By: John Rizor, AIA

“Founded in 1994, the ACE Mentor Program of America (ACE) is a free, award-winning, after school program designed to attract high school students into pursuing careers in the Architecture, Construction and Engineering industry, including skilled trades.”

What is the ACE Mentor Program?

The ACE (architecture, construction, and engineering) Mentor Program of America has more than 70 regional affiliates, operating in 37 states and largely based in metropolitan areas. With Progressive AE as a founding partner of the organization’s newest recognized affiliate — the only program of its kind in West Michigan — the ACE Mentor Program of West Michigan furthers the above mission by presenting hands-on experience and opportunity to high school students in greater Grand Rapids.

ACE serves 10,000 student participants nationally, 69% of which identify as minority representation, with a goal to reach under-served student populations in key districts and illuminate equitable and inclusive paths to success in the architectural industry. Of these students:

  • 70% enter a secondary program or college with an industry-related major
  • 35% are female
  • 25% are first-generation college students

In short, the ACE Mentor Program of America has a record of success and contribution to our industry — but how did our West Michigan affiliate come to be?

Site planning exercise for an education facility on the Grand River.

How we got started.

The interest in incorporating a local ACE affiliate began at Progressive AE as a part of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. In addition to other initiatives, this committee is largely responsible for our student outreach and mentorship opportunities. Most of these opportunities are through our relationship with Kent Intermediate School District (KISD) in the form of career-readiness programming. In fact, we are very proud of the fact that the firm has twice received the prestigious “KISD Employer Partner of the Year” award.

This programming has served our firm and our community well, but there was no program offering that afforded a long-term, intensive engagement for local students interested in pursuing careers in the architecture, construction, or engineering industry — the ACE program provided just that. Upon formally committing to the cause, one of our first steps was to seek an industry partner that aligned with the mission and goals of the program, which we quickly found in Rockford Construction and their long-standing record of community involvement and social stewardship.

The founding board is comprised of Progressive AE and Rockford Construction employees:

  • John Rizor, Progressive AE
  • Steve Teitsma, Progressive AE
  • Robert Ferguson, Progressive AE
  • Michael Verhulst, Rockford Construction
  • Chris Daniel, Rockford Construction
  • Bradford Mathis, Rockford Construction

Looking back at our first year.

In its inaugural year, ACE West Michigan was proud to host 22 high school students from 11 local high schools, with help from more than 30 volunteer mentors. In our first full year, the program experienced a great deal of success and growth. Despite this fact, our Board of Directors is excited to pursue additional opportunities in our community by expanding the demographic and geographic reach of our program.

ACE follows a project-based learning strategy. Mentors engage students with realistic design projects that introduce them to the basic skills and knowledge of the design/construction industry. Through personal testimonials, explanations, and tours of offices and construction sites, they also inform students about career paths in the design/construction professions. Through ACE, students acquire a set of skills and experiences which are among those cited as essential for the 21st-century workplace, these include:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Information technology application
  • Communication in a cross-cultural environment

Our current curriculum features a 16-week program that adheres to the KISD academic calendar and is loosely broken into two “semesters”. The first eight weeks are dedicated to an industry introduction and the final weeks focus on a collaborative project.

View of the final project from students of the 2019-20 cohort.

Our collaborative project was the design of a new “International Terminal C” for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which expanded upon the 20-year master plan already conducted by the professional design community.

What distinguishes the West Michigan chapter from other affiliates is the fact that Progressive AE, as a full-service firm, can offer professional insight that extends beyond the traditional realm of A-E services. My personal experience as a mentor with the program previously was limited to architecture, structural engineering, and construction management. The West Michigan chapter was able to expand instruction to include fields such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, interior design, and energy modeling.

College scholarships and inspiring the next generation of designers and builders.

In addition to the collaborative work and industry connections, one of the most incredible aspects of the ACE Mentor Program is the opportunity it provides students. One of the hallmarks of the program is its financial commitment that allows graduates to apply for post-secondary credits at accredited universities and skilled trades programs. One such program is Lawrence Technological University (LTU), which offered two college credits to every graduate of the West Michigan affiliate. These credits are transferable to nearly every institution in the United States and reinforce the academic weight and rigor this program affords the students. In addition to college credits for every single student, LTU has offered to match any scholarship our affiliate offered for the 2020 cohort if they enroll at Lawrence Tech, effectively doubling the financial contribution. Upon completion of the ACE program, every single one of our students has a start on a college education.

Programming exercise to determine the final project type.

ACE also awards over $2.5 million in scholarships each year to high school seniors and alumni studying to pursue industry-related careers. It is through their support, and the support of regional sponsors, that we can provide legitimate paths to career success in the building industry. In our first year, the West Michigan affiliate offered three financial scholarships, two outstanding student awards, and one outstanding mentor award. The student awards are recognition of our cohort’s top performers, as voted upon by the mentor team, while the outstanding mentor award was voted upon by the students themselves. Our three financial scholarships are sponsored by three of our partner organizations: The Grand Rapids Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Grand Rapids chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), and HCA Healthcare Design and Construction.


Our gold sponsors include:

We thank these sponsors, as well as those in our silver, bronze, and partner tiers, for helping us continue to build our program and provide this valuable experience to our local youth.

What’s next?

Right now, our affiliate is planning — or revising, given our current situation — ways to engage students and drive interest for next year’s cohort. The program itself encourages students to participate in multiple cohorts, which allows individuals to experience the collaborative project work through different “lenses”; that is to say, students could complete one year as an architectural designer, one year as an engineering student, and one more as a construction manager, if they so choose. Our board is currently discussing how the program may adjust in these challenging times, but we do know that the ACE Mentor Program of West Michigan is positioned for another year of success in the 2020-21 school year.

For more information, you can connect with our West Michigan chapter online at: