Alyssa Tullar works for the Air Force Civilian Service as a military-based urban planner. She’s stationed on JBAB, the Joint Base Anacostia-BoLling, located in Washington, D.C. Tullar graduated from the USC Price Executive Master of Urban Planning program online in 2021.
Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment, or in your field?
A: A factor that motivated me to further my education was the fact that my undergrad [degree] was in landscape architecture. And with that, specifically, it’s only small scale design and working for engineering firms. I could only go up so far in my career with that specific degree. With the research that I did, I saw all the potential that I could have with a degree in urban planning – there were more types of firms that I could work for, and [I could] be involved in more diverse projects. Urban planning is more large-scale design, which is what I’m interested in. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to further my education, because I knew I needed that extra step.
Q: How did you first hear about the EMUP program? And what drove you to pick USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning online program over other graduate programs?
A: I first heard about the EMUP program from all of the research that I had done. USC was one of the top rated schools that I had investigated. I chose USC for multiple reasons, one was the time difference. I live on the East Coast and the timing of the classes were between 8:30 and 9:00 PM, which worked really well for the work and social commitments that I already had.
The other reason was the curriculum. I am well versed in hand graphics, drawing, and spatial analysis in the design portion of this industry. But for me, USC’s curriculum was more about codes, laws, engagements, and politics of the industry, and I just had never been exposed to that. The courses leaned more towards the knowledge that I was lacking and [would make me] more of a well-rounded designer.
Q: When you were applying to the program, what were your outcome goals and desires?
A: My biggest outcome goal was honestly just to get a diploma with the word “planning” on it. For my specific background, that’s the next step that I needed in order to further my career. I also chose this program, because I found that the program admitted a lot of professionals with diverse, but similar backgrounds. And for me, I wanted to build my professional network around design and industry-related professionals, but not quite landscape architects.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in the EMUP program, both the online portion and the in-person residencies?
A: My experience with EMUP was fantastic. However, I started the program right as COVID started, in March of 2020. But for me, in the long run, that was like a blessing in disguise. With everything that had shut down, I was able to focus more on my studies without having any distractions. USC did a really nice job of making virtual happy hours, online events, and optional lectures that you could attend outside of class. But because of COVID, as a cohort, we were never able to do our intensives in person. I did hear wonderful stories about how they used to be, and I’m sure how they’ll be in the future. We were able to have an event right before graduation, as a cohort, so that we were able to meet each other.
Q: How did you balance the demands of study with your life, both professional and personal?
A: 2020 was the busiest year for me. On top of my professional job that I had Monday through Friday, I taught tennis after hours in order to pay for USC out of pocket. So, I was already working 45 hours a week and I had about 35 hours of tennis lessons a week. I made a spreadsheet of my daily activities, scheduled when I had class, and looked at my available free time for homework. Making a daily schedule was incredibly important for me and I would highly recommend that to any future student.
Q: How was your interaction and experience with your professors? What about your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with them?
A: My experiences with my professors were fantastic. I still keep in touch with some of my professors to date. I go to them for professional advice, whether it’s for a project, how I can further my career, or if they know of any job openings. And a few of my classmates are some of my best friends now. I was lucky that one of the women in my cohort lived about 15 minutes away from me, so her and I became very close.
Q: The EMUP program is an executive program. It’s designed for seasoned professionals, who are either experienced in urban planning or related fields. Was that diversity of experience and knowledge valuable to you?
A: As someone who’s been in the industry for about eight years, the diversity and experience of the knowledge that I gained in this program was fantastic. Like I mentioned, this program was able to fill in the gaps of knowledge that I was lacking. The diverse background from the students was extremely helpful and insightful when working in groups, and just learning how a certain topic applies to me, but differently to somebody else within a different career field. That made me look at my profession and my projects from a different angle, and have different applications for these topics and ideas that we were discussing in class.
Q: Can you tell us about a project you did during your program, and how it prepared you for the future?
A: For our final project, we had to present on whether we would close the I-70 gap in Los Angeles. This project brought a lot of conflict, because it could displace residents, residents would now have their homes near a freeway, and a lot of other major constraints were tied to this project. We were first tasked with, should we close it or not? But more importantly, what were our validations for this project? As a landscape architect, I work on small projects. So, something to this magnitude is not something that I’m used to, [in addition to it being] a transportation project. Landscape architects deal with trees, grass, and flowers, per se. This was something out of my realm, but was still close enough to it that I knew what I was doing, which was great. It made me think outside the box and it made me really take everything that I had learned, throughout the whole year and a half, and apply it to our final project.
This definitely prepared me for the future with the job that I just accepted, as a Military Base Planner. I will be designing large scale infrastructure on bases that have hundreds of acres. As a landscape architect, that’s just not something that I was prepared to have done, until this program.
Q: How soon were you able to directly apply the skills you learned into your professional role? What knowledge or skills, that you learned in the program, were the most impactful to you?
A: For me, I was able to apply my skills immediately from the program. I was able to shift my thinking for how to be more of a holistic designer – not just on paper, but how to apply stakeholder engagement and the politics of the profession into the design that I’m already doing. For me, that’s going to be really effective while I work for the Air Force and on military bases, because there are so many different types of politics on joint bases. Ever since I graduated, in 2021, I’ve now been able to apply for jobs that I was not previously qualified for. With this degree, I now have the opportunity to step into a field where there’s more opportunity for large scale design. The Air Force and DOD, told me that obtaining this degree, while working, and during COVID, and doing it online, was one of the reasons that I stood out from other candidates.
Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?
A: I would definitely recommend this degree to a future student. I will not lie, the workload is a good amount, but it’s an executive program, so that comes with the territory. For me, scheduling time to do homework and work on group projects was extremely helpful. I would also say to get close with your cohort, it makes classes and projects more fun and easier to work on if you know who you’re working with. Ask a lot of questions. I learned so much just from asking my classmates how they viewed a topic and how it related to them and their field. Partnering with classmates, who have a different background than yours, will broaden your knowledge base extremely well. Lastly, create good working relationships with your professors. They understand that your professional jobs take precedence, but just having an open dialogue with them really takes the stress off everything that you have going on in your life.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about the EMUP program?
A: I just wanted to end by saying, I thoroughly enjoyed this program. I enjoyed my cohort and I enjoyed my teachers. And going to school, while working, is possible if you just apply yourself and manage your time correctly.