By Mia Alfonsi

“Phenomenal woman. That’s me.”

Maya Angelou’s famous words echoed through DCP’s gallery during the evening to commemorate a day of connection for female professionals and students.

DCP held its annual Women of Influence Event to honor the presence and prestige of women in the design, construction and planning industries. Through panel discussions, break-out sessions and an intimate reception at the college, DCP’s female students were able to connect with a plethora of the industry’s female leaders across all disciplines and backgrounds.

Attendees gathered at Smathers Library to hear from 10 panelists including DCP alumnae and friends Cheri Erhardt, Michelle Forte-Young, Jacki Hale, Christina Hite, Nancy Juneau, Laura Laser, Juli Mitchell, Celia Nichols, Ronok Nichols, Stephanie Portus and Kristin Ross. Panelists touched on their experiences as females in these industries, how they turn pressures into platforms to succeed and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Students also had the opportunity to glean insight from professionals during small break-out sessions. Significant takeaways from these conversations reflected topics of diverse internship experiences, the importance of mentors and the future trajectory of these fields.

Michelle Forte-Young, president and CEO of Forte-Young Inc., notes that DCP’s female students should find encouragement in the fact that their skills and qualities align with the future of these industries as they assume a more team-oriented approach.

“Women are naturally more collaborative and great communicators, so the fact that this industry is moving more in this direction plays well to women,” Forte-Young said.

Panelists also stressed that women can rise above the preconceived biases found in these fields by valuing both themselves and their skillset.

To illustrate this idea, Ronok Nichols, Principal of DLR Group’s Orlando office, recounted a project interview in which a male counterpart insinuated that she was the “token female” of her team. She took note of this comment as it was early on in her career, but in no way did she let it define her.

“I always looked in the mirror and saw a solid architect, not a female architect, and I decided that it’s not worth spending energy on convincing others of your value,” Nichols said. “Spend the energy on being great, and that will disprove any unwarranted judgements.”

After connecting with the panelists, attendees moved to DCP’s gallery to hear from leaders of student organizations such as the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) Chapter at UF and Women In Design, a project initiated by UF’s National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMAS) chapter.

The evening closed with a pinning ceremony that honored both the female panelists and students as they reflected on their accomplishments and looked away to the future with a renewed sense of confidence.

For both its success in bridging students to professionals as well as recognizing the strong presence and ability of females in these industries, Margaret Portillo, the associate dean for research and strategic initiatives at DCP, views the Women of Influence event as an opportunity to unite and inspire women.

“Women of Influence is an example of an exciting strategic initiative in the college. Women rising up,” Portillo said. “While much progress has been made, we don’t see as much diversity as there should be in the highest echelons of leadership in the design, construction and planning fields; that’s why we have so much to learn from the women in this room.”

But, the event made the most remarkable impression on DCP students.

“How fortunate we in DCP are to have such a strong community of women, of strong, empowered women,” said Katie Madson, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at the Rinker School of Construction Management. “We are so lucky to have people that really want us to soar.”

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