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The Experiences of an ACE Mentor: Part II

by Shawn Balon, ASLA

What does it take to be an ACE Mentor? Over the past few years, I have always wondered how I could become an ACE Mentor, and as I embarked on ASLA’s career discovery and diversity initiatives earlier this year, I also decided to learn more about what it truly means to be a volunteer for the ACE Mentor Program of America Inc. (ACE). Over the next several months, follow me as I journal my experiences as a professional volunteer at a local high school in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

2017-1219 ACE Mentor Part II
Image credit: Shawn Balon, ASLA

Since I last posted regarding the steps in volunteering for ACE, I have learned a lot about how the ACE Mentor program functions in Washington, D.C., metro area high schools. Each school is slightly different depending on your volunteer team composition. My ACE Mentor team includes three construction professionals and myself. Our team includes a seasoned volunteer leader who worked on composing the schedule and curriculum for the school year. Since I was a little late joining the team, I was not able to directly influence the schedule, but I was able to put forth my ideas to include landscape architecture in future classes; also knowing that there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss the profession during volunteer hours.

The basic agenda of each class includes starting with a safety message which can be voiced by the student or mentor (think… look both ways before crossing the street). The rest of the class time depends on the guest speakers lined up by the mentors. I would have to guess that not every ACE Mentor class is set up in this manner, but ACE encourages creating interactive and collaborative sessions that aren’t fully PowerPoint driven. This is definitely something we should all be considering when presenting to middle school and high school students.

During my first class, we had not scheduled guest speakers, so the students were tasked with discussing the type of project they would like to work on as a class. This project will continue through the spring where the students will present their project at a local event (and potentially submit to the 2018 CIRT/ACE National Design and Construction Competition. Ideas ranged from infrastructure projects to athletic stadiums. But, the final consensus from the class was focused on a hospitality project including a hotel and casino component. Much to my surprise, I was excited about this opportunity, because I could encourage some fun exterior design into the project.

2017-1219 ACE Mentor Part II
Image credit: Shawn Balon, ASLA

Prior to this exercise, I talked to the class about my career path as a landscape architect and I would like to think that I may have swayed some of the students’ interest from interior architecture design to exterior landscape architecture design for the project! The students were asked what component of the project they were most interested in designing (i.e. architecture, interior, structural, electrical, exterior, etc.), and I was delighted to see a few students interested to hone their skills towards landscape architecture. I look forward to seeing the students grow and understand the profession over the next semester.

Since my initial class of volunteering, students have had the opportunity to listen to guest lectures from an architect, surveyor, and civil engineer. This has been a great opportunity for the students to hear from local professionals on their career path and also learn about some of the projects they have been working on. I even found myself extremely interested in learning what some of the professionals had to say about their field of study. Don’t get me wrong – I still love landscape architecture, but I had no idea the breadth of work some of the professionals have accomplished.

A few lessons lined up in the future include a field trip to the DC United soccer stadium currently under construction; discussions and guest speakers on mechanical engineering, LEED, BIM and virtual design; and the ongoing design of the class’s hospitality project. As we progress through the curriculum over the next semester, I will continue to share my experiences in LAND in hopes to gain traction and interest toward the ACE Mentor Program and also answer any questions or doubts you may have regarding becoming a volunteer in your region.

Shawn M. Balon, ASLA, PLA, is Career Discovery and Diversity Manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects. Questions? Feel free to send emails to

ASLA is a sponsor of the ACE Mentor Program, a national effort to engage high school students in substantive, in-depth projects and exercises that expose them to real-life work in the full range of design and construction professions. Why not get involved yourself? Visit to learn more on how you can apply to be a mentor in your area or how your firm or company can sponsor this program.

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