these methods share the concept of meeting students at their own levels and providing resources to teach in ways that help students value their individual educational needs instead of fitting them into a mold.
I was so honored to get that Dr. George Leon Award. I felt like my research and process was validated, because people want change. People want to see others have opportunity that they were not able to have. So my thesis focused on value, is what I’m trying to say. [laughter]
EZ: Thank you for sharing something so personal. It’s beautiful to see how our own experience plays into the designers we become and the issues we tackle. That’s very inspiring.
Were you always interested in studying Interior Design?
SL: When I first started college, I had an idea of who I wanted to be, and that was a doctor. I went to Temple University and I majored in biology for two years, but I felt a major disconnect. I just wasn’t happy. I transferred over to community college and I thought that was going to be my fresh start in nursing, which is the complete opposite of being in the design field. [laughter] But even though life wasn’t what I planned it to be, I didn’t give up on what it could be. Taking my first Interior Design class at my community college sparked a light in me. I had to fail a lot but I needed to experience those changes in order to be successful. I decided to become an interior designer because I want to influence spaces that we can all experience together.
EZ: A very interesting journey! It may seem like the connection between wanting to be a doctor and wanting to be a designer is a far-fetched one but it’s not, because your approach to design is the same as a doctor: you want to help people. So I can see how that translates into your design, into your thesis, into what you do.
How did your time at Moore prepare you for the path that you are now on?
SL: Moore expanded my scope of the world. There’s such an importance to learning here. Liberal Arts classes challenge students to look outside a different frame [and to develop] an understanding of how we got here, and then give back to the communities that we took from. I feel like Moore is very honest with its curriculum and challenges students to really think outside that box of how they, as artists and designers, can work more diversely and more sustainably. My studio classes helped me to think conceptually about my work and my process, and applying that to each project or situation in my life.
Moore also prepared me to have conversations. Especially during this time, it’s so challenging to open up because of how polarized it is and because people are scared, but the empathy that Moore provides and their understanding of the topics prepare students to have tough conversations, which I really value.
EZ: The next question is about your internship with JacobsWyper Architects. What was it like and how did you get placed there? We are all nervous in our class, because we have to do our internship next semester. Do you have any advice you could share with us?
SL: David Searles, a partner at JacobsWyper [who] helps lead the cultural and educational aspects of the architecture firm, sat in on all the senior theses and made comments. He believes in a holistic human approach, and he saw that my senior thesis focused on education, where we especially need to see a radical change. JacobsWyper had me come in and intern, which I really loved because it prepared me for my interior designer role. During my internship, I was put on the Moore College of Art & Design team for the five-year redesign, which involves working with inspiring architects and interior designers. I am happy Moore opened my professional path.
EZ: So after they saw your thesis, they approached you and asked you if you wanted to do your internship there? Did you go through a formal interview?
SL: I did have a formal interview. I had my portfolio at the time, because I wasn’t completely finished with my senior thesis, so during that interview process, or “how to have a really great interview”—
EZ: Yes, please! [laughter]
SL: Just tell your firm honestly what you want, right away. Research their work and talk about yourself as a person and how you believe you can fit in. I didn’t want my default to be just “Yay, I got a job right out of college!” Before making my decision, I did tons of research and spoke with my mentors about what I really wanted. Also, during the portfolio review, explain your work and the objective of the project with passion. What they truly care about is your thought process throughout the entire design phase.
When I went to JacobsWyper, I knew my weaknesses—it’s construction documents, but then again, no Interior Design student would know construction documents right off the bat. Once they heard that, they put me on all sorts of different projects that focus specifically on documentation, and they sat down with me throughout. So always express what you want and tell them your weaknesses; don’t just say “I don’t have any weaknesses” or “I’m a perfectionist.” They want to know what you’re going to put back into their mission and their goals.
EZ: Thank you, those are all precious pieces of advice. Can you describe the work you do at your new job?
SL: I just got promoted to an interior designer title [in the beginning of November].
SL: Thank you! Even from the beginning, during my internship, [which] was basically a pre-interior designer role, I got to collaborate with the senior design teams, focus on project goals, assist with design concepts and interface with clients. I got to assist with the selection of finish materials and furnishings, which is really fun, as well as a ton of presentation development. When the client sees it, you have to tell them a story, so it’s a lot of storytelling with these presentations. [I also do some] traveling and going on site surveys.
As an interior designer, you get brought into all the projects at some point. I got to work on the National Liberty Museum, University of the Arts, various workplace designs, pharmaceutical designs…and that’s really exciting because interior designers have a unique perspective on all different types of projects. JacobsWyper [invests] in the people they bring on, so they have mentored me, made me feel welcome and invested in my growth.
My time at JacobsWyper has really taught me how to value your community and your design process. I got to participate recently in the 2021 AICAD symposium, a diversity and sustainability panel based on the built environment, with a few other members of the JacobsWyper team, an adjunct professor from Moore and an adjunct professor from Drexel. It was an exploratory discussion that focused on resilient construction and minimizing energy use and sustainable building design. The people at JacobsWyper don’t believe that sustainability is just environmental. They know it includes environmental justice, diversity and inclusion, equity, accessibility, decolonization and community building. We had a discussion of how the future of design is being led by those ideals.
EZ: Last question: What advice do you have for Interior Design students like me and for all Moore students as they start to think about post-graduation plans?
SL: Looking at post-graduation plans, especially going into “the adult world,” can be very daunting. My best advice is to know your values and to keep working towards those values. Find somewhere that appreciates those things. I feel like a lot of people settle in their situation because they have self-doubt in their design development, but interior designers: you don’t have to know everything. You learn in your field. Apply for positions that you’re not even qualified for. Just let them know why you want it. A lot of people only apply for positions that they’re qualified for on paper, but at the end of the day, firms want passion. They don’t just want somebody to come in, do the work and leave.
My last piece of advice is don’t compare yourself to others. Every voice is incredibly valuable, and continuing your education to figure out what that means for yourself is a life journey. Don’t just stop if you get a bad grade or fail at something. Failure is honestly your best friend; it can open up a whole new door for you, so don’t be afraid to go through those doors. Just keep pushing.