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Q&A with EMUP Alum, Lance Gilliam

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Lance Gilliam is a founding partner at Houston firm Waterman Steele Real Estate Advisors and is chair of the Coalition for the Homeless Houston board. He graduated from the USC Price Master of Urban Planning program online in 2021. Gilliam discusses how the EMUP degree provided a collaborative environment and helped him enrich his career.

Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment, or field?

A: I chose to pursue my education rather late in life. I was the second oldest in my cohort at 63 when I chose to attend USC. And I did it really as a desire to further lifelong learning and, frankly, just to do better work – not only for our firm and its clients, but really in our community.

Q: How did you first hear about the EMUP program? What drove you to pick USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning online program over other graduate programs?

A: I don’t actually remember how I first heard about the USC program, but I remember when I did hear about it, that I reached out to Marlon Boarnet, who’s one of the creators. And, I remember how he described the program to me as the confluence of real estate and planning. That was immediately attractive to me as a practitioner. I know that my shortcomings were in planning and I needed to do better to learn more about the planning environment. So, the nature of the program was just a phenomenal opportunity for me to learn.

Q: What were your outcome goals and desires going into the program?

A: My outcome goals and desires going into the program really were to learn. It was as simple as that. And I really exceeded those expectations. I wanted to learn from USC and its curriculum. I wanted to learn from its faculty. And then surprisingly, and pleasantly, I learned from my fellow students and my goals were all met and exceeded.

Q: Tell us about your experience in the Executive Master of Urban Planning program, both the online modality and in person residencies.

A: My cohort was the cohort that COVID hit in the middle of our experience. We were able to have our first intensive on campus, which I loved. We had the best time working together. But what I was fascinated by, prior to that intensive, was how the personal relationships we developed by meeting virtually. The actual in-person meeting was extraordinary only in the sense that for the first time we knew how tall each other were. Other than that, we knew family members. We knew pets. We knew homes. And I love the virtual experience. I prefer meeting in person, but it wouldn’t make sense given what we were trying to do with our day jobs at the same time.

Q: When you were in the program, how did you balance the demands of study with the other things going on in your life?

A: It was probably easier for me than some of my fellow students or fellow cohort mates in balancing the demands of the program. The program was very flexible. Meeting in the evenings a couple nights a week wasn’t hard. And really, the challenge with the program became defining time for us to gather outside of the virtual classroom in order to collaborate and generate work product together, which again, my schedule was very flexible and most of my classmates schedules were flexible, but rarely did it become an imposition on my other work or frankly family.

Q: How was your interaction and experience with your professors? What about your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with any of them?

A: Well, I loved the experience in terms of both my professors and my fellow students. I’ve really created a friendship with a couple of the professors and have stayed closely in touch with them and have continued to learn from them. And some of that learning has gone both ways. It’s been a great sharing experience.

The fascinating part to me was how much I learned from my fellow students, all who had different life experiences, most were planners, some were real estate finance people like me. And we really developed a good friendship so much so that one of my classmates now lives in Houston and we contributed to him being recruited to be a chief operating officer of our Parks Board. So absolutely, maintain the relationships with my classmates as best we can.

Q: The EMUP program is an executive program. It’s designed for seasoned professionals who are either experienced in urban planning or in a related field. Was that diversity of experience and knowledge valuable?

A: At USC, because of the length of the program, the diversity of the program, the course content – not always content that I was familiar with or comfortable with – I had to learn. It was really important that I collaborated with my fellow students. Some are data scientists, some are planners, I’m a real estate finance guy. We needed to depend upon each other to be successful. The experience with my fellow classmates was as important to the outcome of the program as was my experience with my instructors.

Q: Can you talk about projects you did during your program? How did they prepare you for the future?

A: We looked at a number of projects ranging from looking at value added taxes and incremental sources of income to achieve socially equitable outcomes, to frustrations and extending infrastructure projects in California, to community engagement for affordable housing and other equitable investments. I think the totality of the experience and in learning how to look at different projects from different perspectives has clearly allowed me to engage with others around me more effectively. As we do our work, especially in communities outside of our own, to have a better understanding of what those communities may want. And I’ve taken that learning experience away from USC and applied it over and over and over again, it’s been highly impactful to the work I do.

Q: How soon were you able to directly apply the skills you learned into your professional role and what knowledge or skills that you learned in the EMUP were most impactful to you?

A: I was applying the skills I learned while I was in class and continue to apply them today. The skill and knowledge that I learned that was most impactful, probably had to go towards community engagement and then governance. I got a greater appreciation of how to engage, not only with stakeholders in the community, but particularly other public officials and staff and learning how they think and tools to help find collaborative outcomes. One of our professors has written a book called “Negotiation and How to Achieve Win-Win Outcomes”, and that has been aspirational to me. I have been pretty good at it in the past, but I’m a lot better at it now thanks to USC.

Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the EMUP helped further your career?

A: I think the executive program at USC really enriched my career. Certainly it’s given me credibility, which is something I didn’t really expect. It’s not why I enrolled in the program – to get a piece of paper that said I had accomplished something. But, what I quickly recognized is that because I had that piece of paper it has been impactful on how others see me. Just the stature of USC, I arguably underestimated, but it’s been phenomenal.

The USC community post graduation has been incredible. I’ve had a hard time with the “Fight On!” thing because I’m a Texas guy and I’ve never let y’all forget the Rose Bowl from a few years ago, where y’all may have had a better team, but we won that. That being said, as a Texan, I have been stunned by the engagement of the Trojan Family, the USC Alumni support systems. My relationship with USC is not as deep and long as others, but you would never know that based on the resources. That’s what’s unique about this, I’m no longer in the program, but they’ve never lost the connection with me. I have just been thrilled with the engagement of the whole community.

Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to prospective students?

A: I’ve already recommended the USC EMUP program to another student. One of my dear friends here in Houston, who I respect highly, is now a student because of me. I have a couple other friends that I know in the program. I’m a huge advocate for the program, especially for professionals who are looking to change their careers potentially or advance their career.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the EMUP program?

A: If you ask me in a nutshell about the program, one, I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. I don’t know what I really expected, but I left there with a sense of accomplishment. And I left the program, knowing more than I did when I started and feeling that I was more confident at what I do.

I can tell you also, I’d never been on the floor of the Coliseum. And I walked with my class at the end of COVID and it was incredibly humbling and it really imparted the sense of achievement and accomplishment and pride in what we had done together. I’m a big fan and an advocate for the program and a cheerleader for them. Fight On!

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