Virginia Tech Magazine
Alumni Shorts -|- Summer 2006

Virtual architecture virtuoso

Kevin Smith
Architect Kevin Smith '98


Thirty years ago, Kevin Smith (M.Arch '98) would have been among the many architects, T-square in hand, toiling at a drafting table and dreaming of being the next Frank Lloyd Wright.

But Smith became an architect in the 1990s, just as computer imaging was emerging as both canvas and paintbrush. And his gift for transforming ideas and technical blueprints into virtual buildings full of light and color has brought him incredible success.

"The computer allowed me to express my design ideas more fluidly … . I was never confident in my hand-drawing abilities; I felt restricted," Smith admits. "If Michelangelo had had a digital canvas available to him, I believe he would have taken advantage of the technology."

Smith, who received 13 job offers upon completion of his graduate degree, returned to Florida and settled in with the renowned firm Spillis Candela DMJM. He eventually headed up the advanced technologies division, gaining extensive animation and 3D-rendering skills. He also met his two future business partners.

Recognizing that computer technology was the future of architecture, Smith, along with Eddie Leon and Johann Beckford, founded Spine 3D, originally a freelance operation, in Miami.

After a few years of producing all of the work themselves, they realized that a large-enough team of computer artists could tap into the booming real estate market that was beginning to rock South Florida.

The plan worked. In less than three years, Spine3D grew from a home-based business pulling in a few thousand dollars to a vibrant visualization studio with 23 employees. Architecturally trained project managers oversee the work of more than 250 artists around the world who keep Spine3D’s projects humming along 24 hours a day.

Smith's work is sought by some of the nation's most prestigious architecture firms, such as Arquitectonica, and by leading development companies, including The Related Group. Before the land is even cleared, Smith and his partners have brought to life such projects as Las Ramblas, an 11-building mega-project in Las Vegas that counts actor George Clooney and condo king Jorge Perez as major investors.

"Thanks to a shared vision among my partners and myself, we have created a company that has the competition on edge. Yes, there are other studios such as ours, but we are not only delivering high-quality work, we do it cost-effectively," Smith says. "I'm having a great time doing what I love."

Adapted from a feature article by José Parra (

More than just a pretty face

Takiyah Nur Amin
Takiyah Nur Amin '04


Takiyah Nur Amin (M.F.A. arts administration '04) has it going on. And "it" is an impressive lot.

An instructor in Tech’s Africana Studies program, as well as an outreach coordinator for the Race and Social Policy Research Center, Amin is the current Miss Black Virginia USA and will compete for the Miss Black USA title in October. Administered since 1986 by the nonprofit Miss Black USA Pageant Scholarship Foundation, the competition promotes the leadership skills and talents of black women.

Not that Amin needs the help.

Besides her work at Tech, the 26-year-old is a religious education assistant at Blacksburg's Unitarian Universalist Congregation, a public education ambassador for the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, and a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia. A New York native with a B.A. in dance from the State University of New York at Buffalo, she teaches at The Center of Dance. A certified self-care consultant with Warm Spirit Inc., she runs her own business.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Amin champions community engagement, service, tolerance, and diversity. She has received a number of Image Awards from Tech's chapter of the NAACP. She has furnished leadership training for minorities at both Tech and Virginia Union University.

She co-founded the Direct Resistance of Privilege Alliance to address issues of racism, exploitation, and institutional bias at Tech. She is an active member of a range of organizations, including Malika Kambe Umfazi Sorority Inc., a non-Greek, Afrikan/Latino-based sisterhood dedicated to educating, empowering, and assisting women. And she's a scholar, having presented her research at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting and the African Heritage Studies Association Annual International Conference, among others. Not surprisingly, she’s also a sought-after public speaker, an award-winning slam poet, and the author of a book of poetry, ***Parthenogenesis: Life, As I Know It.

If past performance is indicative of future success, Amin has an excellent shot at winning the Miss Black USA title. All told, she has won six pageants, along with a host of awards and recognitions for modeling, congeniality, and talent. Perhaps most striking, however, is her pageant platform, a truly innovative outreach program called "Shop Talk: Taking Black Women's Health to the Streets." Amin visits beauty salons, barbershops, nail salons, and spas to present workshops on the leading causes of health-related deaths among black women, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.

To learn more, go to

If at first you don't succeed

Shelley Duke
Mary '70 and Jesse '50 Swann


Presumably all Tech alumni worked hard for their degrees, but Mary Grant Swann (general home economics '70) just might have been the most tenacious student ever to attend the university.

Shortly after World War II, Mary enrolled at then-VPI, where she met and married Jesse Swann (M.S. chemistry '50). Before she could finish her degree, however, the young couple was relocated to Ohio for Jesse's job with N&W Railroad. Once settled, Mary tried taking night classes, but raising five children and working left little time to study.

Although most people might have given up on obtaining their degree, Mary, at age 51, enrolled at Tech as a senior and moved from the family's home in Mechanicsville, Va., into Ambler Johnston residence hall in September 1969.

Mary's daughter, Jessie, says that her mother approached her new "life" with considerable humor: "She put a card on her door that said, 'I may be old,' and when you opened the card, there was a picture of a casket and the words, 'But I’m not dead yet!' She said that she would hear students pause at her door and then laugh."

Integral to Mary's endeavor was her husband's support. "I agreed that she needed to finish her schooling and the time was right," says Jesse, who still lives in Mechanicsville. "I was raised by parents who taught me to cook, clean, and do housework, so I was able to manage with the help of the children." When Mary left for Blacksburg, son John was a high school senior, daughter Mary Sue was a junior, daughter Holly Anne was a sophomore, and twins Jessie and Jean were seventh graders.

Mary earned her degree in 1970, 25 years after first enrolling at Tech. She took a job with Richmond Public School as cafeteria manager, then became food service supervisor for Hanover County Schools. When she retired, Mary focused her boundless energy on her grandchildren and volunteering at Richmond Memorial Hospital and the Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary.

Mary Grant Swann, who died on Jan. 21 at age 87, took immense pride in her degree, notes Jessie. "She always recognized Tech sweatshirts and gear on people and would tell them how she and her older brothers had graduated from Virginia Tech."

More importantly, Mary's quest to earn her degree taught her children a valuable lesson. "She instilled in us that learning is important," Jessie says. "She was a wonderful woman and a great role model."

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