Scholar of the Week: Mario Serrano

Technews Writer
Sun Apr 08, 2018

Mario is a fifth-year Architecture student who is set to graduate in May. He has been in the Leadership Academy since his third year. He is set to move to New York to begin working with an architecture firm once he graduates. 

1. We all have our own opinions of good characteristics of a leader, but how would you personally define a leader?

One thing every leader needs to have is conviction, something they are interested in and fighting for. All leaders have different personalities and styles, but it is how hard they wish to work for their goals that sets good leaders apart from great leaders. Without conviction, it is like having “style with no substance."  Conviction allows a leader to easily convey what it is they wish to do in a group. 

Every leader also needs to be charismatic, which boils down to having good communication skills and conveying what your ideas are. Being able to adapt to new situations is also important because things will not always go the way you want, but both adaptability and communication skills stem from one’s conviction or passion.

2. What is the best piece of advice that you would give a future or incoming leader?

I would say get involved with causes that interest you, not just for the sake of “getting involved.” There was a time earlier in my college career where I tried getting involved in everything, but it amounted to nothing. If you immerse yourself in something of interest to you, your natural conviction and interest will push you forward to produce visible output.

There are also certain factors of leadership incoming leaders should work to sharpen. It is important that leaders understand their role within a project and consider the interests of others. 

Last summer, I was working as a fellow at a design-research institute developing projects. I was chosen for a five-person project in which we were tasked to come up with an exhibit displaying information and aspects of the Italian wine world. The overall success of the project depended on all five team members exploring their own specific interests. This was very valuable, as it allowed conviction to form, but it was a big responsibility to have to curate what other people were producing, while also making sure they were interested in their topic. Thankfully, by the end of the project we obtained the results we wished for. It showed me that even if a project does not solely belong to you, you can represent the project in your own way, and lay claim to a portion of it. 

3. What would you say is an event or time in your life that you feel really turned you into a leader?

The Mario people know today is much different from the Mario in my first and second years. As I mentioned earlier, I got involved just for the sake of getting involved. Becoming who I am today was a big change, and it happened during the summer after my sophomore year. At the time, I was working on a project as a part of a program in Venice, Italy. The subject of the project was street art, specifically introducing people who are not huge art fans into Italy’s contemporary art scene. The product was an application allowing people to engage with street art through their phones. You scan a piece of artwork, and the app gives information about the piece. We did this for the Palazzo Grassi Contemporary Art Museum. It was a big turning point for me, because there was a lot of research and work involved in piecing together the final product, and while we were only able to generate prototypes, the personal and work experience was wonderful.

4. What organizations or roles do you have on campus in which you are a leader?

I have been a part of many different organizations at Illinois Tech. I was a Student Government Association (SGA) senator and worked as a part of their design committee. In addition, I am a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, of which I became an alumni last semester. However, I took on many leadership roles as an active member, such as philanthropy chair. I have worked with Catholic Campus Ministry, where I worked with a nearby food pantry. I am also a part of the AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students.) As a part of AIAS, I have been lucky to be in a very close, family-type environment. I have also worked with the Mies Crown Hall Architecture Prize (MCHAP) and have done work with a Japanese firm, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANAA). Working with SANAA was a lot of work that pushed everyone on the team to the edge, but it showed me what team dynamics were like in the real world. 

5. Some of the most defining moments for leaders are during times of difficulty or struggle.  Has there been a time in which you were met with a serious problem and ended up becoming a better leader because of it?

I will go back to the discussion of SANAA. The summer project my team was tasked with was to build a model the size of a room. It was a great deal of work, but the significance to me was bigger than that. Looking back, I am very happy I was able to get the opportunity to work on it. When July came around, my team was announced. It consisted of 5 architecture students working with SANAA. The initial design process was somewhat challenging, but it was not the worst thing ever. It really became challenging during the hard labor portion, where we built our design. It was then I learned you really have to care about others as well as the project to make it through. At times, a person must exercise tolerance, while other times they must speak up and share their opinions. To have ideal communication, and therefore a better team experience, a space where people can speak their mind without being criticized must be established. Your intentions must be genuine, meaning you say what you want to say, you are clear about your wants, and you try to understand what each team member can bring to the table. This experience really made me a better leader because it gave a real-life example of something I had only heard about until then. You can talk or read about how to make team dynamics better, but nothing exposes you to working in a team quite like a difficult project. Thankfully, by utilizing good person-to-person interactions, the intensity of the project was slightly negated, and the team was able to make it through. 

6. In what ways has Leadership Academy specifically helped you become a more prominent and confident leader?  What has the academy meant to you?

Leadership Academy really focuses a lot on how to treat people and create that comfortable environment where people feel safe enough to have judgement-free communication. Through the Sophomore Leadership Retreat and Seminars, I have been shown how to communicate with and deal with a team. The biggest positive aspect about the Academy is that it has an inclusive environment despite the high diversity among the Scholars. We are all included in discussions and business, regardless of who we are or the beliefs we hold. Also, the “placebo” phenomenon comes into play because once you become a part of it, you feel a responsibility to be a better leader. It happens without you noticing, but it has helped me become a better leader for certain. 

7.What career objectives do you have once you graduate from Illinois Tech?

Post-graduation, I want to move to New York to pursue a job at a relevant, design-focused architecture firm. I crave work in a challenging environment because it gets me out of my comfort zone and allows me to grow. My current job focuses on technical skills, which is my comfort zone. I do plan on getting a master’s degree after working a bit in the field. I hope to gain as much knowledge as possible, so I can make the dream of starting my own practice in Colombia a reality, which has become more prominent in design. It offers a huge opportunity for innovation and has a lot of flexibility. 

8. Where is a place that you have always wanted to travel to but have never had the opportunity to do so?

I am very interested in visiting the Middle East, such as Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. The Mediterranean Middle East is so culturally vibrant that I really wish to explore it. I also love big cities, so Istanbul and Tel Aviv are really intriguing and make me want to visit there. 

9. What is one of your fondest memories from your four years at college?

My fondest memory is my first year at Illinois Tech. I had just arrived in the US from Colombia, and it was a completely different environment from what I had known most of my life. Illinois Tech was involved in a program that brought students from Brazil to the U.S. to experience school. We all lived in State Street Village together, and it was great to have them around. I have no regrets from this time because, although my grades were not stellar, they were not horrible, and I was having an amazing time as well. In addition, I visited South Korea with a friend of mine from the architecture college, which rounded out a fun year. 

10. You mentioned earlier there were moments of conflict in life when you had to be selective about speaking up versus being tolerant. Looking back, would you rather have kept things the way they were while having your voice be heard or stayed quiet and tolerated things for a more peaceful experience? 

The SANAA project was about feeling good about myself, and I knew I desired peace of mind. What I learned during the project was how to deal with conflict, in particular how to focus on changing the situation opposed to concentrating on the problems. This required reframing aspects of the project so it was more relevant to the interests of the team. Speaking up lets you feel at peace with yourself, something I did not have the luxury of as a younger person. I was different and did not fit in, and it brought about a subtle form of oppression that quieted me down. Therefore, I definitely think I would have kept things the way they were. The SANAA experience taught me a lot about myself, team dynamics, and how to push a project forward, which is better than staying quiet and not being shown these things.