Jun 4th 2024

Chicago: The City of Architects

Joyce Tan Vela (B.ARCH ’04) is acutely aware of the inequalities of the world, and she is fighting to bring her architectural expertise to those most in need of help.

Born in Zambia, Tan Vela traveled with her parents, who were medical missionaries, around East Africa for most of her childhood. “That’s where my heart for public service, and architecture as a tool for positive change, began,” she says. “This profession is used to help people and make a better world. It’s universally useful. Everywhere in the world, people need shelter, and the impact is felt at the individual, family, and community level.”

Tan Vela returned to her family’s home country of Singapore for college after years of boarding school education. “Singapore was a culture shock,” Tan Vela says. “The education system was rigid, competitive, and asking questions was almost frowned upon.”

While she thought of following her father into health care, Tan Vela wanted to express her creativity in a way to help people and fulfill her personal goals. She also hadn’t lived in one place for more than three years, so staying for nearly a decade in Singapore “felt like an eternity,” she says.

Tan Vela came to the College of Architecture with the ultimate goal of working in community development in South America, but her experiences outside the classroom at Illinois Institute of Technology turned her plans upside down—including finding her husband, Ramon Vela (E.E. ’04) who has anchored her to Chicago for 17 years. Tan Vela is now a Senior project architect and project manager at Canopy, where she works on affordable housing and multi-family projects that range from new construction to adaptive reuse.

In her studies, Tan Vela found value in courses inside and outside of architecture. Through elective courses at IIT, Tan Vela learned Spanish, which had been a lifelong goal. The university’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program brought her team to El Salvador, where she worked to combat scoliosis with treatment ideas. “It was completely unrelated to architecture, but it was a key part of my college education,” she says. “Courses like that are really valuable for a broader education. It’s one of the most valuable courses I took.”

Tan Vela found a way to integrate her passion for helping others with architecture by getting involved in Habitat for Humanity Chicago, a nonprofit that aims to bring more affordable housing to underserved communities. She began volunteering with the organization, and eventually joined the Board of Directors in 2021. What really drew her in was the organization’s on-going push for diversity, equity, and inclusion work—particularly to ensure local neighborhood partners are properly represented. She brings her architectural skillset and a unique international perspective to the Board.