Mike Lanza works for Path Ventures, which is the real estate development arm of PATH, a homeless services provider. He graduated from the USC Price Master of Urban Planning program online in 2021. Lanza discusses how the EMUP degree helped him to transition his professional career from the music industry to real estate development by providing him with valuable tools and knowledge to succeed in this new field.
Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment, or in your field?
A: Yes, the factors that motivated me to further my education really started long before the pandemic, but were made real when COVID came and took us out of our full-time work. I was in the entertainment industry for over a decade, close to 15 years. I did various things, but for the longest stint was a talent manager. I represented an artist who relied heavily on touring and performing, and that was not an option come March of 2020. Fortunately for me, I had started a career shift a couple years before that. I took on other interests and pursued project management, real estate development, and was really just primed and ready for a full transition. Because of changes that were happening in the entertainment industry, the time just came. I should say, the stars aligned for my transition to happen. It was unavoidable at that time. It was almost forced on me. I was very grateful, though. It worked out well.
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: In exploring urban planning, quite honestly, there was no other choice. There was no second option for me. I got interested. I learned about what urban planning was and when the decision needed to be made, I really only looked in one direction. I saw that USC offered it. I read about the accolades and the reputation that it had earned. I thought, why not apply? I was really close to the deadline when that moment came, and fortunately got a quick answer. The rest is history. I plugged right in.
Q: Could you describe your experience with the executive program?
A: Being that the Executive Program was a completely online learning curriculum – just based on the timing of when I was meant to make this decision – it was a complete no-brainer. It worked out very perfectly under the circumstances of COVID-19 restrictions. I was currently in a full-time position for my employer. The hours that were required by the program fit perfectly with my work schedule. It was a perfect pair to what I was doing in my day job.
Q: When you applied for the program, what were your outcome goals and desires?
A: I approached it completely open-minded. I really didn’t have any set expectations for what it was going to be. I had started a career, virtually on top of my first day at USC. It overlapped almost identically with my first day as a full-time project manager for a real estate developer. I really felt that I had a lot to learn and I had to catch up quickly, so to speak. I had some very good transferable skills from my previous career, although very hard to prove on paper. One of my goals was to affirm that I was ready for a big transition like that, and also ready to be in conversations with people who had been doing this type of work for a very long time.
Q: Can you talk about your day-to-day experience in the EMUP program? Both the online modality as well as the in-person residency?
A: Yes. My experience with the EMUP program was during the COVID-19 pandemic. I actually was not able to attend the intensive weekends in person because both of my intensive weekends were mandated to be online. My classes were every Monday and Tuesday, starting at 5:30, which worked well with my work schedule. Again, I was working remotely, anyway. It was literally transitioning from one web browser to another, oftentimes in the moment. Finishing a call just to get on into school. My experience became routine. I would say after the second term started, I figured out how to balance my time and understand when assignments were due and what the expectations were in terms of work outside of the classroom. I definitely devoted a lot of time on the weekends, which worked out really well.
Q: You were working full-time while you were in the program. Can you talk a little bit about how you balanced the demands of study with your life, both professional and personal?
A: I was a father of two when I entered the program. I finished the program, a father of three. I will definitely say that my experience with the University of Southern California was a great test of my capacity. Work continues to be a remote scenario. Transitioning from work to school was quite seamless, but the demands of a full-time schedule were certainly there throughout the entire curriculum, 40 hours a week.
For myself, I found that the weekends were my best time to do the asynchronous material, to do my reading, to do my assignments. It did come as a sacrifice for a couple football seasons. Other than that, the balance really was struck that way. I attended class on Mondays and Tuesdays for an hour or 75 minutes each. Then, as needed, I would meet with my group, typically on a Wednesday or Friday night. Saturdays were my personal time to get my studying, asynchronous lessons, and assignments in.
Q: How was your interaction and experience with your professors throughout the program, as well as your fellow students, and do you keep in touch with any of them today?
A: One of the best things about the program, from my personal experience, was the interactions between the professors, as well as my classmates. In fact, I would say real relationships were formed in the time that we spent together. I have professors, now, who will respond or comment to my LinkedIn posts, which I find very cool and satisfying. In terms of relationships amongst the cohort, we got pretty close. We went through a lot together. There was a great mix of group dynamics. Some groups we were able to choose on our own, others were assigned by the professors. We definitely got an opportunity to really meet everyone – if not one on one, in a very small group. We formed real relationships.
In fact, we have since done meetups and it was the first time any of us got to see each other in person. It was a really cool experience. We did our own walking tour of downtown Los Angeles. One member of our cohort, in particular, has a great knowledge of how some neighborhoods came to be. We walked around and discussed through an urban planning lens, what we were seeing, and it was a great time.
Q: What was the diversity of experience and knowledge in the program like? How was that valuable in the program?
A: I want to dive a little deeper into the experience that I pulled from my relationship with my professors. It was just great value to learn from people who are in the field that were teaching the courses from various aspects of urban planning or development. I work in the development field, and so I got a really incredible base of knowledge from my first professor, John Perfitt. He’s a practitioner doing what I do at a higher level with decades of experience. He just had a wealth of knowledge and really was able to help me identify and fill in some holes at the job that I was doing. I was learning as I went and I continue to.
All of the professors came from a very unique and very specialized background. From public participation and community outreach, to data scientists, design professionals, economists. All the bases were covered and we were learning from people who were doing it. That was really, really valuable. In terms of the cohort, and different things brought to the table by members of the cohort, I can’t speak enough to that. I was in groups with people who were literally sitting at the other side of the table in real life scenarios that I participated in.
I, for instance, had a member of my cohort who is in soft public financing. I was able to contact her outside of the program to check on a loan that I had pending. It was really interesting to see how many of the various fields urban planning could point you in. It was great to learn from them and actually lean on them for certain projects where they were much more familiar and comfortable than maybe I was. We were always able to reciprocate – when something would be assigned where my expertise or my background came into play. It was a great give-and-take relationship, in that sense. We learned a lot from each other.
Q: Can you discuss a project you completed during your time in the program and how it prepared you for your future?
A: I’m going to talk briefly about a project that we did during the program. I would not label this project as my favorite one, or my most enjoyable one, but for many, many reasons it was the most rewarding. The project was about public participation assigned in the Community Engagement class. We were assigned a project requiring us to put together a full plan for community engagement to push forth a project. My group had a very, very ambitious goal. It was based on some hypothetical circumstances, which made it even more challenging.
I think we got off to such a bad start, in terms of not identifying our path towards getting to the finish line. It was a real testament to our will to work together. We learned a lot about compromise, about group dynamics, and about supporting each other. That particular project taught me a lot, and prepared me a lot for working with groups in real life scenarios. Members in my group saw things quite differently as we embarked on this project, but we came together, and we found a path to get it done, and to get it done well. Actually, we scored very highly. Our professor was quite proud of what we accomplished when it was all said and done.
That will always be a reference for me to come back to. When I feel like I have the answer, I realize that stepping back and really digesting all the contributions and various perspectives that a group might bring to the table, will produce a much more valuable outcome.
Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the EMUP helped further your career?
A: Graduating seems like yesterday from the EMUP program. I’m still doing what I was doing when I started as a project manager for a real estate developer building affordable housing projects. I’m very thankful for what I learned, and I think in terms of furthering my career, that’s yet to be determined. I know it’s helping. I know it’s helping immediately. I hope that the path I’m on is the path I stay on.
I do believe that at some point I could see a transition from the development side to the policy side – trying to accomplish the mission that I’m on, or the mission that my organization is on, in a much broader sense. I do glean from my experience with the EMUP program. I’m still too new to put forth my own suggestions, at least with great confidence. But, I do believe that the program set me up to be able to do that.
Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?
A: I would absolutely recommend the EMUP program to a fellow student or anybody interested in learning about urban planning. Urban planning is an art more than it is a science. That’s my opinion. It’s a very interesting study in the sense that it really opens your mind to how things work, how things connect, and how cities operate. Why things are built, and why things aren’t built, why people are unsatisfied with their lived experience, and why other people fight so hard to protect theirs. It’s an absolutely great curriculum, a great program for learning why things are the way they are. Particularly, if you live in an urban environment. For anybody interested in really taking a deeper dive and looking at why things are the way they are in the area that they live, urban planning and the EMUP program at USC was just an invaluable experience for me. I’m sure it would be for anyone.
Q: Do you have any advice that you would give a new student?
A: One story that I would tell that connects a lot of the answers, or a lot of the information I’ve shared is… Before I made this transition, and actually the decision to study and pursue urban planning as a master’s degree, I knew I wanted a change in my career. I knew that the music business had ran its course for me. It felt like I would be better suited elsewhere. I had interests that felt much bigger than managing a particular artist.
I listened to a podcast in, I think, 2017. It was an interview with a USC alumni who is a Director of Economic Development for the city that I live in currently. He’s actually moving on to a job in the private sector soon. He was giving advice for people, like me, who are interested in pursuing a new career in public service. The takeaways from that podcast were life changing for me. He mentioned two things that I’ll always remember, and I would advise to anybody. I can’t take credit for the advice, but I would say, “Don’t be afraid to start small, and follow the questions.” That’s what urban planning, to me, is all about. It’s never a situation where we’re going to get it 100% right. We can always learn from history, and mistakes that were made, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Urban planning is basically our effort to do the best we can do with the information that we have. My advice to prospective students, anybody interested in urban planning, is if you are interested in learning a new way of thinking, urban planning is a great pursuit for that.