In a classroom full of boys learning to build walls and draw blueprints, Brenda Parker is no shrinking violet.
She was eagerly nailing down shingles when she was 10. Now, as a junior at the Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy, Schenectady’s smaller high school, she’s running wiring and plumbing through her own wall, then Sheetrocking it.
In the computer lab, she’s taking classes in computer-aided design, an architecture program that allows her to write her own blueprints. She started with simple shapes made from Legos, learning to painstakingly draw not just the exterior shape, but the interior supports.
She’s still a long way from designing a whole house, but her work has already won attention. She is one of 10 finalists for the Vanguard Award, which honors five outstanding students throughout the state who are pursuing a career dominated by the opposite gender.
The award is organized by the state Nontraditional Employment and Training Project, which promotes gender-neutral educational practices.
The winners will be announced in February. The award comes with only a $100 prize, but Parker has her eye on a bigger reward.
“I just want the award because I know colleges will know I won it,” she said,
Architecture is a highly competitive college program, and Parker is worried her freshman grades will hurt her chances.
She turned things around by the end of that year, and in her sophomore and junior years her grades are “perfect,” she said. But since she can’t go back and undo the damage from those first quarters of high school, she’s doing everything she can to convince colleges she is a strong candidate now.
She has her OSHA construction engineering certification and plans to get any other certifications she can between now and college application season.
She’s also studying hard and taking Regents exams even in subjects for which she isn’t taking the classes.
“I am focused. I want to be successful when I’m older. I want to have a good life, and I know education is going to get me there,” she said. “I know school will help me be successful.”
It’s a lesson her father drilled into her from a young age. He dropped out of school in ninth grade, she said.
“Construction is all he knows,” she said.
But when his daughter’s grades tanked in ninth grade, he intervened immediately. He sent her to another school for the rest of the year, in hopes of turning her around.
“He always told me: ‘Persevere, persevere, persevere,’ ” she said. “ ‘Go to school to learn, not to hang out with your friends.’ That’s what I do. I want to be successful.”
Now she brings home notes from teachers praising her. He buys her shoes as a reward.
“I tell my dad, ‘I told you so!’ He didn’t think I was going to straighten up,” she said.
Her architecture teacher, Jim Keough, thinks she’ll win the Vanguard Award.
“She’s one of my best students ever,” he said, adding that he taught college-bound students at the main high school campus for seven years.
“Brenda is more driven than 90 percent of the students I had,” he said. “She’s willing to put in the hard work.”
Parker’s interest in architecture began when her father took her with him to jobs at his boss’ house.
“I saw how he can make a house beautiful,” she said.
Soon she was up on the roof with him, nailing in shingles.
“I even signed my name on something on the roof,” she said. “I was maybe 10 or 11 years old.”
But as she grew older, she decided architecture would be better than actual construction “because it’s not hard labor,” she said. “And I like designing. And it’s good money.”
Working in a male-dominated field doesn’t faze her. She said she was surprised to hear architecture qualified for the Vanguard Award.
“In architecture, you just make sure it’s built safely. I don’t even know how it’s mostly men,” she said.
Most of the students in her class are boys, though, so she’s used to it.
“The boys listen to her,” Keough said with a laugh. “She’s a leader.”