Barely a week out of high school forever, Sophia Luettke sat in the three-season room at her East Grand Rapids home and wondered how her day would play out: laser tag, go-karts or high ropes?
The 18-year-old East Grand Rapids High School graduate was starting a summer job at Craig’s Cruisers in a few hours, in a 10-week push to sock away some extra spending money for when she heads to the Windy City for college in the fall.
“I don’t want to be the poor college student,” Sophia said. “Well, I still will be…”
Then she did a move that has become sort of her trademark: She twists one way and cracks her spine. Then the other way. “I do that all the time,” she said with a grin.
Sophie’s got a busy summer ahead, for sure, but not like last summer. That was spent in California, first at an acting camp at the University of California Los Angeles, then another L.A. camp at “The Groundlings,” an improv and sketch comedy theatre and school. Its alumni include former SNL actor Kristen Wiig and Lisa Kudrow from television’s “Friends,” among others.
Sophia is going on a lot of auditions lately — commercials for McDonald’s, the Illinois Office of Tourism and AT&T, to name a few — because she aims to get steady acting work while in college.
That’s “aims,” not “hopes.” Because Sophia Luettke has big plans, and they include a lot more than building an acting career. Despite her extensive background on stage — including the Grand Rapids Junior Ballet and roles in film and local theater — Sophia’s prime passion is architecture.
“Architecture is definitely what I think I was born to do,” Sophia said. “And I want to be successful at it because I’ve worked hard.”
The Drafting-Table Gene
If you could only use one word to describe Sophia, it would be “determined.” She says it a lot. So do others.
There’s a change in Danielle Beller’s voice when she describes Sophia. Beller, her former high school counselor, seems to be taking great pains to use the perfect words.
“Sophia is amazing,” Beller said. “She knows her ‘self,’ she’s comfortable with who she is and seeks out opportunities that allow her to thrive. She has endless passion in so many different areas.
“I remember when I found out she was an actress and I thought, ‘what?’ Because she’s so humble. She’s not flashy or boastful. She’s very understated in her accomplishments.”
Sophia spent part of her junior and senior year in the engineering/CAD/architecture program at Kent Career Tech Center. Her face lights up when she talks about her time there.
“I just had a really, really great time at KCTC,” she said. “It was so good to be able to be around people from all over the county I would never have gotten to meet otherwise.”
While at the Tech Center, she excelled enough at residential house design to win state and national recognition. The National Association of Women in Construction honored her for a set of house plans she did for a fictitious family with three children, one of whom was paraplegic, so wheelchair accessibility was integrated into the design.
Given Sophia’s quiet determination, Beller said she wouldn’t be surprised if not everyone at her high school knows of her accomplishments at the Tech Center.
“We don’t have a large population that goes to the Tech Center, but it is growing,” Beller said. “For Sophia to say ‘This is the best program out there for me,’ she’s a great ambassador.”
Sophia’s mother, Amy Luettke, seems to agree her daughter was born with the drafting-table gene.
“Her dollhouses weren’t just dollhouses, there were villages,” Amy Luettke recalled. “They took up the entire room: the boxes, the toilet paper rolls, the Styrofoam … There was nothing she didn’t use to build those houses.”
“I was basically doing urban planning,” Sophia explained.
“She’s very determined, that’s for sure, like her father (Brian, a federal agent),” Amy Luettke said. “They both know what they want and they go after it. But she’s also had someamazing mentors here.”
Making It Happen, Thanks to Mentors
Sophia has been accepted into the honors college at the University of Chicago, where she plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in architecture. She aims to get her license and maybe open her own firm, either in the Southern U.S. or Malibu, Calif. Future Sophia, she said, will have a home office where she can be at her drafting table working, kiddos underfoot, with a wall of windows that overlook the beach.
Lawrence Ridley, Sophia’s former Tech Center instructor, is not surprised to hear about the detail in his former student’s life plans.
“I would say Sophia is one of two of the most ambitious young ladies I have ever had in her level of determination to succeed, and not just to succeed, but excel in her area,” Ridley said. “I just think it’s her innate personality.”
He’s seen that determination in action. To introduce his students to one another at the start of the school year and give a crash course in trust and team-building, Ridley takes his classes through a low-ropes course. At the end of the year, it’s the high ropes: Students harness up, ascend a 20-foot pole, stand on a one-foot square platform and jump.
“Sophia was quite apprehensive about it, a little panicked, obviously scared to death,” Ridley recalled. “Then on the climb, she lost her balance and didn’t make it to the top. Fifteen minutes later she just told me, ‘I’m going to go again,’ and took the jump.
“That’s an analogy for her level of determination overriding her fear. She was going to make sure she was going to make it happen.”
Beller would have to agree.
“I so admire Sophia’s ability to know what she wants and make it happen, and to achieve success in the way she defines it,” Beller said. “She definitely understands disappointment, and that it’s part of life and not a reflection on her at all. But she’s a risk-taker. A very unassuming, quiet, determined risk-taker.
“It’s not easy for many students to ‘just be,’ and she’s very comfortable just being who she is.”