May 5, 2016

With his daughter as inspiration and his mother's support, Yuri Lechuga-Robles turns his life around, discovers love of landscape architecture

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Yuri Lechuga-Robles rebuilt his life the minute his daughter was born. In those first moments she came into the world, he knew it was time to lay the groundwork for a new future.

Arizona State University simply provided the means.

Born in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Lechuga-Robles moved around quite a bit in his youth. He spent part of his childhood in El Paso; then, when his mother remarried, his family settled down in Mesa when he was around 11. Lechuga-Robles found his passion in a high-school drafting class, eventually attending High Tech Institute. Despite landing a job with a firm and living what he thought was his dream, he lost his way, struggling with drugs and alcohol.

Then he had his daughter, AnnaMariah Robles-Lantigua (pictured above with Lechuga-Robles and his mom, Maria Budzinski), and pruned away all the negative forces from his life. He said that after her birth, he took the first steps to “get back to the values that were taught to me.”

Charging forward with a renewed outlook, and a mission to “finish something,” Lechuga-Robles got busy and plugged in.

He went back to school at Mesa Community College (MCC), where he first learned about landscape architecture, before transferring to ASU. He joined the Student Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Phi Theta Kappa honors society as a dedicated member of both groups. This found Lechuga-Robles organizing a book fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club to reestablish the club library lost in a fire many years ago.

Eventually his dedication to the community was recognized by the Arizona Department of Transportation, and he was awarded the John McGee Intern Scholarship — the first landscape architecture student to receive this award.

Days away from being handed a bachelor’s of landscape architecture through the Design School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Lechuga-Robles — who will be 10 years sober in December — is reflective about the past and looking forward to a bright future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: At MCC and talking with LeRoy Brady (the landscape architect of the rose garden at MCC) and one of my other professors — through one of the assignments we had in one of those classes was to design a new building for architecture if MCC acquired new land. That’s where I saw I was really interested in outside spaces. … When I came to ASU I still had my mind kind of set on architecture. Then I learned about the 3+ program and I thought, “Why would I want to go six years to get one license when I could go seven and get two licenses: architecture AND landscape architecture?” When it came time to decide which way I wanted to go, I just went that way. And now I don’t want to do the other. There’s enough in landscape architecture for me.

One of the most significant projects I worked on at ASU was the 30-year with Kristian Kelley (LDE 362/590: Landscape Architecture II). We had to look at a space in downtown Phoenix kind of in the south central area. It deals a lot with the culture, a lot of low-income residences. And just on the other side of the tracks there’s these office buildings and the ballpark. It’s a big contrast, and I really enjoyed connecting the two and still keeping the character of the neighborhood and bringing in some of their cultural values and things that they’re proud of.

That was my favorite project. It gave me a sense of focus and direction for what I wanted to do with landscape architecture, because there’s so many avenues you can go on with that degree. I’m interested in urban infill and urban design, projects that deal with social justice, thinking about current issues. I see people flying off the handle, and it seems to me they don’t have a way to connect with other people, a way to release. I draw from my experience dealing with drugs and alcohol. I see maybe there’s something lacking there. It seems to me like there might be a way to address that through landscape architecture.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: My internship (with ADOT), being part of the meetings with the different communities. They involved me in some of the pre-design stuff, going to meetings with different communities the projects run through. One thing they do is try to collaborate with the different communities to take into consideration their goals, doing community workshops and those kinds of things. …. You have to take other people’s culture into consideration, not just do it because that’s how you think it should be. The back and forth that goes on surprised me; it’s always a challenge. You have a meeting and then you go and design something and you send it back and there’s some other thing that wasn’t thought of before and then you have to meet again. It’s not simple.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I wanted to stay close to my family, my sister and my daughter, AnnaMariah, who’s 10.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Just to look to surround yourself with people who will support your ideas and can also be critical but not put you down.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I didn’t do a lot of hanging out on campus. There are several courtyards around campus that I’ve seen and really enjoy a lot (Mary Lou Fulton). The one on the south side of the MU, with the fountain, I like that.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I want to take my daughter to Mexico. She hasn’t met my family down there. I’m planning to go there for 10 days. My daughter really likes the beach, so the plan is to hang out with my family for five days and then go to different beaches for five days. Besides the fun, I need to be working. I hope to be working. I’m applying for jobs once I’m done graduating. I can work at ADOT for six months after I graduate so I have a bit of a cushion. I will be sending my resume out right after graduation.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I just started learning about this thing called microaggression so maybe that. It’s just a stigma that people put on different groups of people that is negative.

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: My mom: I want to find a way to thank her. I see the love of God in her, I think that she’s never given up on me.

When I needed her she was there, and when I thought I didn’t need her, she was still there. Moms are special. Especially now — when I came to ASU I knew what was going to happen, that things were going to get difficult and I was going to need help with my daughter. I talked with my stepdad and my mom and told them I might need help. After the second year, she moved down here to help me out, and they got a second home. She’s been very supportive. I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish without her.

Q: What’s the most important lesson your mom taught you?

A: [He thinks for a long moment.] Love. Just love.

Written by Deborah Sussman Susser and Brandon Chiz; top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now