Newswise — AMES, Iowa — As a child, Abby Tornow was always dragging out her brother’s LEGO bricks. One day her father spotted her designing a LEGO house and said, “You’d make a good architect.”

This weekend, Tornow will graduate from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

Her fascination with building LEGO structures as a kid growing up in Kalona morphed into interests in math, engineering and art in high school. She participated in the Kirkwood Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Academy her senior year of high school to learn more in-depth about architecture and programs used.

With her sights set on Iowa State’s nationally-ranked architecture program, Tornow arrived on campus in 2017. She was part of the Design Exchange learning community, a living and learning experience for first-year College of Design majors. Every student within the College of Design takes a core program of courses their first year to gain foundational experience and help them make informed degree choices once they start the application process.

“That first year turns your perspective, especially for those who aren’t as fortunate to have amazing art programs in high school,” Tornow said. “You have a year to decide which program is the best fit for you. It’s a great way to see everything that can fit within the envelope of design and then find your passion within that.”

She says the competitiveness of getting into the architecture program was nerve-wracking, but was elated when she was accepted.

“To be able to officially say that you’ve made it into the program you’re passionate about is a great feeling, that you fit into that place,” she said.

Beating imposter syndrome

However, Tornow began negatively comparing herself and her work to her peers.

“It was an internal struggle for me to figure out where I fit, even after being accepted into the architecture program,” she said. “Do I really deserve to be here? Do I fit in? Is my work worth showing and worth doing?”

These feelings of imposter syndrome took a toll on her mental health, especially as she tried to put on a brave face in front of her peers and sisters in Alpha Sigma Kappa, a sorority for women in technical studies. Then one of her sisters asked, “What’s going on?”

Tornow opened up about her struggles, and her friend got her connected to ISU Student Counseling Services, where Tornow was able to work through her stress and anxiety.

“It was an eye-opening experience, not only to be able to overcome that mental hurdle, but to see that I had sisters around me that really cared about me and noticed that difference,” she said. “I still find myself comparing myself to others, but that’s when I have to remember that I made it into this program for a reason.

“I deserve to be here. My work is worth it and valuable.”

A head-start on her career

After learning she made it into the architecture program, Tornow couldn’t wait to begin learning. She found an internship the summer after freshman year with Carlson Design Team, an architectural design firm in Iowa City.

“After that summer, I came back during breaks,” she said. “I got to walk through one of the buildings I helped design over the summer. That was one of the most exciting experiences to be able to see a physical thing in front of you that you can walk through. It didn’t just exist in a computer.”

She didn’t stop there. Tornow’s internship with CBRE | Heery in Iowa City helped her learn more about designing for health care facilities. Another internship with Shive-Hattery in Iowa City gave her a variety of design experiences, including working on a recreation center and a private golf club. Most recently, she interned with CMBA Architects in Des Moines, where she honed in on her passion within architecture: educational and health care spaces.

Tornow’s love for educational design is a result of growing up in a small town, as it requires deep community involvement to understand wants and needs. She was drawn to health care design due to her attention to detail, and the opportunity for ongoing learning due to ever-changing technology needs.

Following graduation, Tornow will start as an intern architect at Shive-Hattery. Like all others in her field, she won’t be able to officially call herself an architect until she goes through the extensive licensure process – although she’s already made headway on the requirement of 3,740 hours of experience through her four internships.

“When I was going into the architecture program, I was so narrow-minded,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I get to build houses.’ That’s all I knew. I was able to learn throughout my internships and the architecture program that there’s a wide variety of things you can specialize in. It’s a great way to figure out where you want to fit and get in-depth knowledge.”