Sarah Woosley was suspicious when she opened the email.
Woosley, an interior architecture and design major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, had entered a design she had created for a class project—at the suggestion of her Kitchen and Bath Planning instructor, assistant professor Jessica Etheredge—into a National Kitchen & Bath Association contest.
The NKBA Student Design Competition called for students to plan beautiful, safe and functional spaces, incorporating creative design statements and design solutions based on client requests and the plans provided.
Woosley didn’t initially hear anything after entering the competition over the summer but was recently checking emails when she came across the following message: “Congratulations. I am pleased to inform you that your submission placed third in the Kitchen category in the NKBA Student Design Competition. We had hundreds of submissions, and you were in great company, as the designs were all impressive. We know how challenging it can be to design truly innovative, aesthetically pleasing designs while also meeting the needs and wants of the clients.”
The email then listed a series of bullet points about her winnings, including one that started, “Please fill out the attached W-9 to receive your check.”
“I didn’t believe it; I was very skeptical,” Woosley said. “The email told me to fill out a tax form to get the reward and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a scam.’ I decided not to get excited until I showed Professor Etheredge and she said, ‘That is real.’ She’ll tell you I was shaking.
“I’ve never won anything like that. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve really entered anything. Her telling me that I should enter the competition meant a lot. That encouragement and then to actually place in it is incredible.”
Along with the tremendous portfolio boost of finishing third in a national competition, Woosley’s prizes include:
- A $1,000 scholarship
- Having her design featured in KBB Magazine, an official publication of the kitchen and bath business
- Complimentary registration and tickets to the 2023 Kitchen and Bath Industry Expo in Las Vegas, including roundtrip airfare and three nights of hotel accommodations
- Admission to the 2023 Design Awards Ceremony, where she will be recognized for her achievement
“When she stopped by my office and asked me to read the letter, it caught me off-guard for one thing—and I was just as surprised and shocked as Sarah was,” Etheredge said. “But it was such a good shock. It was an ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe one of our own got recognized for her hard work’ shock.
“It was just so exciting; I had to fight back the tears myself. There was just that much excitement built up for Sarah.”
Woosley’s story serves as evidence that sometimes in life, you simply need time to sort things out.
A 2007 graduate of Lebanon (Tennessee) High School, Woosley obtained an associate of arts degree from Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, in 2009.
She then spent three semesters as a graphic design major at Middle Tennessee State University before gravitating away from college; her job at a grocery store was paying the bills.
“I worked my way up and became a deli manager,” she said. “I did that for a few years and was miserable, so I put together a lot of pro/con lists and decided to come back to school.
“Interior architecture has always fascinated me. I even started that at MTSU briefly, but you couldn’t hold a job and do it there.”
Woosley started looking around and learned UTC had an interior architecture program, and 10 years after walking away from college, she enrolled at the University in the fall of 2020.
“Me and my boyfriend (Marty Pineault) moved to Chattanooga and I’m so much happier with what I’m doing,” she said.
“Things that seemed hard back then are just not hard anymore. As far as school goes, you get stressed about these little things, but now you know to just get it done. It’s as simple as that.”
Interior architecture, she said, is a career path that suits her.
“I love this major. Graphic design gives you the same creativity, but it stays flat for the most part. I like the idea of being able to walk into something that I may have designed and just seeing it from that perspective,” she said.
“Sarah has such a good work ethic,” Etheredge explained, “and maybe that relates to it taking her a while to get here. Her maturity level and the idea that ‘I should submit this. It’s not going to hurt. It doesn’t cost anything extra.’ The hard work she put into that project speaks volumes for what she can do.”
The project scope for the NKBA competition focused on a fictitious couple—Shawn and Jalen Hill—in Portland, Oregon, who bought a forever home on the West Coast. They had an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean and wanted a design that could grow with them into retirement.
The kitchen, while functionally move-in ready, was in dire need of some sprucing up; it had last been updated in the early 2000s.
Woosley went to work, incorporating an “aging in place” design, considering modifications that help people continue to live independently in their homes as they grow older.
“Those were the main parameters: aging in place and natural materials,” she said about the kitchen update. “They entertain. They sometimes work in the kitchen as their office. They have two golden retrievers, and the view from the kitchen looks out into the coast. That view of the Oregon coast was my biggest inspiration.”
She added windows to the kitchen and chose materials that reflected the view, including light woods and stones.
Woosley chose cabinets that pulled down. “That way, you don’t have to bend down when you get older.” She chose colors that didn’t clash “because sometimes when you start to lose your eyesight, if there’s a change in color, you might not be able to see it as well.”
She even incorporated water bowls for the golden retrievers as part of one of the custom cabinets.
After the award announcement email finally sunk in, “I called my mom and then I said to myself, ‘Let me look at that project again. It’s been a little bit.’ I looked at it and I was like, ‘All right, this is great,’ and what a great opportunity to get to go to Las Vegas and meet professionals and learn more about kitchen and bath,” she said.
“After spending my twenties just feeling lost and hating my career, I did something like this. To get recognition for this new path that I chose is absolutely amazing.”