Architect Colin Montoute works for the New York firm W X Y + architecture + urban design. He graduated from the USC Price Executive Master of Urban Planning program online in 2021. Montoute discusses how the EMUP degree provided a collaborative environment, helping him to learn the necessary skills to help boost his career to the next level.
Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment or field?
A: The factors that motivated me to further my education were the need to understand, after a number of years of working in the field, what I wanted to do next. I needed to gain some additional tools that allowed me to pursue the next path in my career.
Q: How did you first hear about the program and what drove you to pick USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning online program over other graduate programs?
A: First of all, I needed something remote because I was still working. And I also wanted a program that had a broad perspective, a program that I felt was dealing with some of the critical issues that concerned me regarding cities, development, and how we all sort of engage in, as civic-minded practitioners, in the issues as to why cities succeed, why they fail, and the impact we can have on them. I thought the EMUP program ticked all those boxes.
Q: When you were applying to the program, what were your outcome goals and desires?
A: My outcome goal going into the program was to leave with the tools that allowed me to pursue the aspirations that I had as a mid-career professional. Until that time, I’d worked across the industry and felt that there were things that I had to offer, but I didn’t have the skills with which to connect these various aspirations and the EMUP program allowed me to do that. I left having a clear direction as to what I wanted to do next and the ability to pursue those aspirations.
Q: Tell us about your experience in the EMUP program, both the online modality and the in-person residencies.
A: My experience during the EMUP program, I think, was unique as it was during the pandemic. It didn’t start out there, but we were online before everyone else had to be online. I think the fact that we were online provided certain advantages. The diverse student body from around the country brought different perspectives that allowed us to investigate and think through some of the challenges we were working on in our various classes in a way that was very present for the students. Things were happening in real time that often mirrored exactly what we were discussing in class. When those moments occurred it really made me feel I was in the right program and I had made the right choice.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to do an in-person residency?
A: No, we didn’t do an in-person residency during our sessions due to the pandemic, which was unfortunate. The fact that we weren’t able to do residencies, I think really strengthened the various groups to work harder, to work together, to collaborate, to find ways to work around the distance and the advantages that working remotely provided.
Q: You mentioned before that you were working when you did the program. How did you balance the demands of study with your life, both professional and personal?
A: Balancing the program with life, both personal and professional, was a challenge, partially because I kept saying, “I haven’t been in school for quite a number of years.” And so I had to relearn how to be a student, but I think that it opened me up to accessing new tools, new ways of learning, new ways of engaging with the information, digital and online, and those sorts of things.
I think the fact that I was coming to it as a relatively new student since last I was in school, provided certain advantages as well. And many of those means were provided to me by the program. It kind of opened doors for me as to how I might engage with both other students, my colleagues, and a lot of that has continued as I’ve left the program.
Q: When you were in the program, how was your interaction and your experience with both your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with any of them today?
A: I keep in touch with a couple of students. It’s still fairly fresh and recent. I do hope to be in touch with more of my fellow students in the near future. It’s not as much as I think would otherwise be if we had been in-person, let’s say. But we were such a strong, tight knit group during our session that undoubtedly, I think we will regroup in the future and make stronger bonds and connections.
Q: What was your interaction and experience like with faculty?
A: The professors were amazing. I felt for some, the online teaching modality was fresh. But I think it was a good thing because I felt that some of them were sort of moving beyond the outside of their box and forced them to think about new ways of introducing the information. I always felt that I was both part of something new and exciting in the program and that we were also figuring out exactly how this online thing worked. It was exciting. It was thrilling actually.
Q: Do you keep in touch with any of the faculty today?
A: I do occasionally and every now and then I see them pop up on various platforms and I always look for the opportunity to tell others about the program. It’s done wonders for me and it’s really transformed my path in terms of my career. So whenever an opportunity pops up to engage with professors and support their interests, or even support the program, I always look forward to doing so. I think it’s a unique program and I’m always happy to share with others my experiences and what I think it may do for them.
Q: Can you elaborate on why you think the program is unique?
A: I think the program is unique because the curriculum is broad enough and specific in many respects too. Much of the critical concerns that we’re dealing with – and I’m dealing with in my job – around working in cities and thinking about how we improve, how we can engage in civic and economic situations. I think the program really gets to the point of what drives many of the issues that I’m working on. What are the key factors that I should be concerned about? What’s the information I didn’t know, to make the positive impacts that I seek to pursue in my work? And I really wasn’t able to find another program that did that to the degree that this program provided. It was a unique opportunity for me and I’m certainly making the best of it now.
Q: The program is an executive program designed for seasoned professionals who are either experienced in urban planning or in a related field. Can you talk a little bit about the diversity of experience and knowledge within the cohort that you found valuable in the program?
A: I think having diverse perspectives in the program – some people were from real estate, some were from business, some were administrators in government – really brought together the diverse possibilities of what the program could provide to us post graduation.
Whether it’s about urban planning, real estate, focusing on good governance – I felt that we all brought something unique to our classes. We all learned from each other and the diverse nature of the class. It’s what the program’s about, to me, and really helps to reveal the importance of what it takes for cities and urban conditions to be successful.
Q: Can you talk about a project you did during your program and how it helps prepare you for the future?
A: There were a number of specific projects in the program that I think helped me think through what I’m doing now and what I may do in the future. Particularly around development and looking specifically at areas of New York City that are transforming from formally industrial uses. Certainly our projects along the waterfront – the Brooklyn Navy yard, Red Hook, and these types of places.
I was able to fortunately focus on a number of projects across different classes in this same area. So, I was able to build a body of knowledge. Whether it be real estate, development, planning, I left with an understanding of these various ways of thinking about how cities function, and that really advanced my own pursuits as I continue in planning, urban design, and architecture.
Q: How soon were you able to apply the skills you learned into your professional role and what knowledge or skills that you learned were the most impactful?
A: I was able to apply the skills I learned in the program almost immediately. I was fortunate that after I left one job, I joined the firm I’m currently at (W X Y in New York City) almost immediately upon graduation. Many of the issues that we talked about in the program were housing affordability, gentrification, and how we make a vibe in cities that are diverse and equitable. So that’s what I’m currently doing and working on and so many of those are the questions we challenged ourselves with doing the program. So I would say day one, after graduation, I jumped into applying the skills that I acquired during the program.
Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the EMUP helped further your career?
A: Since I’ve graduated, EMUP has helped further my career by opening up many opportunities for me personally and professionally. I’ve been able to bring different minds and like-minded souls to some of the things that concern me and that I think are important. And it’s really one of the reasons that I wanted to take this path within the EMUP program.
I felt I needed additional tools and skills, to make a difference in so many of the critical questions I think we should be asking and challenging ourselves with as we pursue work in very complicated, diverse, rich, messy, urban situations. I think we have to approach these issues with a mindset that we always need to be aspiring to acquire new skills, new tools, reach out, and connect. And I feel that I can now do that in a way that I could not before I entered the program.
Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to a prospective student? And what advice would you give to them?
A: I would definitely recommend the program to so many different types of students. It has such a broad scope, and there’s so many entry points for prospective students to find their path through the program. That was one of the things that was exciting about it – I entered the program with a sense of what I thought it was going to be, and halfway through I realized that it was what I wanted, but with a slightly different twist as to what I could get out of it. And I’ve grown immensely, immensely through it. I would recommend it to so many different types of students looking for ways of rethinking their path. It’s been exciting to share my really positive experience in the program and I hope to do more of that in the future.