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Paola Moya dreamed of becoming a lawyer in Colombia, where she grew up, but ended up coming to the United States and taking care of dogs at a kennel. 

She feared dogs. She had been bitten by dogs twice as a child. But eventually, after much persistence, she ended up at a law firm and then realized she wanted something else in her life. 

It’s been a ride. When I look back at my first years [in the U.S] sometimes I wonder, how did I have the courage to go through all that?

- Paola Moya, Co-Principal and Partner of Marshall Moya Design

So, she began studying to become an architect. A decision that has sparked a young and successful career.

Moya, 32, co-principal and partner of the architectural firm Marshall Moya Design, has had an improbable journey.

She and her family moved to the United States in 1998 just days before her 18th birthday. As the family settled, first in Miami and then in Washington D.C., Moya had to take care of her two little siblings, a brother and a sister, while her parents worked.

Even though she had already started college in Colombia studying law for a year and a half, her first job in the U.S. was at a kennel taking care of dogs. She had to wash, feed and walk the dogs despite her intense phobia of them. 

She also delivered pizzas with her father while learning how to drive a stick shift car.

Eventually, she got a job at a law firm specializing in medical malpractice cases and thought she wanted to become a lawyer. But she soon realized that practicing law in the U.S. was very different than in Colombia. So she decided to pursue something else. 

In 2001, she enrolled at Montgomery Community College in Maryland where she began studying architecture. In 2003, while still a student, she got a job as an assistant project manager at an architectural firm.

She continued working during the day and taking classes in the evenings.

Moya was accepted as a transfer student to The Catholic University of America, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in 2008 and a master’s in architecture in 2010.

A year later, Moya won the “Visionary Award” from the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) because of her thesis, a project about building sustainable housing for displaced people in Cartagena, Colombia. 

One of the jurors of her master's thesis, architect Michael Marshall, offered Moya a job at his firm in 2009. She became a partner a year later. 

The Howard Theatre Effect

Today, Washington D. C.-based Marshall Moya Design employs 10 people. The firm has a sister product design company, inNuevo, which is expected to launch its first own-design products by the end of the year.

Moya hopes to eventually implement in Colombia the prototype she created for her thesis.

“It’s been a ride,” says Moya after recounting her journey. “When I look back at my first years [in the U.S] sometimes I wonder, how did I have the courage to go through all that?”

In some ways Moya's architectual firm mirrors her own personal experience especially the first project when the fate of the legendary Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. was placed in her hands.

The theater, which was one of the largest in the world when it opened its doors in 1910, became the stage of great performers including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, The Supremes and Aretha Franklin, among others, until its closing in the early 1980s.

The theater was abandoned for 30 years and fell into severe deterioration. Rainwater caused major damage; animals had founded shelter inside its ruins.

Moya’s architectural firm was chosen to bring the theater back to life. After a two-year renovation project, the Howard opened its doors again in April 2012.

“The development of the Howard Theatre was my first design project that I was involved throughout,” said Moya, “from its conception to the moment that we met the clients, and we were negotiating pricing, to the grand opening.”

Today, Moya is leading the design of the University of the District of Columbia Student Center, and the design of the modernization of Leckie Elementary School in Washington D.C.

She also credits her family for her achievements and often encourages other immigrants to pursue their own dreams.

Oh, and by the way, she is no longer afraid of dogs. She adopted one.

Mariana Cristancho-Ahn is a journalist, entrepreneur, and co-founder ContentOle.com.