Business Journal features three SARUP alumni in “40 Under 40” issue

UWM master of architecture (MArch) alumni (left to right): Steve Morales (2004), Lyssa Olker (2004), and Jezamil Arroyo-Vega (2008).

Steve Morales, partner in the architectural firm Rinka+

Steve Morales got interested in architecture when he was in second grade at Doerfler School in Milwaukee and won first place for his illustration for a book report about Johnny Appleseed.

Originally appeared September 30, 2019 in UWM Report.

“I had spent more time drawing the barn and making it look three dimensional than on any other part of the story,” he said. His illustration was hung up in the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of an exhibit of student work. “That was a real special moment for me. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to be an architect.”

After applying to several other universities, Morales chose UWM at the recommendation of a friend in the community. “It was one of the few programs in the Midwest that was accredited and that I had interest in,” said Morales. When he finished his undergraduate degree, he again looked around for a graduate program, but a professor who was also a practicing architect told him UWM was the best fit for him. She told him: “They are really pushing the boundaries on where things are going, and it would be a much better choice than the others you are looking at.”

“That was good advice and I took it.”

His work at UWM had a positive impact on his career. “I had some amazing mentors who connected with me on a personal level going through the SARUP () program. They helped me develop into the professional I’ve become.”

Some of the recent projects he’s worked on include the Drexel Town Square in Oak Creek and the Fiserv Forum entertainment block project in downtown Milwaukee. “It’s been great working with the Milwaukee Bucks…helping them create the living room of Milwaukee.”

Lyssa Olker, design architect and associate vice president at HGA Architects and Engineers

Olker, who grew up in Vermont, earned her undergraduate degree in pre-architecture from a liberal arts college on the East Coast.

Her interest in architecture grew out of her combination of creative skills and enjoyment of mathematics and engineering in high school. She loved drawing, painting and photography and also taking apart and rebuilding mechanical devices like the family clocks. “My dad told me there’s a profession that combines those things. As soon as I looked up what architecture was, I knew it was exactly the right thing for me.”

She chose UWM for graduate work because she was looking for a university that had a good program for non-accredited undergrads. Looking through U.S. News and World Report, she found UWM on the list of top 20 architecture programs. “I looked at the offerings and it was a good fit, and that’s how I ended up here.”

Her UWM background has helped her build a network of connections and resources in the community. “Fifteen years out, I’m still reaching out … whether it’s to teachers or other students for advice and making connections.”

In addition to her work at HGA, she’s active in the community, starting an organization called Community Action, an all-volunteer group of architects and engineers focused on giving back to the community.

One of her favorite projects was the Sherman Phoenix project, converting a historic building damaged during civil unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood into an entrepreneurial hub.

“It was really an honor to work on it. It was very unique and in some ways a groundbreaking approach to rebuilding a community that had had some struggles.”

Jezamil Arroyo-Vega, building construction inspector, Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services

Arroyo-Vega grew up in Puerto Rico, and enjoyed working with her father, who was a contractor and had his own wood shop. She often accompanied him to building sites. “I studied blueprints back when they were actually blue prints.”

That started her interest in building and planning, but it was a cooperative program at that time between UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Inter American University in Puerto Rico that gave her the opportunity to pursue her degree.

“Basically you studied in the Inter American University for two years, then you transferred to UWM to finish your undergrad degree,” said Arroyo-Vega. “I had never been in Milwaukee, but I knew it had a great school of architecture, and it gave me the opportunity to live abroad.”

She recalls arriving with two suitcases and a little bit of savings, but the university community helped her find housing, scholarships and a student job and introduced her to local culture.

“I’ve been forever grateful for that opportunity. My life would not have been the same if I’d gone to university locally in Puerto Rico.”

After earning her undergraduate degree, she worked for two years, then returned to UWM for her master’s degree.

The UWM program’s focus on community planning, urban neighborhoods and local history led to her interest in working for the city. She worked with the architecture school’s Community Design Solutions, which helps local nonprofits with planning and design. And her studies also focused on Milwaukee.

“I learned to understand its history, the patterns, the neighborhoods. Those years of study made me feel more engaged with the community. That’s how I came to know the city. ”

Her passion became neighborhood development and planning in Milwaukee and in her native Puerto Rico. In past, she worked with the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative and the Local Initiative Support Corporation, helping with neighborhood revitalization projects.

“My experiences at UWM were eye-opening for me. It helped me re-envision what an architect can be. Being a planner in neighborhood development was very important to her, she said, and that led to her work in neighborhood housing.

As a building construction inspector, she evaluates structures to make sure they comply with ordinances and works to protect the city’s investment in residential and commercial properties.

It’s a varied career, she said, ranging from inspections of small projects to checking out major developments. “One moment I’m telling someone how to repair their porch and then next I’m on the 11th floor of the BMO Harris Tower on a ladder checking out the floor decking.”