Every year, the night before Accepted Students Day, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute holds the Garnet D. Baltimore Event, named for the man who became the university’s first African American graduate in 1881. The event is designed to give prospective students an opportunity to meet some of the people who work to impact positive change in the numbers and presence of African Americans at Rensselaer. For Al-Jalil Gault, it was a pivotal moment in his educational journey.
“Attending this event allowed me to get a great preview of the community of underrepresented minority students that I could potentially join,” he said. “Ultimately, I felt it was the most welcoming introduction I received from any school.”
Gault decided to enroll at Rensselaer and study architecture, a field with relatively few practitioners who look like him. Though African Americans made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population at the last census, only 2 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are African American, according to the National Association of Minority Architects.
During his five years on campus, Gault, who will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, has made significant strides toward eliminating this disparity by improving the pipeline for aspiring architects like himself.
“It seems funny to imagine myself as a role model,” Gault said. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced at Rensselaer was being one of only a few black men in the School of Architecture. I decided to take ownership of what I intended my educational experience to be.”
Gault, a native of Chicago, revived the university’s dormant National Organization of Minority Architecture Students (NOMAS) chapter, led the chapter’s participation in the annual Black Families Technology Awareness Day event, and launched the Pre-College Design Program for middle school students, run under Rensselaer’s Science Technology Entry Program.
Through NOMAS, Gault had a leadership role in shaping undergraduate student culture. “We were able to not only develop stronger leadership skills in my peers,” he said, “but also to allow others to join in the journey of creating more meaningful experiences at school.”
During his five years at Rensselaer, Gault worked tirelessly. He traveled and presented at several conferences, took part in design competitions, and held several internships. He worked as an architectural intern at Gregory Ramon Design Studio and SmithGroup in Chicago and at Mithun in Seattle. He also did a summer undergraduate research program at MIT, working as a research assistant under faculty member Alan M. Berger. His project there focused on “Resilience Districts,” which are intended to prepare coastal cities for long-term climate adaptation.
He’s been on the dean’s list at Rensselaer every semester since he arrived and was awarded the Norman Waxman Memorial Award for “exemplifying a spirit of unselfish giving to the school and Institute.”
Going forward, Gault is interested in engaging in critical research and discourse concerning urban places. After graduation, he’ll head to the University of Pennsylvania to earn a master’s degree in city planning.
“While my aspirations are broad, my goal is to advance the civic quality of life with data-driven planning and design. I want to promote community and environmental resilience at regional and metropolitan scales,” he says.
This summer, before heading to UPenn, he’ll take part in the Bedford Traveling Workshop, traveling to Brasilia, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The Bedford Workshop sponsors the travel of six architecture students and six engineering students to locations where concentrations of best practices and projects can be found.
Of all the things he did at Rensselaer, Gault said he most enjoyed mentoring students and doing outreach to prospective students.
“Sometimes I think I might like to be a professor,” he said. “Sharing the educational privilege I’ve had is really important to me.”