GCA communications intern, Haley Sandell (H), sat down with senior Geography and Regional & City Planning graduate student, Erin Stanley (E), to talk about her experiences at Gibbs, juggling a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously, and what she is looking forward to in her final year of school! Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast.

H: What can you tell us about yourself? 

E: I am a senior from Dallas, Texas, and I’m in the accelerated master’s program at Gibbs that partners with the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. So, I’m getting my master’s in Regional & City Planning and my bachelor’s in Geography at the same time right now, and I’ll graduate in the Spring of 2021 with both degrees. 

H: Nice! For anyone who might not know, can you explain a little about what Regional & City Planning is? 

E: Yeah, it’s a diverse degree. Mainly, it’s about managing growth and development in cities, so we work closely with communities to make sure everyone is represented and to create community plans to match what the community really wants to see. When land is bought for new development, the plans are usually reviewed by city planners before they can go through and develop. They also make suggestions to city officials on how to deal with transportation, economic, or environmental issues. Because it’s so broad, our degree program really has two concentrations to pick from. There is the physical side of planning that deals with land use and building regulations. Then there is community and economic development, which is what I think I’m going to end up doing (I’m not entirely sure yet), and that focuses more on planning and projecting change for the city. It’s more about seeing what happened in the past and what we think will happen in the future. 

H: That’s really cool! So, you do a little bit of everything! Is it ever intimidating working on such a large scale?

E: Yeah, we break it down for most of our assignments and community projects and focus on one specific area to get an idea of how things run.

H: What made you want to get your master’s in Regional & City Planning?

E: I was originally interested in the accelerated program because it’s a great way to get your master’s without going to school for that much longer (for me). It’s a five-year program, but I am doing it in four years because I came in with some credit. I really fell in love with planning because, as a geography undergrad, I was taught also such a diverse curriculum. In a way, geography is the study of everything also. So, we learned about maps and physical landscapes, but I had also taken classes that focused on the economy, environments, and culture. All of that really plays into city planning, and I wanted to find a way to take everything I had learned and make a difference in a community. So, city planning has been great for that and for the opportunity to actually interact with the community and use everything I had been learning. It’s really rewarding to know that I can make a difference for the people. 

H: And it’s really cool that you can take all these interests you have and boil them down to one life-changing degree.  

E: It really is; I never thought they’d all overlap as well as they do.

Image credit: Erin Stanley, on a documentary project with Gaylord college about Picher, OK

H: Definitely! Since you’re approaching your last year at OU, I’m sure you’ve worked on tons of projects; can you tell us about one of your favorites? Or a couple?

E: Yeah! So, in the city planning program, a year ago, I was in a class called Urban and Regional Analysis with Dr. Charles Warnken. It was my first class in the planning program and it really focused on planning for changing populations, how cities grow and shrink, getting new industries, population demographics change which is happening everywhere, so it’s really interesting to understand how we plan for that and how it affects where people work, where they live, and how they commute. The class really focused on how to predict all those changes. Basically, the semester was one long project and we put together an economic and demographic profile for any county in Oklahoma that we wanted. So, I picked Oklahoma county and you outline how everything is going to change in the next 5-15 years. It was a lot of stats and graphs, but it’s also just an analysis of how the city should plan to deal with these changes and how they all play into each other. Because we see population growth in this area, we should plan for more transportation in this area. The final product looked just like a report that you would find on a city website or that would be handed to a city manager, and it was really fun to create something that was like the real product they would use and that we would be making in our future careers.

H: Yeah, absolutely! I’m from Oklahoma county, and I can’t imagine sitting down and analyzing all of that and projecting into the future. That’s really awesome!

E: It was a lot of numbers and lots of excel spreadsheets. There’s a lot of math in it. 

H: Yeah, and there are so many different areas in Oklahoma county, too. What, in your opinion, are the most difficult and rewarding parts of the accelerated master’s program?

E: Because it’s so diverse, our classes range from community involvement projects where we’re actually talking to community members and it’s not about math and science but about communication to computer software and making maps to testing water quality for the environmental side of things. I was also just in a class that was all about memorizing law cases. There’s a lot that’s in our program, and it can be a lot of information that you have to remember and relate all at once. It’s also hard because there are no right answers to a lot of it. Communities are changing and it’s like we’ve never seen before, so there’s no one right answer to it. You really have to think for yourself and understand all the variables at once, but I think that can also be part of the most rewarding parts of it because we can make such a difference. Knowing that we such flexibility with it, and there is not a textbook answer to follow. There’s a different take to every city, and we can initiate greener cities, equitable development, safer spaces, grow economies, so it’s up to us to make sure the plan plays out how the community wants it to. You get to form relationships with the citizens and create a place where everyone feels comfortable and happy. That’s the goal of it all. 

H: It’s really satisfying to see all of your work. What are you looking forward to, going into your senior year?  

E: Next year is going to be exciting because it’ll be the first year where I’m only taking planning classes. Since it’s an accelerated program, I’ve been doing two things at once and I’ve had semesters where it’s mostly geography and only one planning class, so I’m finally done with geography stuff and it still plays into it, but now I can just be in Gould. I’ll spend most of my time there, and I’ve loved every past planning class that I’ve taken, so I’m really excited to learn more and understand more about what planning is.

Image credit: Erin Stanley, welcoming international students through NISO

H: It’ll be more real-world experience. What advice would you give to a student thinking about applying to the Accelerated Master’s in Regional & City Planning program?

E: It’s definitely not an easy program. Typical graduate students are working full time and taking classes. Even if you’re not working full-time, it’s different coursework than undergrad, so it can be more demanding. Next year, I’ll be taking 15 credit hours a semester which, for graduate work, can be a lot.

H: That’s a full load!

E: Yeah, but it’s really, really rewarding, and I love all of the staff and professors in the program. They have all been more than accommodating to everything, especially the bouncing back and forth from geography and planning and finding ways that I can involve geography into the program. It’s a great way to take any degree and put a community twist on it and actually make a difference with it because that is what I’ve found in the geography world: we learn about the bad parts about what’s happening with the environment, but not so much about what we can do about it. Planning is a tangible thing we can do to make a difference. So I’ve definitely loved that, and even though it can be a hard course-load, but all the resources to help us are in the program, all the professors so far have made the top of my list of faculty I’ve had at OU. It’s a great program.

H: Good! Everything I hear about the professors at Gibbs is that they’re always there for you 24/7.

E: They really are. They will give out their cell phone numbers and encourage us to call, whatever we need. It’s a great program. I recommend it to anyone interested! There’s something in it for everyone.  

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.