Alumni Highlight: Rachel Gaffney, Regional + City Planning

Rachel Gaffney, Regional and City Planning, University of Oklahoma MRCP

This semester, we are highlighting alumni from each of our seven disciplines. This week, we talked to Rachel Gaffney! Rachel graduated from the Gibbs College of Architecture (GCA) in 2018 with a Master’s Degree in Regional and City Planning. She is currently enrolled in the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Candidate Pilot Program, as she passed the AICP exam in November of 2018. We asked Rachel a few questions about her experience at OU and her best advice for the AICP exam!

What made you want to go into the field of planning?

I studied sociology in undergrad and found the issues of systemic inequalities and socio-political power to be really fascinating, but a career in sociology wasn’t appealing to me for a number of reasons. I see regional and city planning as a way to address the societal inequalities I studied in undergrad through the built environment and the policies that govern that environment. 

What was your experience like in the AICP candidate pilot program?  

The AICP candidate program is easy to join as a student, and there aren’t any obligations until after you graduate. There are some mentoring opportunities that I haven’t taken advantage of yet where you can connect to current AICP members who wish to take on a mentee. After you graduate, you have to begin paying member dues to stay in the program. At that point, you can register to take the AICP exam. If you pass the exam, you are officially considered an AICP candidate. I’m hoping that being a part of the AICP candidate program will be an asset while job hunting. 

What is your best advice for students who are preparing for the AICP exam 

Making a detailed study guide for the comprehensive exam at the end of the MRCP [master of regional and city planning] program is very important. Save your notes and tests from all your classes. I would even recommend talking to students who took electives that you didn’t and getting some notes from them. The AICP exam tends to focus largely on history and theory, land use law, and the AICP Code of Ethics so pay particular attention to those topics. 

What is something that inspired you as a student or early on in your career?  

It’s hard to point to any one thing. It just gradually became very clear to me that planning involves a lot of my skills and interests in a way that’s very fulfilling. I like that planning involves a lot of analytical skills but also creativity and communication skills.  

What experiences at the Gibbs College of Architecture contributed to your success? 

Presenting my paper at the ACSP conference was an incredible experience. That was the first time I had ever presented anything at a conference, and it was very exciting to have my work recognized like that. It gave me some confidence that planning was not only something I was interested in, but something that I could do well. It was also fascinating to learn about all the research that different universities are doing. Planning is an incredibly broad and diverse field and it was great to learn more about the different sub-fields that people are working in.  

What is one of your favorite memories from being a student in the College of Architecture? 

Going to the National Planning Conference in New Orleans is probably my favorite memory. A big group of us went, and it was really fun to explore the city and get to know my classmates a little better. The conference itself was pretty amazing. The range of projects and research being presented was incredible and it was really interesting to meet planners from all over the country. 

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to GCA students or recent grads?  

Showing initiative can really pay off. If there is somewhere you really want to work, don’t be afraid to contact them even if they don’t seem to be hiring at the moment or they don’t have an established internship program. Many of the planners I’ve met so far are actually really interested in helping students and recent grads start their careers. Reaching out might help you get a foot in the door with a part-time job or internship.  

Who was the most influential person that you met in the Gibbs College of Architecture?

All of the faculty I worked with in the College of Architecture were amazing but Bryce Lowery and Charlie Warnken were particularly influential to me. Dr. Lowery inspired me to submit a paper for the Ed McClure award and generally encouraged me to pursue my research interests. Dr. Warnken was always available for any questions or concerns I had and was very invested in making sure we were all thriving in the program. I had some really interesting conversations with him about his research and about various aspects of planning that I was interested in.  

 We would like to give a big thank you to Rachel for taking the time to answer our questions and give us a look into her life post-GCA.