My First Year as an Architecture Major at Notre Dame: Vera Leon '25 Reflects on an Unusual Year One

Author: Hailey Oppenlander


If you visit the School of Architecture homepage, you’ll be met with the words “Design for Good.” 

It was this philosophy that drew Vera Leon '25 to the School of Architecture and to the University of Notre Dame as a whole.

“I feel like the university in general is very much about creating students who [give] support to their community or give back to their community,” says Leon, “and that's something that I want to do with architecture.”

The rising sophomore reflects on what she learned during her first year, how the School of Architecture has allowed her to explore her passions, and how she plans to design for good after graduating from Notre Dame.

First Semester

Leon, who is from Santo Domingo in the Domincan Republic, had to attend Notre Dame remotely for her first semester due to the pandemic. Leon could only take courses outside her major while online, so her schedule consisted of Calculus, Writing and Rhetoric, and God and the Good Lifea popular philosophy class about what it means to live a meaningful life. 

Even though Leon had an unusual introduction to college, she still found a home at Notre Dame. She was impressed by her professors’ willingness to meet over Zoom and offer additional support to remote students like herself.

“All the professors were very nice and so understanding of everything, and they really were trying to help us,” says Leon.

A more typical schedule for first-year architecture majors would consist of Physics I; Calculus; a USEM (a seminar for first-year students) or Writing and Rhetoric; Graphics I: Drawing; and the Moreau First Year Experiencea 1-credit course introducing first-years to Notre Dame and college life.

Second Semester

Leon was able to take her first architecture classes when she arrived on campus for the spring semester of 2021. She enrolled in Analysis of Architectural Writing, a theory class covering concepts like function and beauty; Graphics II: Drafting (a studio class); and Mathematics in Architecture.

Leon found Analysis of Architectural Writing with Professor Richard Economakis to be an especially transformative class. Although she had been mostly interested in modern architecture before coming to Notre Dame, she found her favorite styles expanding due to her professor’s enthusiasm for the course material.

“It changed my perspective on architecture and what architecture should be, so I am starting to question what my own style of architecture would be now,” Leon says. “You really get this new perspective on what is beautiful in architecture.”

In Graphics II: Drafting, first-year students learn more about how to draw and represent 3-D figures by hand, giving them a solid technical foundation, rather than teaching them to rely solely on models and computer software.

For classes like Graphics II, Leon says it’s not unusual to see fellow architecture majors working in the studio late at night (or rather, early in the morning), especially before projects are due.

The final project for Leon’s Graphics II class was designing a building based on descriptions of a temple in the Bible. Since the temple doesn’t exist today, each student had to rely on their own interpretation, utilizing all the types of drawing they had learned about thus far. 

But despite these challenging class projects—or perhaps because of them—Leon found an encouraging and tight-knit community within her major. 

“In most universities, you would get this feeling of competition,” says Leon, “but it's not like that at all.”  

Since architecture majors take multiple classes together each year, it’s easier to form connections with classmates in the major. The students cultivate a motivating atmosphere, with everyone inspired to put forth their best work.

“A lot of people go above and beyond, and it kind of pushes you to do more,” says Leon.

The professors, too, go above and beyond to help their students, with some even bringing drawing supplies to students in quarantine so they could still participate in lessons. Leon named Professor Economakis and Professor John Mellor as especially understanding and supportive last semester. 

In addition to her architecture courses, Leon took classes in other disciplines to supplement her studies, a feature of Notre Dame’s Core Curriculum.

Leon enrolled in a course called Modern Japan, which she took because she admired environmentally-conscious Asian architecture. She also took a USEM called Black Politics After the Civil Rights Revolution, exploring racial and ethnic influences in everything from local politics to foreign policy.

Looking Ahead

There are many more opportunities for interdisciplinary study that Leon hopes to explore.

She plans to participate in the Architectural Practice and Enterprise concentration with the Mendoza School of Business, which will give her the business background she needs to one day start her own firm.

She will also take courses through her sustainability minor and continue her current research with Professor John Onyango on finding sustainable materials and methods within architecture.

She plans to use what she’s learned back in her home country, where she says there's few environmentally-friendly buildings for cultural reasons and due to lack of resources.

Thanks to the School of Architecture, Leon will have not only the practical skills to give back to her country, but also the proper mindset.

“The program gives you a very selfless point of view of what an architect should be and how we should work for our community,” says Leon. Improving building practices in her home country is how she plans to "design for good."