Designing WomanApr 22, 2023
Meet Pooja Jain, a successful BC graduate of the interior design program who landed the job of her dreams at Sechrist Design.
Pooja Jain has a relaxed air of authority as she sits behind her desk at Sechrist Design. A senior designer who oversees multiple interior design projects and supervises junior designers at the firm, Jain is an alumna of Bellevue College (BC) whose journey from student to design professional had more than the usual number of hurdles to conquer.
Jain arrived in Seattle in 2007 from India. She had already completed the necessary certification program for interior design in her home country, and she had work experience and a portfolio of projects she could show prospective employers. But no one in the States would consider hiring her without a degree from a U.S. university or college.
“It was incredibly discouraging,” Jain says. “Not to mention it was going to be very expensive if I had to start from scratch. I had done all the basic coursework in India and earned a diploma [the equivalent of a degree]. I had been working as a designer for four years already. To have to begin again and not to have any of my credits or experience transfer…” She shakes her head in disbelief at the memory. “A lot of my friends in the community told me to forget about design and get an IT certification instead. But IT wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a passion for it. I had a passion for design.”
Luckily, in her search for options, she met Dan Beert, chair of the Bellevue College Interior Design Department. “Dan really changed everything for me,” she says. “He looked at my portfolio. He listened to my story and my experience. And he agreed that it didn’t make any sense for me to start over with the basics. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. We’ll figure something out.’”
The solution Dan came up with meant creating new rules for how international students could transfer previous course credits from their programs abroad. Jain smiles. “It took a while to work it all out. But it saved me an enormous amount of time and money. Really, it was the only way I could earn a degree and ultimately pursue my career here. I started the interior design program in 2008 and finally graduated in 2013.”
The interior design program itself was going through some changes during roughly this same time. The department received permission from Washington state legislators to offer a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Interior Design and added a fourth-year capstone experience to the existing three-year Associate of Arts in Interior Design. The department also pursued and received accreditation from the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), a rigorous continuous assessment process that must be renewed every six years. Graduating from a CIDA-accredited program is extremely valuable for students. It confirms that they’ve met professional standards for entry-level practice and helps them achieve professional certification.
While she was still a student at BC, Jain began applying for jobs in the area. “Everyone said ‘No,’” she says. “For one thing, they didn’t know if my work experience and portfolio pieces from India were real. And I wasn’t very outgoing at the time. New culture, new people, you know?” But again, Bellevue College played a role. While at Bellevue, Jain was working as a teaching assistant. One day, one of her students told her about a job opening at the design firm where she worked. The student encouraged Jain to apply, which she did. And she was turned down again. But the student went to bat for her and convinced her bosses to interview Jain. That interview turned into a job at Sechrist Design.
It’s been ten years since that fateful interview and Jain has progressed from being a junior designer at Sechrist to a senior designer overseeing the company’s business. The company specializes in multifamily and senior living housing projects, and has a residential arm as well. “My boss likes to say we do everything from the walls in,” says Jain. “As it happens, I also have a bachelor’s in accounting from India,” she says. “I do design work, of course. And I oversee junior designers. But I also write contracts, handle suppliers, and take care of billing. I’m involved in many aspects of the business.”
When asked what advice she’d give up-and-coming designers, Jain says students must develop good presentation skills. Pitching concepts successfully takes practice. “It’s like when you’re making a meal. You can serve the food in the pot you cooked it in. Or you can take the time to plate it beautifully. Which meal is going to be more appealing?” Jain notes that mastering presentation software like SketchUp and practicing your pitch while still in school will go a long way to making someone successful on the job.
Jain also stresses, “Be prepared for criticism. In the real world, you’re going to get a lot of feedback from clients. You have to know how to handle that feedback diplomatically. This can be hard for junior designers just starting out. Clients have a lot of money riding on their projects, and they want what they want. So, you have to develop good listening skills and not be defensive when you get criticism. It’s how you learn.” As she points out, real-world design work is done in teams, so listening to and working collaboratively with your teammates is essential.
Working collaboratively with Dan and the interior design department at Bellevue College was certainly the key that opened the door to Jain’s successful career in the U.S. “If it weren’t for Dan, I wouldn’t be here,” says Jain. “I will always be thankful for him.”