Interview with alumni: Jared Edgar McKnight

Christiana Usenza
March 15, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State Alumni Achievement Award began in 2005, and since then has honored 140 outstanding alumni who are 35 and younger, including this year's class. The Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is proud to announce that Jared Edgar McKnight is among the honorees. McKnight, an alumnus of the Schreyer Honors College, graduated from Penn State in 2011, with majors in architecture and international studies, and minors in architectural history, and French and francophone studies.

McKnight is an associate and designer at WRT, an integrated design firm of architects, landscape architects, planners and urban designers based in Philadelphia. Since joining the firm five years ago, he has played a significant role in rebranding WRT, and in winning major commissions, including the Equal Justice Center in Philadelphia and the Hoover-Mason Trestle in Bethlehem, which has won national and international awards.

Quickly establishing himself as a leader in his profession, McKnight has received several awards from the American Institute of Architects, including the AIA Philadelphia Volunteer of the Year (2014), AIA Pennsylvania Associate Award (2015), and the AIA National Associates Award (2016). He also is co-author of “Interdependencies and the Shaping of Place,” published in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land: International Journal of Architectural Theory, in 2017.

McKnight is an active volunteer both in his community and at Penn State. He is currently the infrastructure director on the Friends of Louis I. Kahn Park board of directors and the event chair for CANstruction Philadelphia. He also is a member of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture and Design Exhibitions Committee, and a Design Committee member for AIA Philadelphia. From 2016 to 2017, he served as the founding co-chair of the Philadelphia Emerging Architects Committee. At Penn State, he is vice president of the Lion Ambassador Alumni Interest Group board of directors and an alumnus mentor to both architecture and Schreyer Honors College students, and the Schreyer Honors College honored him with the Outstanding Scholar Alumni Award in 2016. In addition to his Penn State degrees, he holds a master of architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Stuckeman School had a chance to interview McKnight soon after his award was announced:

Q: What are you predominantly focused on in your profession currently?

A: I should probably answer this question two-fold. I always try to match my contributions professionally to what I do outside of my day job through volunteering and giving back to organizations that are meaningful to me. I always strive to find a balance between my professional work and my civic engagement.

Professionally, I am an associate and designer with WRT in Philadelphia. Most of the day-to-day revolves around project work and proposal work, but we always try to engage in work that speaks to our mission of serving communities by designing places that enhance the natural and social environment. My main project right now is the Equal Justice Center in Philadelphia.

For a little background: WRT is teamed up with Pennrose working to develop one of the last empty full blocks of land in Center City, Philadelphia. Working with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, and a number of nonprofit partners, part of the site will be developed as the Equal Justice Center, a facility that will co-locate roughly 20 public service legal aid agencies and organizations with the goal of strengthening their services, creating social impact, and giving back to Philadelphia. The site will also house a mixed-use market-rate and affordable senior housing building, as well as a large urban park and open space system at the ground level.

Something that has been ingrained in me from the time I was a kid, thanks to my family, is to always be involved in things that I am passionate about. Right now, that revolves around opportunities for engagement in community work in Philadelphia and giving back to organizations that I’ve been involved with since my time at Penn State. I am the infrastructure director for a park dedicated to the memory of a famous Philadelphia architect, Louis I. Kahn Park. It is the only park dedicated to the memory of an architect in Philadelphia, and it happens to be right across the street from where I live. So, I help with community programming in the park throughout the year, and we recently received funding from the city and our local councilmen to install new benches, tables, and lighting in the park for our neighborhood.

For the last six years, I have also been the event chair for a nonprofit called CANstruction. It is one of my favorite projects every year. We invite local design and engineering firms to build massive sculptures out of canned food. At the end of the weeklong exhibit, we donate the food to Philabundance, the largest hunger relief organization in the Delaware Valley.

More recently, I have tried to involve myself in initiatives at Penn State. I was recently elected vice president of the Lion Ambassador Alumni Interest Group board of directors. I also volunteer as a mentor and guest studio critic in the Department of Architecture and at the Schreyer Honors College. These are just some of the ways I have been keeping the Penn State tradition alive in my alumni career.

Q: What about your time at the Stuckeman School and Penn State inspired you to do what you do?

A: When I was in high school, I thought I had no idea where I wanted to go to college, but growing up, Penn State was always home away from home for me. I am a third-generation Penn Stater, after my mom, and her dad (my grandpa). And while I always had a deep love and respect for Penn State, I wasn’t sure if it would be the right fit for me. So, in high school, I applied to 13 schools of architecture, and after touring 12 of them, it was immediately apparent that it had to be Penn State for me, because it was the place that felt like home, it felt relatable. Penn State, and the Stuckeman School, offered an environment where academically I could receive a great education, but they also afforded me the opportunity to get involved, give back, and enjoy my time being in college. Having grown up in a Penn State family, I had a different appreciation going in than I had after I left.

I think the most powerful things for me were the quality of the academics and the mentoring from faculty, as well as my fellow students. I met my best friends during my college experience. I took full advantage of my time at Penn State both inside and outside the classroom. The legacy and tradition of academic excellence and a commitment to values of integrity, respect, responsibility, discovery, excellence, community and service is what helped put me on my trajectory, and inspired me to do what I do. 

Q: What advice would you have for current Stuckeman students about how can they best leverage their time here?

A: My advice is to always push the boundaries and try something you may not be able to try in your professional career. When you are enrolled in a school and program that is so dedicated to design, often I see students limiting themselves because they think it is the practical thing to do, and that it is what employers want to see. I did that myself as a student — focused on making things practical and functional. But school is where you can find your artistic voice in architecture, or landscape architecture, or graphic design. It is so easy to fall prey to designing something, almost in a box. So, I always encourage students to design something that is interesting to them. Try something new, test ideas, build unique skill sets and points of view, and have fun in the program. School is about exploring and testing ideas. You have the rest of your life to make sure your designs work and are practical. This is the time to have fun with it.

Q: In what ways do you feel you are still connected to Stuckeman?

A: I was so fortunate to have amazing mentors and professors during my time at Penn State; people that I could look to when I needed to weigh decisions, people that could give me feedback and advice. My goal in staying connected to Stuckeman has always been to give back to the best of my ability. I mentor a number of students at Penn State Stuckeman School and in the Schreyer Honors College. I’ve been back for about 15 mid and final reviews in the architecture and landscape architecture departments as a guest lecturer and critic, and also for over 20 informal reviews, walking around the building, interacting with students and seeing student work. It has always been important for me to maintain the connection, and feel that connection, especially with the architecture department at Penn State, because that is where I got my start, and developed my perspective and aesthetic. If I am able to provide even a percentage of the mentoring and feedback that was given to me to current students, I will feel extremely honored, because it was such an integral part of my educational experience. I hope to always maintain a connection to Penn State. For me, it is a defining chapter in my life, it shaped my trajectory, and giving back to my alma mater is extremely important for me. I think for the rest of my life Penn State will always be my home away from home.

Q: What was your reaction to receiving the award?

A: Well, not even knowing that I had been nominated, when Dean Korner called me, I saw the number on my phone and it said “Penn State” and at first I thought “oh no, what have I done!?” But when she told me and honestly — talking is not a problem of mine, most of the time people are like “Jared please stop talking” — but for first time in my life, I was speechless. It is such an honor for me to be receiving this recognition from Penn State. When I think about what is next, I joke to my friends and say, “I hope I haven’t peaked too soon!”

Q: What is next? What are your professional and personal goals for the next five years?

A: Hopefully for me the next five years are a continuation of what I have established up until now. I owe a lot of gratitude to my entire family and all of my friends. From the time I was a little kid, they encouraged me to pursue the arts and to draw. Even when it didn’t seem appropriate, they always said “find something you are passionate about and do it to the best of your ability.” The people closest to me in my life have always given me so much support and allowed me to take on all these types of  involvements and responsibilities that I have taken on and pursued. So, if I can continue being involved with organizations and causes that I care deeply about, pursue professional work that is meaningful and impactful, and continue to surround myself with people who empower me, support me, and allow me to be myself, I will be happy.

Q: What about what you do gives back to you, fuels you?

A: I do everything I do because I genuinely love doing it. If I didn’t, it would feel like a chore and I probably wouldn’t be giving as much of myself as I do. I am passionate about all that I’m involved with, because doing what I love is really motivating and empowering.

My ability to do so much has a lot to do with my upbringing and family. They gave me the ability and the support to do whatever I wanted and stood behind me relentlessly. Being able to give back in the capacity that I have is as much about my personal fulfillment as it is about me thanking them for giving so much of themselves to me and my dreams.

Growing up, my mom and dad always encouraged me to draw and sketch, but most importantly they encouraged me to follow my heart and take art classes and pursue my passions. I cannot thank them enough, because their support continues to fuel me every day. Though my mom’s mom, my grandma, did not obtain a degree from Penn State, she took classes at Penn State while pursuing her broker license. At 88 years young, my grandma is still working as a real estate agent, and has been in the industry since she was 18. When I was a kid, I would spend time with my grandma in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and she would take me to her open houses. She would teach me how she sold houses to potential buyers, and about how people lived in spaces. She also always encouraged me to draw and sketch, and she has been such an influential person in fueling my dedication to what I do. One of the most meaningful moments in my professional career, a moment that truly gave back to me, was when I took my family on a tour of my first completed project, and got to teach them how people experienced a space that I had a hand in designing.

My passion for art, and now design, coupled with my family and their constant support, is what fuels me, what gives back to me, and what inspired me to pursue architecture.

McKnight will meet and talk with students on March 21 and 22 in the studios at the Stuckeman School the day before the award ceremony.

Last Updated March 16, 2018