LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 7, 2021) — “Opportunities don’t chase people, opportunities wait for the chasers.”
That’s just a little something University of Kentucky College of Design graduate student Montre’ale Jones tells himself as he takes on new leadership activities, academic opportunities and life’s challenges.
Jones’ personal mantra has paid off for years. And now, it is guiding him through the toughest year of his life.
Growing up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Jones — like many children — found construction fascinating and as he got older, he continued to enjoy the process of building something from his imagination. But a question from his biggest fan, his mom, would help him reframe his future plans.
“I've always been interested in design. I always call myself the mischievous creative and resourceful adolescent because anything that was around the house I kind of took it and synthesized it to create something new. I was always interested in the combination of various materials.
“So, one day I announced to my mom ‘hey, I want to be a construction worker.’ And she was like, ‘well, why don't you be the architect?’ And so, I didn't know at first what that was. But later on, I realized what the architect was, what their role was, and how their role was significant in society, and that they are pivotal in how we interact in space and with each other on a daily basis. And that's something I wanted to be a part of.”
The aspiring architect already understood the importance of education and began to research just what might get him to UK, home to a premier architecture college.
“I've always considered education a gateway as a transition or a door to get to wherever else you want to get in life. I consider college this threshold; it's a way for you to advance yourself and your family situation, as well as propel yourself and missions forward,” Jones said.
At HCC, Jones would begin to show just how determined he was to chase those opportunities before him. Following a calling to serve others, he ran and won the student government presidency. That position would lead Jones to one of two student representative spots on the Kentucky Community and Technical College Systems Board of Regents charged with giving voice to over 75,000 community college students across the state.
“That experience and networking with Dr. Jay Box and the other board members really gave me insight into academics and how institutions run,” Jones explained. “That experience alone coming into UK really helped me as far as leadership and insight, as far as what I would like to get done or just knowing about how things are done at the institution level to make change.”
With several classes under his belt and honed leadership skills, Jones began to make connections with UK College of Design (CoD) and the university chapter of MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment), an organization he was active in at the high school level. When it came time transfer to UK, Jones hit the ground running.
“I wanted to make my transition seamless and that's what it was. So, when I got to UK — after being involved at the community college — I was ready for that bigger step. I was just ready for that bigger platform and place.”
As he pursued his UK bachelor’s degree in architecture, Jones stayed true to his mantra and continued to chase opportunities. He returned to MANRRS, and this time he not only was active at the local campus level. This time Jones furthered his commitment to the organization by serving as a national officer of the organization while also helping the local award-winning UK chapter.
And since Jones prides himself on venturing outside his comfort zone to take risks that he believes are critical to growth, he searched for other new activities. He was part of UK’s 2018 Royal Homecoming Court, Mr. and Ms. Black UK Royal Homecoming Court of 2019 and the Student Government Association. He also served as a UK Alumni Ambassador, presided over the campus chapter for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students), co-founded and led the campus NOMAS (National Organization for Minority Architects) chapter, and co-hosted Chinese New Year’s for the Confucius Institute in 2020.
Jones also added to his academic load applying for and earning a Gaines Fellowship, an intensive two-year program in the humanities that requires its scholars to carry out an independent thesis project their senior year. The project allows fellows to conduct passionate, faculty-mentored research and to demonstrate in-depth understanding of their research upon defense. Jones’ took this opportunity to do research on a topic of great interest to him — student housing. His research, “Student Housing: A Call for Reformed Community Design,” enabled him to further explore the crossroads of his interest in architecture and humanities by addressing how design can heal, provide wellness and create a captivating living learning space. (Watch Jones discuss this opportunity more here.)
“One of the reasons why I choose to be a part of so many activities or initiatives, especially as I started out coming into UK, is I've discovered that I want to empower, educate and create meaningful change across the board,” Jones said. “So things that I see as far as missions or objectives that need to be done, I pursue it. And then I also just want to better the student experience. When there's not enough representation in a space, I want to create it. If there's not a voice somewhere, I want it to be heard. And if there's not activism somewhere, then I’m acting or educating people on how to act in order to create their own change in order to be their own kind of catalyst in any situation.
“Each thing that you experience or that you go through prepares you for the next. Each of my experiences has essentially added to my tool belt that has prepared me for the next — the bigger thing — which in this case for me is being out there in the world and working professionally and being a change agent there.”
Through Gaines, MANNRS and CoD, Jones has also been afforded several chances to travel around the U.S. and abroad, to places like Italy and China, giving him even more opportunities to grow.
And in the classroom, Jones has brought together his passion to design and serve others as he finishes a master’s degree in urban & environmental design a year after completing his bachelor’s in architecture. The master’s program allows him to explore opportunities to make change on a variety of scales from focusing on the built environment through commercial architecture to developing urban-sized cultural projects.
“I think nowadays we need a lot more empowerment. We need to see ourselves in our built environment. And so that's one of the things that I want to do as an architect and urban designer. One of the projects that I would say that’s done that for me was the African American History and Culture Museum in D.C. I got to see it in construction. I got to see it complete. And its symbolism there on the National Mall made me and an entire culture of people like myself feel like we were now a part of D.C. and the Smithsonian. That's what I want to do for people everywhere as a professional.”
With so much unknown last fall, it is not surprising Jones didn’t miss a beat starting his graduate studies even as the world seemed to be questioning day-to-day decisions.
“I chose to remain at UK for graduate school because I really think there's something special here. Even amid COVID, the pandemic, the uncertainty, the unknown, I really think I was meant to be here for grad school and for the urban design degree. And I value the education and the people here within my college itself. They are very knowledgeable people with a vast network. My education here at the university's College of Design has been nothing but phenomenal.”
And while, Jones values the college’s academic profile, he also cherishes the family atmosphere fostered at CoD through the long conversations students enjoy with faculty and administrators outside of the classroom to the many hours of fellowship the college’s students experience pulling all-nighters finishing their work.
Jones understands just how important these relationships are, from his college family to the friendships he’s built across campus through MANRRS and Gaines. And now more than ever, it is these relationships helping him cross the finish line as the graduate faces the worst year of his life.
As classes ended last fall, Jones was shocked to learn one of his friends had died by suicide. And as he began to process that loss and return to campus in January, he received the call people around the world had been dreading since the March before. His mom was in the hospital. It was COVID-19. And as his semester now draws to a close, her situation persists as she nears her fourth month of hospitalization.
From calls to him at the hospital, heartfelt conversations, offers of resources and more, the Gaines Center director and CoD dean, administrators and faculty let Jones know his UK family is there for him as he is there for his family at home.
For the last four months, Jones has relied on this campus family and his drive and experience to keep going as he balances classes with new responsibilities — running his family’s home as well as one of a relative his mom cared for and offering support to his sister who is pregnant with the family's newest addition (making Jones a first-time uncle and his mother a first-time grandmother), all while being his mom’s advocate for care and a rock to lean on. Once the recipient of calls of encouragement from his mom, more recently he has been her bedside source of reassurance and inspiration.
“I've really had to endure and prevail. The strength and fortitude that I have had to possess just this past year would not have been as responsive, elastic and steadfast if it had not been for my rigorous student experiences along my educational journey. Undergoing the process of applying for different things, performing all-nighters in design studio to complete projects and meet deadlines, and getting out of my comfort zone have really prepared me for this point. Just dealing with all of that on top of expecting to graduate this year, I've really had to pull through. But looking back I'm really thankful for it because I don't know what's next. But I'm stronger than I was before and so I'm ready.”
Jones added, “I can say despite my ups and my downs — my successes and my failures — and the ever-changing environment and circumstances around me throughout my time as a student, I am triumphant in being able to adapt, remain steadfast and optimistic. My collegiate experiences the University of Kentucky and the valued lessons learned will last me a lifetime, especially being able to adapt to change. The nature of wind is often slight, like a breeze; sometimes brisk, active and quick to alter in direction; wind too may be gusty and forceful. Wind is essentially unpredictable, instantaneous and inconsistent. Wind is a lot like life events and experiences, and undoubtedly the years of 2020 and 2021. Don’t be a wall that fights the wind, be a mill that the wind works with. I flourish in being the mill.”
As Jones leaves campus and begins to pursue a career in architecture, one thing is for certain, his drive and resilience is leaving a legacy his Wildcat family will not forget.
“I don't like to leave spaces the way I found them. And I really think I made an impact here at UK in different spaces. I'm proud to say that I've changed the campus. And I think the campus has changed me.”
UK’s Commencement Ceremonies will take place May 14-16. For more information, visit https://commencement.uky.edu/.
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.