Class of 2021: From Orange, New Jersey, to MIT, by Way of UVA Architecture
Gabe Castro-Andrade, a first-generation American, grew up in what he described as “the not-so-best of communities and neighborhoods.”
“I grew up on the border of Orange and West Orange, New Jersey, which is pretty much near Newark,” he said recently outside his room on the Lawn, a residence of honor for fourth-year University of Virginia students. “Everyone there is either Caribbean, African or South American and there are a few Central Americans.”
Castro-Andrade, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree this month, described a growing economic divide between Orange and the increasingly prosperous and suburban West Orange that he still thinks about today and informs his work as a student of architecture.
“Everyone [in West Orange] is more comfortable, they don’t have to worry necessarily about things of survival and trying to just live on an everyday basis,” he said. “They were able to think more about the future and plan things out accordingly.”
Castro-Andrade said there was also a topographical dimension to the two places, and the symbolism was inescapable. To get from Orange to West Orange, you must walk uphill. “As soon as you started going uphill, you started entering a suburban area. Down the hill, again, was this area of crime and poverty,” he said. People up the hill in West Orange would look down the hill at people in Orange “not just physically, but also socially.”
This was the walk Castro-Andrade would take to West Orange High School, a school his Ecuadorian mother Ruth moved him to for a better education.
During his senior year of high school, Castro-Andrade juggled huge responsibilities on his own; applying to colleges without the benefit of having a parent who had gone through the process before. At the time, his single mother was unemployed and the two were homeless, sometimes staying at his grandmother’s home.
An excellent student, Castro-Andrade is a Questbridge Scholar – Questbridge being a national nonprofit that connects high-achieving, low-income students to universities around the country. In addition, he is a UVA Blue Ridge Scholar, earning economic support because of his exceptional academic promise and significant financial need.
But to say that Castro-Andrade was not thrilled to come to UVA is an understatement, at least initially.
“It was very jarring,” he said. “I hated my first two years at UVA because it was very obvious that I wasn’t coming from this background where I had the support. Of course, I had my mom’s emotional and mental support, which I could not have done anything without. But it wasn't the same as the sort of actual professional [guidance] like, ‘This is what you’ve got to do here,’ or ‘This is what you're going to do.’ I always seemed to be professionally and even academically behind, up until my third year.”
Choosing Architecture, Excelling at Research and Giving Back to the Community
All that walking up and down that hill between Orange and West Orange during his formative high school years drew Castro-Andrade toward architecture. He felt deeply out of his element in those suburban neighborhoods; when he turned to go back home, back down the hill, his comfort level went back up.
“Then down the hill, when I was walking around abandoned buildings or housing projects, that’s where I felt more comfortable,” he said. “The question of spaces and how they make you feel and the visual presentation of them, that’s what sort of got me going. And I was good at art. So, I was like, ‘This may work.’”
So, what happened that third year at UVA that changed things for Castro-Andrade?
For one, he’d solidified his social network of friends and faculty. There was also a running exchange with one of his School of Architecture mentors, assistant professor Elgin Cleckley, that helped tip the scale.
Castro-Andrade had told Cleckley how much he disliked the culture at UVA and how he felt like he wasn’t supposed to be at the University. “It was just a very privileged environment, and it got to me,” he said. “I was always thinking, ‘Well, I need to move out of here, like drop out of UVA and go to a different school.’”
Castro-Andrade said friends and Cleckley “finally beat it into my skull” that he belonged at UVA. “They were the ones who really helped me figure out for myself who I was and how I should not be ashamed to speak with my regular vocabulary or to act as I normally would,” he said.
As Castro-Andrade continued to find his academic footing, his scholarly success exploded. He began doing research for one of his other favorite instructors, associate professor Mona El Khafif. “She’s been a main contributor and mentor in how I’ve developed myself and understood architecture, and especially urban realms,” he said.
Castro-Andrade developed the user experience for an app-based intervention in Martinsville, called “We Are Martinsville,” a telehealth project that was designed to rejuvenate a sense of place for school-aged children in the area.
He was also the design assistant, fabricator and coder on a project called Ostenda Illuminata, translated to “revealing illumination.” It is a replicable, networkable streetscape system designed to give control over the urban environment to the community, rather than an external force.
Ostenda Illuminata employs a series of sensors that help communities understand environmental conditions that cannot be detected by humans’ five senses. It collects data on things like air quality, human proximity, and sound, and shares it locally on a live web map in real time. The first installment of Ostenda Illuminata was placed at UVA’s School of Architecture as proof of concept last September.
For all of this work and more, Castro-Andrade was the inaugural recipient of the Rian Taylor Bachman Bicentennial Scholarship last summer. The scholarship provides an opportunity for peers and faculty to laud undergraduate architecture students who, through their work and conduct, demonstrate “remarkable empathy and a desire to benefit others through inclusive and thoughtful design.”
In his spare time – and yes, he managed to find some – Castro-Andrade also volunteered as a tutor at Jack Jouett Middle School and at Computers4Kids, a local nonprofit that tailors programs to meet the science, technology, engineering, arts and math interests of students in sixth to 12th grades.
Last summer, he was named a fellow with the National Organization of Minority Architecture, a prestigious appointment that assures placement as a summer fellow at a top architecture firm and a stipend to help pay for accreditation later in one’s architecture career.
Castro-Andrade was placed with Ennead Architects, an international firm with offices in New York and Shanghai. He spent last summer helping to design spaces for three future hospitals on the East Coast.
In February, Castro-Andrade got incredible news; the only problem was that he didn’t believe it. Spring is when students hear from graduate schools to which they’ve applied. The first school Castro-Andrade heard from was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; it was an admittance letter.
“They basically told me, ‘Yeah, we really want you and basically, we’re going to give you a full ride,’” he said.
“It was really funny at that point because I was like, ‘This can’t be real life,’” he said laughing. “And I was always being skeptical, like, ‘I'm waiting to hear from grad schools,’ and all my friends were like ‘No! You got into MIT. You’re good now!’”
Once he got over his distrust, Castro-Andrade let the good news sink in. “You know, I just got lucky enough. I got blessed by the world to get that free tuition.”
Does Castro-Andrade see himself returning to the Orange as an accredited architect? “That would be a dream,” he said. “I want to be able to do it under the right circumstances, where it’s not me coming and trying to impose my ideas on someone. Being invited back as a professional, where they want me to come help and collaborate,” Castro-Andrade said, would be perfect.