Alumni in Motion: Emma O’Connor-Brooks (2009)


Mia Johnson

This week’s Alumni in Motion column features Ms. Emma O’Connor-Brooks, a 2009 graduate of LFHS. In high school, Emma was a dedicated member on the cross country and lacrosse teams. She was a co-captain on the cross country team, leaders on both Kairos and CROYA retreats, and volunteered at Camp Hope each summer. Emma got to be the co-director of Camp Hope along with her older brother and fellow alumnus of LFHS, Graham O’Connor-Brooks, who is now a Special Ed. teacher at LFHS. Emma was also the president of the Women’s club, a member of the National Honor Society, and a Cum Laude member. To continue Emma’s success from Lake Forest High School, she helped start a small foundation with some peers that was called Out of Doors, which helped raise money to send children to summer camp.

After Emma graduated high school in 2009, she went off to study architecture at the University of Illinois. There, she was in the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, and was also secretary of the honors fraternity, Phi Eta Sigma, and even co-founded an organization called Quipit that hosted a discussion series between architectural professionals, academics, students, all the while maintaining a website for students to submit essays in theme with the discussion series. Emma graduated from Illinois in 2013 and got her first job at Partners in Design Architects, a small architecture firm in Riverwoods, Illinois. She is currently an architect in San Francisco, California at a firm called Mithun. She works on providing affordable housing in the Bay Area. Her job is project-based, where every project she starts is by going through entitlements and working with a developer and the city to get the project approved and coordinate any special site requirements. Since she works in affordable housing, during the conceptual phase she helps organize meetings with neighbors and future tenants to get appropriate feedback to incorporate into the design. Emma works with consultants including structural, civil, and MEP engineers, interior designers, landscape architects to get the job done.

I got in touch with Ms. Emma O’Connor-Brooks recently to talk about what it takes to be an architect and advice that she could give someone that is interested in being an architect.

What was your favorite class and/or teacher you had?

Emma: “My favorite class was Lit Crit AP with Ms. Eccleston – she’s such a wonderful teacher and I owe her many thanks! I still have most of my high school books from her reading selection on my bookshelf!”

What class that you took at the high school was the most impactful to you?

Emma: “I took architecture with Mr. Barndt my freshman year because I wanted to take a class with my brother who was a senior at the time and now I’m an architect!”

What advice would you give to a high school student?

Emma: There’s so much advice I could give about having fun and being passionate, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to go the practical route and suggest starting a Roth IRA now and take advantage of that compounding interest! If that sounds like a foreign language to you, I was in the same boat in high school and wish I had learned about my personal finances at a younger age (something they don’t teach you!)”

What is a fun fact about you?

Emma: “When Ocean’s 12 was filming in Lake Forest (I think in 2004), I stalked out the trailers and got George Clooney’s autograph.”

What advice would you give to someone that wants to pursue a career in architecture?

Emma: “The first step to entering into a career in architecture is finding the right program. During your college search, I’d really encourage you to reach out to alumni or current students. Programs can vary greatly on being more design-focused or technical based, and different schools emphasize different styles of architecture. Try to explore your interests early and talk to as many people as possible to find the right spot for you. For those in high school who are looking to make a portfolio, don’t rely too heavily on computer programs. BIM programs have become really powerful and are necessary to master, but hand sketching is such an important tool that is valued by professors and employers and will make your portfolio stand out. Another piece of advice I would give is to get engaged early with the human aspect of architecture. I spent a lot of my early education focused on design and construction ,but it wasn’t until I engaged with who is using the building and why that I became most passionate about architecture. The last bit of advice I have is to warn you that you will face a lot of discouragement if you pursue a career in architecture (or at least I did) and to that I say, persevere! Studying and practicing architecture is a lot of work, but well worth it in the end to be able to improve communities and people’s everyday lives through the art of design.”

Have you always known that you wanted to become and architect?

Emma: “I’ve known since I was a freshman in high school that I wanted to be an architect (which seems very early!). I’ve always been someone who wanted a clear path to follow, but what I didn’t realize about architecture is that it is not quite as clear-cut as I had expected. Architecture is such a huge field in terms of what type you practice and what design aesthetic is most in line with your sensibilities. All of this left me feeling a bit overwhelmed not knowing exactly where I was heading. I had to learn to adjust and be open to life’s opportunities. I ended up studying abroad my Junior year in Versailles, France and was able to wander around Europe studying every type of architecture the continent had to offer. It was in Europe that I became interested in affordable housing (particularly after visiting the Unite d’Habitation by Le Corbusier) and was introduced to the idea that economical materials can create beautiful designs. Outside of my classes and into my adult life, I grew a passion for public policy which drove me even closer to my desire to make a difference in people’s lives by working in affordable housing. Moving to San Francisco really solidified this goal since the Bay Area is currently undergoing a major housing crisis. I wasn’t able to find a job right out of college in affordable housing, but slowly worked my way through positions that allowed me to build my skill set and gain invaluable experience to be where I am today.”



Emma embraces hard work and dedication. She is passionate about her job and her involvement in Camp Hope. Who would have thought that Emma’s freshman architecture class with Mr. Barndt would lead to the beginning of her career. She kept her interest throughout high school and college and stuck with it. We should all take Emma’s advice “to persevere” in something that we are interested in order to make those dreams into reality.