I’ve been out of graduate school for two years now, and a wedding of a former classmate this past weekend gave me a moment to look back on those two years of my life. My time at the University of Minnesota has misfortune of living in the shadow of a very different academic and institutional environment from my undergrad days—one that is hard to compare on many levels. But it was still a formative experience, and if readers of this blog know anything, they know I have a fondness for reflecting on formative experiences, so it’s time to give my time as a Gopher the same treatment I’ve given to my other alma maters.
I earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The fact that the U of M’s planning program is located in a policy school, and not an architecture school or somewhere else, is unique in and of itself. It gave planning a valuable social context that I think it deserves, as opposed to a more technical engineering-focused education. That said, the MURP program was also Humphrey’s red-headed stepchild; the dean would make good-natured but all-too-true jokes about how he didn’t know any of us. Our program was a forgotten little corner of a sprawling research university, and as a result many of us in it developed some chips on our shoulders. It could be a lonely world, but also one that built its own fierce tribe that stuck together through grad school and beyond.
Perhaps the biggest difference between my undergraduate life at Georgetown and Humphrey was the level of institutional support for students. While there are good and bad professors everywhere, the range of teaching quality at Humphrey was much wider than it was at Georgetown, where duds were few and far between. Some, including the current MURP program director, met a fantastic ideal of intellectual heft, ability to teach, and care for students. Others were so weak or so transparently more interested in their own careers than their students that it was hard not to check out in their presence, especially for those of us who preferred not to BS our way through things. I also had several unfortunate encounters with incompetent middle-level bureaucracy, from Humphrey human resources to the broader university’s health insurance system, which left a very sour taste in my final semester. The contrasts between the Georgetown financial aid office professional who went the extra mile to make sure I had everything I needed and the U of M’s automated and soulless systems, or between the Georgetown advisory dean who oversaw a five-person seminar for my major and one poor, overworked guy for the whole Humphrey, was striking. Funding for educational support staff is necessary at all levels, period: the difference in students’ mental health and career readiness is night and day.
The size of the U of M wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed the trappings of life at a Big Ten school; even though most of the major sports teams sucked during my time there, it made for excellent atmosphere on game days, and I will always feel a certain sense of home amid the frenetic energy of undergrads. The U of M is also so large that it’s hard for a single culture to dominate, as Georgetown’s East Coast preppiness sometimes could, and everyone could find their own little communities somewhere on campus. The urban campus gave access to an intriguing city, especially on the West Bank, where Humphrey sat a stone’s throw from the Somali-populated towers of Cedar-Riverside. We grad students mostly lived a bit further afield, clustering in neighborhoods that gave us access to plenty of good living beyond our schoolwork. In a phase of life where I had no pressing need to own a vehicle, it was a great place to be, and a large urban area is an excellent laboratory for aspiring planners.
Unlike Georgetown, which was caught up in a much larger mystique and set of life goals, I chose Humphrey for largely instrumental reasons. It is comparatively cheap, and its name and location provided access to networks and a ticket to a job in my field in the city where I wanted to be. It is reasonably well-regarded, though prestige means relatively little for a planning master’s program unless one is going on to a PhD. I find it somewhat ironic that this is the degree that gets me jobs when I think my undergraduate experience was more rigorous, more formative, and did more to prepare me to navigate through the adult world. But that, I suppose, is the world I live in. Higher education is a remarkably valuable thing, but not for the letters on the pieces of paper that students get at the end.
Even as a staunch defender of higher education, I could see how falsely this race to acquire credentials rang for so many of my peers, and had some sympathies when they rolled their eyes at the university system for leeching off of it. But if this was the price I had to pay, it was modest and reasonable, and more often than not was worth the cost. I was dismissive when classmates said they weren’t getting enough real world skills such as interpretation of zoning code, and nothing since then has altered that outlook. That’s not what grad school is for. Instead, it’s an immersive step outside the humdrum routine of working life, and a theater for students to negotiate crucial questions of what the actual outcome of their work will be. The debates we had in the MURP lab over beers at bars down the street or at Liquor Lyle’s set the table for everything that came after. Take it from Frank Bruni’s college admissions friend in this timely, excellent overview on how to get the most out of college: “The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits.”
One of the real advantages of planning is the diversity of backgrounds of people who come into it, and for that matter in what they do coming out of it. A laundry list that includes architects, policy wonks, philosophers, map enthusiasts, and recovering bankers go in, some straight out of undergrad and some with varying degrees of working world experience. Developers, hardcore activists, academics, consultants, and traditional government employees all come out. We all tested each other, learned from each other, and became more complete people thanks to one another.
I made the decision to go to urban planning school at a point where my career ambitions were at a nadir, and am not sure if I would make the same choice today if not for the community that Humphrey built. We had good debates in classrooms, yes, but what Humphrey truly cultivated was a group of people with whom I can continue to make sure I’m doing what I want to do. The cozy MURP program gives its graduates a ready community of practice who, in the event that I have some sort of question on effective policy programs for particular issues or the value of adopting some technological tool, will give me an immediate, comprehensive response if I share it with my network. And for deeper dilemmas of where exactly we’re going with our work, they’re there, too.
This isn’t to say the network was without some frustrations. There was a general political groupthink to both the MURP program and the broader Humphrey, with only rare deviance. Within the MURP program itself, the lack of diversity was a frequent source of frustration for administration and students alike. And, as with any small group of people, it’s not hard to fall too deep into the weeds and lose track of other things, a fact of life that is mostly harmless but sometimes limiting. (During the wedding, I overheard one person declaiming loudly on bar graphs; over the course of the day, I had at least five people ask me if I’d heard of the latest incident of Minneapolis political outrage in which some low-grade elected official made a hash of trying to silence a bothersome hyper-local journalist.) Small communities will always have their internal little incidents that can disturb the peace. That’s life with other people.
In our best moments, my grad school cohort built exactly the sort of little community that we planners are supposed to uphold in the world. And now, out in that working world, we are spreading that seed. I struggle to define the emotion I feel upon seeing a rush of babies born to the married members of my class in the two years since graduation: it puts on hold a life so often driven by calculation and ambition, and I am left only with a sense of humility, a moment of rightness before the power of creation. While I don’t begrudge those who choose different arrangements (or are unable to choose it), child-rearing is central to my vision for a sustainable, healthy community: if we truly believe in leaving the world better than we found it, how can we not bring life into it ourselves? How can that not be the ultimate task, the ultimate test of our ability to stand up for what we claim to believe in? No matter where I may wander from here, that desire to live in community and contribute to it will be central, and I have my time at Humphrey to forever fuel it.