Urban Planning Master’s Graduate Provides Equitable Disaster Relief

Following Hurricane Ike, Chrishelle Palay was inspired to pursue a career in housing policy advocacy to better equip communities as they recover from natural disasters.

For Chrishelle Palay, the last year has been monumental.

As a recent graduate of the Executive Master of Urban Planning (EMUP) online program, the degree has already propelled her career path — even if urban planning was a slight departure from her previous positions.

Palay’s educational journey began when she attended Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU in Texas, where she pursued her bachelor’s degree in architecture. She spent the next two decades in the field, working as a designer for high-rise residential projects throughout the U.S. before she decided to pursue a different, related passion: housing policy advocacy.

“I transitioned from architecture because I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore. Actually, Hurricane Ike kind of led to that realization, as I saw that there are so many communities that didn’t have the skill sets to understand and navigate how to recover from disaster,” Palay explained.

Palay began working with members from low-income communities to advocate on their behalf for better housing and living conditions, and she is now the director for Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME), a Texan coalition of community-based organizations focused on repairing the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

While Palay was passionate about her new career focus and its emphasis on creating a more equitable, resilient city — and felt her background in architecture helped her successfully navigate the systems involved — she wanted to deepen her knowledge in urban planning.

“I was always touching the periphery of urban planning, but I never had a chance to really dive into it. The thought of pursuing a master’s in urban planning was on my mind because I thought if I was even better equipped, I could do deeper work that really helps my community members,” she explained.

Then, Palay met a Trojan graduate who had just completed the EMUP online program at USC Price School of Policy. After they raved to Palay about the executive master’s program, she realized it was time to pursue urban planning — specifically at USC.

“Everyone knows that USC has a very prestigious reputation, so I was a bit intimidated initially. I thought that because I’m in community work and not at this high-profile architecture firm, I don’t know if I’ll really cut the mustard,” Palay mused. “And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I actually was accepted. Just to be part of the USC family is something that I never thought was within reach.”

As Palay navigated her way through the program, she realized how well the curriculum melded not only with her future career goals, but also with her current position at the HOME Coalition — especially involving her work with local policymakers and community leaders.

“Many of the courses that I took and the conversations I had with professors and the assignments I did definitely [blended] with my lived experience,” she explained. “I gained so much value from the coursework and being in the program.”

Tailored to working professionals who want to make their cities more equitable, sustainable and just, the EMUP online trains graduates to become leaders in the public, nonprofit or private sectors. It also emphasizes collaboration and community, immersing students in projects with their peers and professors to address real-world issues.

Palay was particularly fond of her diverse cohort members. Although her colleagues came from different backgrounds and held varying perspectives on the field, each of their professional work “had a link to urban planning in some way, shape or form.”

“My background is architecture and housing policy advocacy, but now I got to understand through the perspective of someone who’s been working in development, from the perspective of someone that works within finance, someone else who works through the lens of leading homelessness issues or efforts within their community,” she said.

The faculty and staff were also immensely supportive, fostering a virtual classroom environment in which all students felt compelled to share their points of view and “show up” for one another.

“Regardless of our personal or professional responsibilities, everyone in the cohort always showed up in class. It was almost like a responsibility that we had for each other, even though it was unspoken,” she said. “Of course, the program was online, so it made it even more special to form that connection. It had that feel of family despite being behind screens.”

Following her graduation this year, Palay feels even more invigorated by her career, and she is currently looking to deepen her experience in the advocacy sector and broaden her scope to focus on connecting local-based issues with federal policy changes.

“[I want] to use the skill sets that I’ve learned and also utilize the connections I’ve made,” she said.

When asked where she visualizes her career in the future, Palay described working on a global level to enact more serious change when it comes to disaster relief and recovery, boosting her impact to an international scale.

“I want to be doing all I can to be a policy advocate and a bridge builder for equitable disaster recovery so that low-income communities — the most vulnerable communities that are impacted by disaster — are able to have the tools to recover. [I want to ensure] we also have equitable policy that allows folks to really recover and not be set back,” she said.

It’s a noble goal, and one Palay seems well-suited to accomplish, especially with her master’s degree from USC Price in hand. After taking a moment to look forward, she also reflected on what she would tell other people considering the EMUP program. She was unwavering in her enthusiasm: If you’re passionate about urban planning, go for it.

“Lay aside any reservations that you may have. It will be a rigorous program, but a transformative experience … You will have a community of support both from the faculty and the students,” she said.

Learn more about the Executive Master of Urban Planning online program at USC Price today.

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