Finding a Way in the Unfamiliar

A dialogue with Vietnamese immigrant alumnus Manh Tran (M.Arch. ’94, B.Arch. ’91)

by Stephen Schad • May 26, 2023

This year, the Hines College celebrated its largest graduating class to date. A record-breaking 190 students crossed the graduation stage on May 12, 2023, ready to start their professional careers in architecture and design. For decades, the College has welcomed a rich diversity of students from across the world. Just this year, family members from several countries, including Egypt, Italy, Lebanon, and Vietnam, traveled to the University of Houston to participate in the College’s intimate commencement ceremony at the architecture building.

Our students come from diverse backgrounds with rich family histories and deep cultural roots. Alumnus Manh Tran (M.Arch. ’94, B.Arch. ’91) is just one example. At the age of eight years old, his family moved to the United States from Vietnam to escape the Fall of Saigon. Hines College executive director of communications Stephen Schad sat down with Tran to learn about his experience coming to the United States, nurturing his passion for architecture, and his tenured career with SHOPCO.

Stephen Schad (SS): When you moved to the United States from Vietnam, how did the shift in culture and way of life impact on you as a child?
Manh Tran (MT): As an eight-year-old, everything in life differed from Vietnam. The most challenging struggle, though, was the language barrier. Somehow, as the nuns at the school assured my parents, it did not take long for me to pick up the English language and to speak comfortably.

Shopping for groceries or clothes was quite a “wow” moment upon arriving in the United States. I was amazed at the size of the stores and their offerings. My parents eventually moved to Houston and bought a convenience store. They wanted to fulfill the dream of owning their own business. It became a family business, and I contributed my fair share of time to run and operate the store, giving me a good understanding of how convenience stores operate. Perhaps, my experiences are what inspired my future professional career. Now I design convenience stores. Life, education, and career have come full circle for me.

SS: When and how did you discover your passion for architecture? How did you land on the University of Houston
MT: My attraction to architecture started in junior high school when I took my first drafting class. I found great interest in our final assignment of the year, measuring and drawing the house I was living in. During this time, I learned that my dad’s best friend from Chicago worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). He was on the team working on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Whenever our families got together, he would share his experiences from the project.

Originally, the University of Houston was not my first choice. I was accepted to the University of Minnesota, but in the winter of 1985, my parents moved to Houston to start a business of their own. After I graduated from high school, I moved to Houston to be with my family. UH was a logical choice for convenience and cost. The College of Architecture had also just opened its new Philip Johnson building, so I considered it perfect timing.

SS: As an immigrant, did you have a different perspective from other students? Were there other students in the program with similar shared experiences?
MT: By the time I got to junior high, the English language was no longer a hindrance to me. I felt just like any other student. At UH, it was pretty much the same way. My Vietnamese friends had made a similar path in life as myself, and we no longer saw ourselves as immigrants. We were now Asian American.

I was surprised by my initial observation and experiences at the UH. I was quickly reminded that I was no longer in the suburbs of Minneapolis. UH was a major university, and there are many international students. It was a truly diverse university, and you learned to appreciate the different cultures.

Dress shirt, Forehead, Cheek, Smile, Sleeve, Gesture, Collar

above: interiors Tran has worked on for Shopco

SS: Was there any defining moment of your education at the University of Houston that left a significant impact on you? Were there any faculty who influenced your education and how you think about architecture today?
MT: At the end of my third year, there was a year-end review by our professors to see if students should continue with architecture. Even though you have invested three years into the program, there was a chance you may be asked to change your major. I lost several classmates that spring. Luckily, I was selected to continue with the program, and I graduated in 1991 with my Bachelor of Architecture degree.

Burdette Keeland was both my favorite and most influential professor. He was also there for the beginning and end of my education. My academic career started with his introduction to architecture, and then he was my design professor in my fifth year. When I see something new, I look out for the small elements of the project. I ask myself the same questions Keeland asked me on my design projects: What is this? Why is it there? How does it fit? How does it flow with the design?

SS: In what ways has your heritage and culture had an effect on your work?
My parents always taught me to give it my all, and, when the time comes, dare to take on any challenge. Only good things will come from those challenges. Hard work and strong determination have been my motto throughout my career.

SS: Tell me about the start of your career right out of UH. Did you face any particular challenges? What has your career path looked like at SHOPCO?
MT: Work experience, or the lack of it, was the major hurdle. I helped with the family business and could not obtain the required experience. It was tough when a firm was not willing to give you a chance to prove yourself.

In May 1996, I was offered a position as the CAD Designer at SHOPCO. My job allowed me to design interior store layouts of convenience stores (C-stores) for clients across the United States. Over the years, I have assisted and created new parts and counter systems for the ever-changing market.

SS: Tell me about your work at SHOPCO over the last 27 years. How did your education prepare you for your career with the company? What do you enjoy about your work with the company?
MT: The College’s design studios and structural classes really paved the way for my career at SHOPCO. Studio taught me how to channel my creativity. Convenience stores are small spatial projects. From the front doors, you create paths to multiple places within the store. Structural classes reminded me that math must always add up.

I have really enjoyed seeing the projects I have designed come to life. They range from a small 400 square feet remodel to a 40,000 square feet travel plaza. It is true that I do learn something new every day at SHOPCO. Every store is different, especially as we manage the uniqueness our client’s desire. These challenges fuel my drive to do more each day.

The convenience store industry has evolved greatly over the years. It is no longer a gas station or a place to get a soda and a pack of cigarettes. More attention is given to the exterior of the building. More food and drink programs have been created to provide consumers with exclusive shopping experiences. SHOPCO participates in creating these experiences, and I am the designer making this happen.

SS: What advice would you give current students and young alumni just starting their careers?
MT: Do not get hung up on trying to find that one prestigious firm to work for or wanting to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture is a broad subject, and there are many related job fields. Find a career you enjoy and are enthusiastic about it. This way, it is no longer a job, but a love.

Look at your classmates, look at your university, look at your society. You are living in one gigantic melting pot. Be proud of who you are, and most importantly, be confident of what you can do and how you can contribute to the world of architecture.

This story first appeared in the spring 2023 issue of DIMENSION Magazine.

Home appliance, Television, Building, Flooring, Floor
Interior design, Building, Television

above: drink stations Tran has worked on for Shopco


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