28 July 2023

Putting Classroom Experience to Practice

The worlds of classroom material and real-world application, although meant to mimic one another, share numerous differences. Like comparing classwork to a test, putting classroom experience into practice is the ultimate final exam.

I received my master's in urban planning from Texas A&M in 2021—a two-year program focused on theory, history, data analytics and plan-making. Two semesters were strictly dedicated to working on a comprehensive plan for the City of Caldwell called "Envision Caldwell.” Our class partnered with Texas Target Communities, who acted as the liaison between our class and the city. It was a valuable, real-life experience in comprehensive plan-making for a small city of about 3,000 people. In 2022, my class received an award for the Envision Caldwell Comprehensive Plan 2022 – 2042 from the Central Texas APA 2022 Outstanding Student Project Award. My confidence lies in knowing that my educational background has invaluably prepared me to be an urban planner at EHRA Engineering. 

Beginning my career as a planner at EHRA introduced me to a completely different side of planning than I was familiar with. Land use and master planning were practice areas I had only read about. I am grateful to have received the training through EHRA because I have found my calling and the practice area that brings me the most enjoyment. 

Urban planning consists of many components, such as plan making, hazard mitigation, flood planning, housing, transportation, healthcare and economic development, to name a few. What I enjoy most about land use and master planning are the design elements and creativity. When I started my journey to becoming a planner, the choice between an urban planning degree or one in real estate development was based on which would give me a creative outlet.

I always had a deep interest in architecture and interior design, and I wanted to design places that would make an impact on the way we live. Unfortunately, I did not have the time for the additional education as I was already amidst a career change with an undergraduate degree in music business. I felt unfulfilled and was searching for more meaning in my work. I could not be happier with every decision I have made leading up to this point, and I thank God for his guidance every step of the way and many answered prayers. 

At EHRA, I get that creative outlet I have been searching for through design and the fulfilment from seeing our projects come to life and the impact our work has on the communities we create. It is that perfect balance of creativity and problem-solving, which can be particularly challenging at times, but that is what keeps the job interesting. There is never a dull moment.

Plan-making still has a special place in my career. I have been able to work with the City of Pattison and the Village of Fairchilds on their comprehensive plans. I feel fortunate to receive exposure in both practice areas and the opportunity to bring to the table some insight from my school experience. Comprehensive planning may be less design-oriented, but I enjoy learning and connecting with people about how to help make their community a better place to live. Another significant difference in my field versus school experience involves public outreach. COVID-19 impacted my program by converting public outreach efforts to a virtual setting. I missed that in-person experience, but I have been getting plenty of exposure in practice. I have learned so much about the different strategies for public outreach, hosting public meetings and most importantly, how to answer and navigate challenging questions and concerns from the public. 

The idea of leading public meetings in the future is one of the reasons I felt inspired to pursue my American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification. AICP certifies me as a planning professional in the areas of ethics, professional development, education and the standards of planning practice. I knew the process would help me become a better planner and support my credibility when speaking to these communities.

It is not a requirement to have this certification as a planner. There have been times while studying for the exam when I wanted to give up. I did not pass the exam the first time, and sacrificing my free time and sleep while balancing work was incredibly challenging. I am proud to say I passed that exam and am officially a certified practicing planner! It is comforting to look back and see where I was when I started this journey, all the obstacles and uncertainties I faced, and that I made it through and achieved my goals. 

There is a lot of truth in trust—trusting the process, trusting God and trusting that you can do anything you set your mind to and never give up! My hope and goal is to encourage others to embrace their challenges because it IS worth it, every step, challenge and decision along the way.