Sandy Dickenson: One Lucky Architect

This is a guest post by Sandra Lea Dickenson, AIA Emeritus of Vermillion, SD.

Sandy has been a licensed architect since 1972, when women comprised less than 2% of the profession, and has practiced in six states and Germany.  She holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Oklahoma and is a life-long Sooner fan.  Sandy and her military husband came to Vermillion, SD in 1989, choosing to stay to raise their three girls when Ross retired. Sandy is involved in South Dakota AIA, community committees and Vermillion Community Theatre.  She loves to travel and has visited all 50 states and nearly 30 countries.

I am incredibly lucky!

Maybe it is the holiday season, maybe it is closing out three years on the Strategic Council of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and maybe it is that I can finally see “real” retirement in the near future, but, reflecting on my life and career, I see that I have been incredibly lucky.  Now, I’ve worked hard and rolled with some punches, but I have also been blessed. 

I graduated from a high school class of 40 on Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico in 1963.  The Department of Defense has the luxury of hiring really great teachers and we had some of the best. I had an encouraging math teacher but it was my guidance counselor that set me on my life path.   He suggested architecture as a career.  I read “The Fountainhead” and thought it sounded exciting so I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma.  No one told me that there were so few women that I would not see another in my five year program.  I compensated for the lack of females by joining a sorority and a drill team.  I just kept studying.  My nomad military parents lived in a different place every year I was in school, so I had summer employment in a different part of the country every summer.  Sometimes it was typing specifications but it was real work in a real firm and it gave me a national view.

Over the years I have worked for many firms in many places, big firms, little firms, government agencies, and on my own. I had told my guidance counselor that I didn’t want to do the same job every day.  I got my wish.  Architecture is truly the profession of infinite variety.

They say you marry your father, so the love of my life is another military man.  We have been lucky to have great assignments including two tours in Germany.  For an architect to spend a total of six years in Europe is the stuff of dreams.  The three girls we had along the way were pretty great too.

We landed in Vermillion, South Dakota nearly 30 years ago when my husband was assigned to ROTC at the University.  We fell in love with this small college town with great schools and chose to stay.  There were years I commuted and years I practiced from home.  I have nearly always had as much work as I can handle, which is lucky too.  We have continued to travel and have been to all 50 states and about 30 countries.

In the twenty years it took us to land in South Dakota, the profession of architecture had slowly gained in percentage of women.  I finally had peers! We are currently graduating about 45% women from architectural schools but are lagging in the rate of registration and senior leadership.

Another woman architect encouraged my involvement with South Dakota AIA.  I served in several offices and, eventually, as South Dakota State President.  During my time on the board, we started “design:SD” to extend design influence to small rural communities and helped edit an architectural magazine.  I had leadership training in Washington DC and Los Angeles and worked on several bills in state legislature.

Three years ago I was selected by AIA South Dakota to serve on the national Strategic Council of the AIA.  In this position I represented the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I was truly lucky. Because of the rotation system, South Dakota can only appoint a councilor every 18 years.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  The opportunity to travel and to mingle with great architects from around the world while setting policy for the profession is truly fulfilling.

It has been 55 years since that trip to the counselor’s office and I have been licensed for 46 of those years.  I’ve seen amazing development in building technology and how we architects do our work.  There are a thousand points along this journey that could have derailed the course of my life, but I have been lucky.  As I contemplate hanging up my T-square, I reflect on my good fortune and feel truly blessed.  The travel won’t stop, however.

Leave a Reply