Paying it forward is a life’s work for Sylvia Kwan
By donating to the Diversity Fund for Student Support, Sylvia buoys the next generation of diverse design leaders
By Kathleen Aycock, CED digital communications manager
CED has many loyal alumni and donors, but even among some pretty incredible people, Sylvia Kwan (B.Arch ‘76 and M.Arch ‘78) stands out — not only for her professional, philanthropic, and alumni leadership. Sylvia credits the College of Environmental Design with molding her character — her passion, empathy, humor and groundedness were all shaped by her time at CED. “Berkeley made me what I am today. Period. End of subject. It is single handedly the reason why I’m a success today,” Sylvia insisted during an hourlong conversation by phone.
It also helped that she met her husband Denis Henmi (B.Arch ‘74) at Berkeley too. The two are co-founders of KwanHenmi, an architecture firm in San Francisco.
Sylvia credits the financial, social and emotional security she felt at CED with allowing her to pursue her studies to her fullest — and to take risks. “I started my own firm a few years after graduation. That was a huge plunge — and it worked out really well,” she shared. She named the firm KwanHenmi before Denis even started working there. “I always knew he was going to join,” she stated. Together, Sylvia and Denis built one of the city’s most respected architecture firms, which recently merged with the DLR Group.
KwanHenmi has designed multifamily housing projects throughout the U.S. and designed some of San Francisco’s most traveled spaces, including BART, San Francisco MTA, and the AirTrain stations, among other transportation facilities. The firm currently employs 50 design professionals since its 2017 merger with the DLR Group.
According to Sylvia, the collaborative nature of CED’s design education is essential to producing amazing alumni. “I bumped elbows with all these different disciplines,” Sylvia recalled. “You understand each other and learn from each other. That was the special sauce.”
Sylvia recognizes that today’s UC Berkeley student is in a much more vulnerable financial situation than during her time in 70s.
“I used to eat hamburger helper every day — I didn’t have ramen like they do now. I never starved. I was never hungry. To hear now that people have to use the food pantry or live on the streets — college students shouldn’t have to do that. It’s not okay to be homeless and not to have food,” she stated.
Sylvia and Denis’s recent lead gift to the CED Diversity Fund for Student Support is part of the University’s one-day, crowdfunding event, known as Big Give, and is an extension of their gratitude for the positive impact CED had on their lives. Sylvia acknowledges the College’s diverse student body as a central component of making her feel welcome and comfortable, “It was a wonderful environment for developing relationships with other minorities. What a wonderful opportunity to create relationships with like-minded peers,” she recalled.
Sylvia feels responsible for helping future generations of environmental design students have the opportunity to take the same risks she did. She serves on the CED Advisory Council and supports the College financially and vocally: “I want to make sure that this fund helps create a level playing field for the students that are not able to afford [UC Berkeley]. We got out of there and we did great, so now it’s our turn to pay it forward.”
The need for support
Over the past couple of decades, the University and the College have faced a consistent decrease in support from the state, Now, 13 percent of the University’s budget comes from state funds. These budget decreases have been offset by significant increases in tuition placing a greater burden on students to self-fund their education. To help offset these costs for students, CED is focused on increasing scholarship and fellowship for undergraduate and graduate students. Please consider donating on March 8 during CED’s Big Give campaign to help the College retain and attract a diverse and vibrant student body. Give online on March 8 at ced.berkeley.edu.
About CED Big Give
Big Give is UC Berkeley’s one-day crowdfunding campaign, commencing at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7 and ending at midnight on March 8. The College of Environmental Design is raising money on Big Give for the Diversity Fund for Student Support, which supports scholarships and fellowships for underrepresented minorities at CED.
If you would like to support the campaign, but can’t donate, please share a memory or highlight from your time at CED on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and tag #CEDBigGive and #CalBigGive.
Read more about the campaign at ced.berkeley.edu/biggive.