In 2021 Alzira Maldonado Protsishin (M.A.S. ARCH ’14) won the American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA Chicago) Dubin Family Young Architect Award—a title that, on the surface, might suggest a seamless ascent to notoriety. But Maldonado Protsishin is someone who knows what it is to fight for a dream—to rise as a minority woman in a male-dominated field, and to build a career, and a life, a world away from where she began.
Born in what is now Kyiv, Ukraine, and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Maldonado Protsishin is the daughter of two structural engineers. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she split her time between both of their houses growing up, sometimes tagging along on their work projects. The influence of their careers, she says, was significant.
“It is incredible for me, for my mom, for my family, to have that recognition [through the AIA Chicago award] in a different country and after all of the effort that it took. To me it’s mind blowing.” —Alzira Maldonado Protsishin
When she became a mother at a young age, Maldonado Protsishin stayed true to the dreams for her career with the support of her family.
“I finished high school with the help of my parents,” she says. “I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am [otherwise]—it’s because they helped me a lot, especially my mom. Going to college later, it was a 24-hour job basically. It was taking [my son] to kindergarten, going to class, picking him up, doing homework, dinner, getting him in bed, and then after that I got to study and do my homework for school as well. It was busy, I have to say, and challenging at times. I don’t think I would change a thing about it.”
When Maldonado Protsishin decided to study architecture in college, she was fully aware of the gender imbalance that exists within the field. Her mother’s professional success inspired her decision.
Fourteen years ago Maldonado Protsishin’s mother’s employer offered her an opportunity to move to the United States for work, and she took it. Her mother now lives in Houston.
“She moved here knowing little English, and while working she was studying to learn the language,” Maldonado Protsishin says. “Today she is a licensed structural engineer in three countries. I have never seen her give up on anything. She just plowed through the adversities to access better opportunities for herself and her family.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in Colombia and working in Bogotá, Maldonado Protsishin moved with her son to Chicago. She enrolled in Illinois Institute of Technology’s Master of Architecture program, and her son enrolled in middle school. Given her responsibilities as a single mother, she went to school while also working part-time.
“It is the way I accomplished staying here—getting an internship so I could have an offer after graduation and have my [residency] paperwork,” she says. “I was in a different mindset than everybody else [in my graduate program] because I already had so much responsibility. I had to think way, way far ahead.”
At Illinois Tech, Maldonado Protsishin took a graduate studio course with instructor Thomas Hoepf, who also worked at EXP, a global architecture and engineering firm headquartered in Chicago. The two then became colleagues when Maldonado Protsishin was hired into an architect internship at the firm. That position served as a catalyst for her growth within the company, and she still works for EXP, currently as a senior architect.
“The group that I am in at the firm mostly does public projects, so a lot of transportation infrastructure, Chicago Transit Authority projects, airports, [and projects with] federal agencies like [the U.S. General Services Administration] and [the Federal Aviation Administration]. Those are the type of projects that I really like, working on public building projects,” she says.
Maldonado Protsishin’s projects have ranged from working on the redesign of the 95th Street/Dan Ryan Intermodal CTA station; designing a new courthouse in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth located in the Pacific Ocean south of Japan; and, most recently, designing air traffic control towers in North Dakota and South Carolina.
“In the courthouse and many of the CTA projects, I was a project designer,” she says. “I work on the front end with the client visualizing the building and addressing the needs of the end users. I do community outreach and town halls when we present the project to the community, and stay involved on the project for coordination of the design that was approved by the client and work on key details, which I like.”
“She’s always been involved in all phases of the work, as all architects are, but her passion has been design, and her design abilities are just superb,” Hoepf, now a design director at EXP, says of Maldonado Protsishin. “She has that sensibility about the big picture down to the craft and detail. She is a critical part of our collaborative team of architects and engineers, and she is respected as such.”
Outside of work, Maldonado Protsishin has gotten involved with a cause dear to her heart: empowering other women in the development of their careers as architects. One way she has done so is by volunteering with Arquitina, a nonprofit that provides mentorship to Latina women who are preparing to take their licensure exams to become architects.
Alicia Ponce, founder of Arquitina, has witnessed Maldonado Protsishin’s drive in this area firsthand.
“[With our mentees], we talk about family, partners, and mental health—all of that comes into play when you’re trying to take an exam,” Ponce says. “Somebody like Alzira can share her story. She meets with a mentee and also volunteers for our planning committee. She hit the ground running being a mentor and key member for Arquitina, and she’s always really happy, which makes it even better.”
Maldonado Protsishin has made a home for herself and her son in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. Her son is a business major completing his final year of college in Chicago. Career-wise, Maldonado Protsishin says she remains deeply interested in public building projects that can serve the next generation. Her greatest motivator, she says, is still her family.
As she looks forward, the AIA Chicago award that she received is opening new doors.
“I’m just going forward for me and my son,” she says. “It is incredible for me, for my mom, for my family, to have that recognition [through the AIA Chicago award] in a different country and after knowing all of the effort that it took. To me it’s mind blowing. I’ve been invited to do keynotes and to belong to other organizations. What I feel is that it has opened up the opportunity to tell my story, so younger generations and young architects see that they can aim for it, too.”
Connection to the Community
Alzira Maldonado Protsishin (M.A.S. ARCH ’14) wanted to ease the life of everyday commuters in simple ways at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) stop at West 95th Street, where it intersects with the busy Dan Ryan Expressway.
The existing structure was a dark, hulking, concrete building where commuters passed through turnstiles and descended into a cracked and dilapidated interior.
Much of that was torn down. In its place, she helped design a bright, airy terminal space with numerous windows and skylights, aluminum curtain walls, and a colorful ribbon design on its glass and metal-paneled exterior. A second building was built on the south side of the busy 95th Street, connected by a skyway, effectively doubling the size of the 62,250-square-foot project. Additional terminal space transformed the site into a hub for both city buses and far-reaching Greyhound lines.
“When you change the architecture of the building to have more natural light, make it more secure, and with materials that are more dignified, it changes your day. It’s about making your life easier,” Maldonado Protsishin says.
In the future, Maldonado Protsishin hopes to continue working on “big community impact projects,” in transportation and elsewhere. She worked on the renovation and Americans with Disabilities Act adaptation of the historic CTA “L” train Quincy Elevated Station and the striking design of the new Washington/Wabash “L” station, and is currently working on an even larger project for the CTA: the renovation of a large swath of the Red and Purple “L” train line on Chicago’s North Side, including four stations that are in need of modernization. —Tad Vezner