Erica Tomas’ Hispanic heritage often kicks in when she’s working on an interior design project.
“There’s something I’ve seen in the industry and it’s a lot of beige, a lot of white and a lot of gray. I hate that,” said Tomas, who graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2022 with a degree in interior architecture.
“I hate slapping white onto a wall when you can really brighten up and bring life into a room with color. It doesn’t have to be all color, but you can mix beiges with colors and make something look really captivating.
“I think I learned to embrace that throughout my life because my family, our Hispanic culture, we use a lot of vibrant colors in our clothing and any tradition that we have.”
Tomas, who grew up with a Mexican father and Guatemalan mother in Chattanooga’s East Lake neighborhood, found a job quickly after graduating from UTC and now works for Oh Planning + Design, Architecture in Portland, Oregon.
In her job, she deals with interior design and architecture elements, which are much more connected than many people think. Interior design isn’t just about finding pretty furniture and arranging it in attractive ways, she said.
“It’s been great learning how to deal with interior systems like HVAC, lighting, mechanical things,” Tomas explained. “It’s been great learning how to do detail with the construction, drawing details, learning to read a construction document and becoming familiar with that.”
Dr. Dana Moody, professor in the Department of Interior Architecture and Design, said Tomas was a standout student at UTC.
“She stood out for her positive attitude and her willingness to help others,” Moody said. “She often volunteered to meet with potential students and their parents to show them around our space.”
For her work in the department, Tomas was selected for an Interior Architecture and Design Faculty Award, “given to students who project a positive energy into the classroom and the department. They not only seek to learn and improve their skills, but they influence those around them to do the same,” Moody said.
“What has been really cool is watching Erica grow into a leader in the interior design profession since her graduation. I guess it is not hard to see that I am really proud of her.”
A graduate of The Howard School, Tomas said she “fell in love with school” at a young age.
“I was always looking for anything and everything to learn or to get involved with,” she said.
“My parents knew that but, unfortunately, when they were working, the money that they were making was pretty much just going to feed us and to pay for rent, just to get us by. So there wasn’t a college fund, there wasn’t any saving toward college because that was almost the last thing that they were thinking about at the moment.”
Through scholarships and money from various jobs—including shoe sales and restaurant hostess—Tomas paid for her college education, starting with a year at UT Knoxville before transferring to UTC.
“Financial obstacles were definitely something that were really hard to overcome, which is why I had jobs all throughout college,” she said.
Her determination to graduate from college was fierce and non-compromising, she said, even when faced with money issues and common themes of her cultural background.
“Sometimes as women in a Hispanic home, we are kind of seen as the woman that just takes care of the house. That’s pretty much your role,” Tomas said. “I didn’t want that for myself. I never did.”
Deciding it was time to spread her wings and leave Chattanooga after graduating from UTC, Tomas sent applications to firms nationwide. Oh Planning + Design, Architecture caught her eye because its website discussed sustainability as part of its mission, she said.
“That’s one of the values that I upheld throughout my educational journey. I really loved it and indulged in it, and I really liked to show those elements in my projects when I was in school,” Tomas said. “So I was looking for a firm that would celebrate and value that.”
As an added attraction, the company is keen on creating a multicultural workforce.
Oh Planning + Design, Architecture “embraces diversity; they understand it,” Tomas said, “so they really push to open doors for minorities to be able to be exposed to the profession.”