Introduction by Kha Nguyen, Curated Text by Kha Nguyen and Paola Alvarez, Sound Editing by Kha Nguyen, Photography by Kha Nguyen & Sherr Aspiras
The morning began with overcast skies. Paola had her hands clasped at the controls while I navigated us to our targeted freeway exit. Traffic zipped to a lazier pace as we landed ourselves in a small neighborhood pocket. Framed by the car’s windshield, we both spotted our destination. The coral, pitched roof of Janet’s abode poked through the fine hairs of Logan Heights’ electrical lines. The neighborhood backdrop was braided by multi-colored homes and illuminated by their residents sprinkled on their own porches. After we combed for the correct street name, I trimmed back my glances from my phone and mimicked mechanically, “In 100 feet, your destination will be on the left”, followed by a more enthusiastic, “We’re here!”
We parked and sauntered up the wooden steps to her front patio. After a few knocks at the door, we were quickly greeted by Janet and Magic (her feline, but preferably known as her chill roommate). Segueing between our exchange of “Hello’s..” and “How are you’s...”, we settled down on Janet’s front door steps. We were soon going to discover the upbringings of a true San Diegan, learn how a basis in architecture methodologies allows her to enhance music and performance, and discuss how education is a resource that can be shared across borders.
The cars zipping beyond the pavement hushed away, the bees buzzing within her garden fence hummed to a murmur, Magic’s purrs translates to an almost soft sleepy whisper, and the sun timely poked through the hazy morning - our conversation with Janet begins.
Janet Asuncion: Hello.
Paola Alvarez: Hi. How are you?
JA: Good. How are you?
PA: It's great to see you.
JA: Thanks. Nice to see you too.
PA: Let’s begin with a little backstory. Tell us who you are.
JA: My name is Janet Asuncion. I feel like I'm one of the few people left from my generation that was born and raised in San Diego. I’ve seen it when it was open land, to now where it’s super dense. It’s like people came in one summer, and they never left.
PA: Great food, great beer, and fun people. I’m definitely part of that group! What part of San Diego did you grow up in?
JA: I grew up in Mira Mesa. My dad was in the military and his first station was at Miramar when it was a naval base. My family was rooted there, and my dad traveled during deployment. I wanted to travel with him! I wanted to go around the world with him, but he didn't really want that for the family. So he had my brother, my mom, and I stay in San Diego so we could go to school and wouldn't be bouncing around. One time, when he came to visit from Guam, he was leaving, and I packed seven outfits into my school backpack, including seven pairs of socks. Then, when my dad was headed to the airport, I tried to sneak into the cab with him.
PA: Do you feel like you might've missed out on traveling?
JA: Yeah, I did. But because I didn't travel with my dad when I was younger, I felt the urge to do so when I got older. San Diego is my home. I have a lot of family here, many roots. But I do a lot of traveling too. I've been going to different places like Nicaragua, Spain, and Australia. I regularly go to Australia to visit my family there. I don't feel like I've missed out on traveling now, I was just saving it for when I was older.
PA: How did you become interested in architecture?
JA: Oh man. Since I was a kid.
JA: My family is from the Philippines, and they have a few properties there. They were responsible for their own housing. That wasn't their trade, but it never crossed their minds, “Oh, we should hire someone to build a house for us.” It was the whole family who built the house in Baguio City. It was my dad and his 10 siblings, my grandparents, and their siblings. I would see my uncles and my dad build stuff. I remember for my seventh birthday, they built me a bahay kubo.
PA: What is that?
JA: A bahay kubo is a traditional Filipino house. It has a porch and on stilts; the windows were top hung and propped open with bamboo, and it came with a little ladder that they made. I would watch them make it and would think, “Man, that's so cool!” I thought everybody knew how to do stuff like that when they’re older. It was a big influence watching my uncles and my dad build a little house for me. I didn't really know what architecture was though. In high school, we were taking that test that tells you what you should be when you grow up. My result was to be an archaeologist. My friend, Vincent, was standing next to me when we received our results and his said, “architect”. I asked him, “What’s an architect?” He said, “Someone who builds houses.” Well, that was the definition to a high school student back then. I realized I would love to do that. I told Vincent that our results might have been switched. He's actually a professional dancer now.
PA: What were your favorite toys as a kid?
JA: I know what you're going to say. You're going to ask the Lego thing. I should mention that I am not currently practicing architecture. I'm the admissions counselor for Woodbury University School of Architecture here in San Diego. Reading through applications, 90% of them mention playing with Legos or wood blocks. But I definitely did that too! My mom was a Montessori School teacher. After school, I would visit her at work, which was a block from our house. Over the summer, I would spend a lot of time with her at work because my dad was still in Guam. When the kids were taking their naps, I would get to play with all the blocks, and I would make a whole city.
PA: That's fun! It definitely keeps the creative juices flowing.
JA: Oh yeah. When I created my little city with the blocks and the kids would wake up from their nap, they would come in and switch stuff. They thought, “No, this has to go here and there has to be an ice cream shop here.” It's kind of interesting how kids imagine a city and how they would rearrange everything.
PA: It's captivating to see children, from an early age, be aware of and have an interest in design. Have you ever worked with little kids?
JA: I work with kids right now! I'm a musician with Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble and Samahan Filipino American Performing Arts and Education Center. We learn, perform, and teach traditional Filipino music and dance. We have different levels. We have adults, but we also have a lot of little kids.
PA: And this is outside of Woodbury?
PA: Before we dive deep into Samahan, I’m curious, how did you become associated with Woodbury?
JA: I actually went to Woodbury a long time ago. After high school, I went to San Diego State for a year and studied civil engineering. When I realized I didn't want to study civil engineering, I ended up at Mesa College. Mesa was holding classes at Woodbury's campus when it was at the Naval Training Center (NTC), which is now Liberty Station. When it came time to transfer, I already knew everybody there. I knew the woodshop and the admissions counselor, so it was an easy transition. After Woodbury, I started working at a small architecture firm in Oceanside. I worked there for about three and a half years. It was a small office, which was really nice because I got more opportunities. I wasn’t just drafting, but also going on site visits and designing. I was managing projects by the time I left. But then it was 2008... Eventually, the office had to close. Then, I was working with a friend at the time, and we were just drafting on our own. Somebody connected me back to Woodbury, and they were looking for someone to work in admissions. It was going to be a temporary thing, but 10 years later, I'm still at Woodbury. I really love working with the faculty and my colleagues here at the San Diego campus. And the students! There are a lot of things that I really appreciate about higher education and the people who advocate for students.
PA: Do you think it would be a challenge, especially when you've dedicated 10 years, to move away from Woodbury?
JA: I’m not worried about that. If I don't continue with higher education, I don’t see it as I've lost the last 10 years. I don’t think our professions have to be linear. I don't think about it that way because I've made so many personal and professional connections by working at Woodbury and learned so many things. My best resource is the experiences of my students that have graduated, worked, and taken the exams. I keep in touch with a lot them. The connections that I've made connected me to working with Samahan. If I left higher ed. and did something else, I wouldn't really think of it as starting over. I would just enjoy doing something else. There's a lot to do in the world. There's music to be played.
PA: Certainly. And to teach other people about Filipino traditions, right?
JA: I feel like that's my thing. I played music when I was younger, but when I graduated from high school, I stopped playing and started studying architecture. I never thought I would come back to music, but coming back to it has been really awesome. It’s great to be able to play and share my culture through music and dance. I want to help pass on these traditions. I love doing it. I love playing music.
PA: I can see it! You glow when you talk about what you're doing, especially for this group, and how you're trying to educate people.
JA: The skills that I've learned working in recruiting and marketing, I've applied them to Samahan and how to get the word out about the group, the music, and traditions. I took a photography class when I was at Woodbury, and a lot of that class was focused on framing what you want the viewer to see. When we do performances, that's definitely on my mind. What do we want the audience to see? I want to include more visuals or set design when we do performances.
PA: There seems to be a pattern within your interests.
JA: Yeah! I was playing music when I was younger, I studied architecture, I'm in higher education, and now I've come back to music. Maybe that whole cycle will start all over again.
PA: We'll have to check in with you in ten years.
JA: Oh yeah!
PA: Along your career, I'm pretty sure you've been influenced by different people and experiences. Any particular one that you might’ve encountered?
JA: I feel there isn't like one particular person that has influenced me. There's something to be appreciated about each of the people in my life. There’s a certain skill or something about them that is inspiring, so I take little bits and pieces from everybody that I know.
PA: With you being in higher ed, what are your thoughts on how education might create more interactions between Tijuana and San Diego?
JA: We're located in Barrio Logan, which is fifteen minutes from the border. I have friends who have taught or teach at the schools in Tijuana. When my friend, Julia, was teaching at Ibero in Tijuana, she wanted to have access to a CNC machine. There was a collaboration with her students and Woodbury’s Digital Fabrication Lab. She brought her students to the San Diego campus; they used the fabrication lab to create some of the parts for their CNC machine. Then, brought the parts back down to their school to assemble it there. We've also had a fourth year studio from Woodbury, fourth year students from Arizona State, and students from ISAD (Instituto Superior de Arquitectura y Diseño) in Chihuahua, all working on the same project together. Throughout the semester, all of the students visited each campus along with the site that they were working on.
There have been volunteer build opportunities in Tijuana made through one of our adjunct faculty members, Rene Peralta. There was a grant that Woodbury got through the Fetzer Institute to be able to volunteer for a week helping families in Baja build houses with Fundacion Esperanza de Mexico. The families volunteer, are taught about financial literacy, and how to save their money. I was highly interested and wanted to go on my own. I've done that before in Nicaragua, and I remember loving it, so I wanted to do it again. I volunteered and said, “Hey Rene, I want to get involved!”. And he's like, “Hey, great! Can you chaperone a group of students?” I hadn’t even thought about chaperoning but I said, “All right, let's do this!”
JA: I’ll be honest, I was kind of nervous. “What did I get myself into? They better behave.” But in the end, they were amazing! I was really impressed by how engaged they were. They were up early, they were never late, and they were welcoming to other students. We were there with another group of students from California College of the Arts (CCA). Many students from CCA had never been to Tijuana. These students only knew what social media and movies have shown. They were blown away by just being at the border and experiencing the process of crossing and simply understanding the statistics of how many people cross the border in one day. We visited Playas because the students were interested in seeing how active the Tijuana side of the border was. There are restaurants, there is a beach, you can grab a coconut. Then on the other side, it was almost nothing, just the border patrol cars. Our students were familiar with all this because it’s so close to where they live and it’s so accessible. Sharing their own personal experiences and knowledge about the area with the CCA students was invaluable.
PA: It sounds like you were proud and enjoyed your time.
JA: Yeah. I did!
PA: Do you have any advice for students when applying to architecture school?
JA: Yes, yes, yes. I definitely have advice. I'll give you information about what Woodbury has to offer then it's up to you if you want to come enroll with us or not. I really like giving information to students about how to research schools. I direct students to the National Architectural Accrediting Board website and then you can search for all of the accredited professional programs in the U.S. You should look at at least three different schools. If you're able to travel to them, you should actually visit the schools, talk to faculty members, and definitely talk to the students. Get them to tell you their experiences. If you’re going to be in the profession of designing space, you should go see the space that you’ll be studying in.
PA: You went through Woodbury and you've seen the growth of students to this day. Has there been a change in the educational system in architecture?
JA: It's definitely not the same. Obviously, there’s the generational change. There are more females studying architecture. The tools they use are different. This generation is all about the digital language. Also, I feel like students are more stressed out.
PA: Why is that?
JA: Everything ties in together. I'm talking about the economy, housing, and the cost of tuition. Students are spending more time at community college because some of them are afraid to transfer to a five year program and start paying university tuition. It's also harder to sustain themselves while going to school. Students are working part-time while going to school at the same time and trying to pay for expensive rent in San Diego. There's no room for error. If they're sick, then they're not working, and then they don't have money to pay for rent. If they don't have money to pay for rent, then they're super stressed out and their grades start going down. It's definitely affecting the overall emotional health. Most, if not all, universities are required to have a counselor on campus to be available to students in case they need to talk. Because I'm the person that students talk to a lot through the admissions, I definitely feel like a lot of students come to me with their emotional issues.
PA: Whether it’s stress or simply because they just want to talk, that says a lot about you as a person and how comfortable people can be around you.
JA: That's not just at Woodbury. That's definitely within my family too. I'm the peacemaker, which I don't want that job anymore. That's definitely within my group of friends and my family. I'm the diffuser. I try to diffuse things between family members or between friends. But you know what? I like doing that, I enjoy being that person. I want people to say what they're thinking, then be unapologetic about it and just handle their business. Nobody has time to tip-toe around what you want to say. Ask for what you want, do what you want, without anyone's permission to do so. Be responsible for yourself.
PA: Would you say that this advice applies to everyone?
JA: Oh, yes. Me included. I initially didn't want to do this conversation because I'm not actively working in architecture right now. But I have worked in architecture. I have helped build houses in Tijuana and Nicaragua and I do work with students in architecture. So why not?
PA: Early on as a designer, I question myself, "Am I doing it wrong?" I wondered if the individuals I look up to went through something similar. Even with my colleagues, “Have they encountered this?”
JA: Those are good questions. Thanks for saying that. Yes. I did feel that same way when I got into higher education and stopped working in architecture. Today, it's led to a lot of connections and skills that helped me do what I'm doing now. I feel I could get back into architecture if I want to. Even though I'm not doing the traditional route, it doesn't bother me because I really love what I'm doing right now.
PA: That's amazing because as long as you're comfortable with what you’re doing, it shouldn't be a worry to you. It shouldn't be a worry for anyone else either. I don't think that a lot of people really accept that sometimes.
JA: I mean, I didn't accept it. How could this be wrong if I really love where it's led to me now?
PA: In the end, the lessons that you learn in architecture become a basis for anything you want to apply it to. It's the foundation to your own building. Therefore, we are able to apply critical thinking into certain areas, essentially, apply it to whatever you want to do in the future, whether it's architecture related or not. You're certainly doing that with higher education and with Pakaraguian.
PA: What are aspects of being an administrator at Woodbury that you appreciate?
JA: I really like the people I work with. They’re artists, architects and fabricators. I feel lucky to be able know them because I can always pick their brain whenever I’m working on a personal design project. And they’re just really good people. It’s a small campus so everyone knows everyone. Faculty, staff and students. A lot of visitors have all said the same thing: we have a family vibe. It’s also cool to run into alumni and chat about what they’ve been up to since I last saw them. At the same time, I’ll remember when I first met them and how much they’ve evolved since then.
PA: I never gave it much thought when it came to building relationships with faculty members. It's the one thing that I enjoy telling other people about Woodbury.
JA: It’s important to me to be able to extend my knowledge and prepare students for their next steps in architecture. Steps on how to look for internships, networking or tasks in order to take any of the Architect Registration Exams like the IPAL program.
PA: Can you elaborate?
JA: The IPAL program is the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure. This program helps streamline the licensing process for students. Students used to wait until their fourth year in a professional architecture degree to start logging their hours for work experience and take the architectural registration exams. Now students in the IPAL program are receiving help through the whole process. I find that it’s important to connect students with an office that fits with what the student wants to do. Therefore, I want to know what students are interested in doing. We have study groups at Woodbury SD library. We have a group of alumni students who self-started their own ARE study group and we let them use our library for the space to study and connect with each other. And I think it's good for them to go through this as a group. I kind of feel like it's more of a support group to help them exchange ideas and questions with like; “How did that exam go?” “Did you pass it?” “Did you fail it?” “What was it like?”
PA: A support group is definitely helpful. You ask yourself, "Are these feelings valid?"
JA: Yeah, exactly! “Why am I so scared?”
PA: So Janet, do you think that during your time here at Woodbury, has there been any changes you might have noticed within the student body?
JA: It's not a secret that it's harder to go to school these days for young people. Accessibility is important. There are a lot of deterrents. It can be scary to commit to a four or five year bachelor’s program with news of schools closing, the thought of taking out student loans, AB-540 students worried about their anonymity, and less than one percent of students actually receiving PSLF (Public Service Loan Forgiveness). There are more challenges these days for students trying to complete their degrees, but it is definitely possible to do so.
PA: Then in what ways can we help implement more art and design programs to expose more students?
JA: We definitely need more arts to be accessible to younger kids. The way I started playing music was through a free music program when I was in elementary school. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher gave us this list that asked “Do you want to learn how to play any of the following instruments?” The list had the basics: violin, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, flute. I wanted to learn how to play the violin, and it was totally free. I played the violin, had music class once a week, and that's how I started with music. If it wasn't for those accessible programs, I would not be playing music right now.
PA: Besides accessibility, any other ways?
JA: Funding! There are a lot of artists and teachers willing to share their art with kids. Pay your teachers. Pay them like they’re rock stars or pro athletes. I have a lot of friends who are artists and educators, including elementary school teachers. With grant money, they’re able to invite different artists and musicians to offer classes, workshops and performances for these kids.
PA: You've had the opportunity to familiarize yourself and take action when searching for grants. And you’ve found joy within Pakaruaguian and Samahan. Has there been a grant that you’ve been trying to attain for the group?
JA: Yes, I was part of the grant writing team that applied for a California Arts Council grant. We just got notice last week that we’re getting the grant! I also helped write a grant with the County of San Diego called the Community Enhancement Grant.
The whole process of writing grants, I mean, I haven't done a lot of them. I did write a small grant for myself, I got that one and with Samahan, I should also mention the actual music group that I'm performing: It’s the Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble. So Pakaraguian means a celebration of song and dance and kulintang is the indigenous, traditional ancient Filipino row gongs. It's a set of eight brass or steel kettle gongs typically played with an ensemble. Accompanying instruments include the gandingan (four flat hanging gongs), agung (two large knobbed, hanging gongs), dabakan (drum), and babendil (time keeper).
For Samahan and PKE we always need funding for travel and to do specific things so we applied. It wasn't just me, I can't take the credit for that, it was definitely a group effort. We applied for the grant with the California Arts Council. We heard back recently and we got it approved so now we have funding do more!
JA: With the grant money, we want to be able to offer free workshops for kids. We don't want to ask kids or people in undeserved communities to pay to learn. I want to help. I hope to put together my own storytelling workshop.
PA: That sounds amazing! As an adult, I'm intrigued.
JA: I’ll let you know when the workshop is.
Putting on workshops is a skill that I've gotten working at Woodbury - putting together an event or writing the curriculum for that type of workshop. I know who needs to be involved, what we need to do. Those things come to mind when I think about performances and design. It's always thinking about what the viewer sees. It's all about the experience. In doing a workshop or performance, I want to be very aware of what the experience is for the audience. What they hear, what they smell, or how they approach the whole event. I want it to be a really great experience for them. I want them to feel like they're involved in it. Totally emerged in the scene.
PA: Besides using the university as a platform for interaction between Tijuana and San Diego, what other scenarios might strengthen collaboration between borders?
JA: Sharing resources is important. I've noticed that there's a lot of universities across the U.S. that share resources like courses in order to broaden the offerings to students.
PA: Since you’ve had the opportunity to expose yourself through collaborating with others in higher ed, any ideas of your own to bridge the gap between architecture schools in Tijuana and San Diego?
JA: We have our faculty and our adjunct faculty who live in Tijuana and commute here to work in San Diego. We already have those connections and relationships. Even outside of architecture, like artists, there's collaboration. I think everyone can pitch in, so it's not just like one person designing, but a collaboration of ideas between people.
PA: Has there been a significant learning discipline both in architecture and higher education that you have applied as your own?
JA: In architecture, we think of how to design a space in order for it to flow well and be more efficient for the user. I like to apply that to higher education in the admissions process. I will reach out to students and take them through the process. I think about their whole experience when they're applying. I talk about Woodbury University as a student once myself. I know what's on their mind. Transfer students generally want to know three things: which classes transfer, how much money will I have to borrow, and when will I graduate.
If I want to apply the skills learned in architecture to performing. It's all about the experience for the audience. In architecture, you're designing a space for people to get them to do a certain task. So with the performing we wear costumes, we have the right lighting, we have the right positioning, and the choreography of the dances to send that message to the audience. This is what we want to show everyone.
PA: Whether it’s in architecture or Samahan, you're still presenting.
JA: Exactly, yes. When I'm going back and forth from architecture to performing for an audience, I think of architecture as choreography. I enjoy choreographing these spaces for people. I can send messages that I want to send through how individuals experience the space overall. I enjoy choreographing.
PA: You're choreographing an experience.
JA: Perfect, that's exactly it! Yes. When you're performing, you want to choreograph what and how the audience experiences the music and dance that you're trying to share. It's the whole experience.
PA: You're dealing with more than one human sense. You seem very excited when you talk about your involvement with Samahan, especially trying to spread the word about a tradition. Do you have any other endeavors for the future beyond higher education and performance?
JA: My interest in design and making has carried over to the music. I know the tradition of making instruments has been passed down from generation to generation in the Philippines, but I started experimenting with making my own gong bases and testing different material for wrapping beaters. Eventually, I’d like to try to replicate the gongs using digital tools. In terms of performances, I’d like to do some visuals to add another layer to the audiences experience. And I still want to play music. I feel that the music is never going to end. I'm going to be playing music until the day I die.
PA: You have a good balance between two of your interests. Many of us are still trying to figure out the balance.
JA: I feel that everything I've done in my life, my life experiences, have all supported in what I'm doing now. Playing music when I was younger and working at Woodbury University is helping me now in grant writing and making connections. If you look back at the things that you've already learned, the skills that you need are already there.
PA: I can definitely relate.
PA: Well Janet, thank you for making the time to be here with us. We appreciated the opportunity to talk to you!
JA: Cool! Yeah, hopefully that was okay!