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Q&A with EMUP alum, Philippa Burgess

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What led double Trojan Philippa Burgess from studying urban planning to pursuing a third USC degree in human security and geospatial intelligence? Burgess says she was inspired to continue her education because of what she learned in the Executive Master of Urban Planning online program, “I fell in love with the data science class…I couldn’t be studying what I’m studying with the same efficacy without that urban planning background.”

Q: What factors motivated you to further your education?

A: I decided to further my education after being in the workforce for two and a half decades, and loving my career, but finding that there were a lot of changes. I got to a point where I felt like I was being underutilized. We had a pandemic, I had some personal changes, my parents were getting older and very happily living on two different coasts and I was like, “I’m going back to school.” And I did. 

I’ve had a long relationship with USC because I had done my undergraduate here. I’d started 31 years ago living on campus as a freshman, and so I’ve now been an alumni for over 25 years. So it was really coming home for me to come back to graduate school. But my life wasn’t in a place where I could come back to live on campus, so it was so joyful to learn about online opportunities.

Q: Can you discuss your career progression and how it relates to your higher education experience? 

A: My undergraduate degree at USC was in international relations with a minor in cinema television, which now is cinematic arts. I had my first career working in the entertainment industry. I worked on the agent manager side of the business. And as digital technologies took over there were a lot of changes, and I enjoyed it very much but at a certain point I wanted to be less behind the scenes and be a little bit more creative. 

I ended up in Colorado about a decade ago. At that point, social media and digital marketing were just infiltrating corporations and companies. Mid-level executives were like, “What are we supposed to do with this? We don’t know.” And I’m like, “Don’t worry, I got you.” I felt like I could easily help people with their marketing and PR because that was super simple for me, having been in Los Angeles for quite some time. 

I had realized that my love language is administration. When someone says, “Hey, I want to do this in life,” I’m like, “Great, what’s the paperwork? And what’s the financial plan? And where do we get the money? And what’s the schedule? And how do we project manage this?” And so I just felt like I had these skills that were just underutilized. Then I started to see… my life has always touched real estate. I’ve had a real estate agent license and was a property manager. And I was always curious about cities – how we got here, where we’re going, and problems that I would see. I’ve always had this curiosity. Urban planning was just this wide open place that I just had so much curiosity about but really didn’t know anything about. 

Q: What led you to the EMUP program? 

A: I was looking online for online programs because it was pretty clear that going back to campus wasn’t a real option for me. So, I wanted something that could be done virtually. And, there was this interest that I had in cities and planning. At the time my husband was actually in the beginning of some architectural studies, so I found myself in that conversation. And I thought, “I love school and I think it would be really good to go back. And there’s so much more I want to learn.” And that really gave me that momentum. 

Also, honestly, I love USC. What they say about Trojans’ strong lifelong, all of that applies to me. And it was the only school in the entire country that I could find that actually offered this program. 

Q: What were some of your goals going into the program? What were you looking to get out of it?

A: I think one of my goals was to be successful in the program. I didn’t want anything that was going to overwhelm me or capsize me, because when I started the program I was still working full time. It is definitely designed as an executive program – rigorous but manageable. I had my bachelor’s, but many of my classmates were in either their second or third masters. And they already had a lot of professional credentials, were working, and had families – and it was still very manageable. There’s so much positive energy and collaboration that it just keeps you really inspired and interested. 

Q: Can you give me an example of how the program has been supportive?

A: The program is super supportive in the fact that, because it’s an executive program, it is flexible but it also focuses on keeping you within your cohort. So you’ve got a pretty stable group of people who are with you semester to semester to semester. So our group was a summer start and a summer end. And as some of them liked to joke, they were like, “We’re the super motivated ones,” because we had a summer start. 

In this program you’re a bit more on camera. Typically we would take two courses a semester that meet for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes each. For us it was a Tuesday night and a Wednesday night. And the thing about these classes is they are synchronous, so there’s a lot of interaction. Then there’s an asynchronous part of it that you can do on your own in your own time, where you watch videos, do your readings, and do your assignments. But, we always found ourselves texting each other, calling each other, emailing each other – we all had questions, we all had answers, we all discussed. 

There’s also a lot of group projects. There were some times where I knew I pulled people along, and I know other times, they pulled me along because you have that collaboration and friendship. And relationships are built because you stay with this group and that is an invaluable piece of the experience. I’ll say that, having gone to my undergraduate here, I have now had friendships for 30 years. And coming out of this program I’ll have new friendships for the next 30 years. It really is something that is very special.

Q: What was your transition from urban planning to human security and geospatial intelligence like?

A: The study is so applicable and, to me, very interesting because there was so much that is really obvious once you see it, but until you see it you don’t see it. So much of urban planning to me was that you’re seeing things and hearing things for the very first time. And it’s always been there, and you’re like, “Wait a second, I had no idea that that’s how that came to be.” Our history, how cities were built, how they evolved, certain inequities, climate impact, and how we deal with master plans – what’s nice about urban planning is it touches so many things and aspects of our lives. 

The program is really structured in a way that there’s very practical skills that you’re learning. So you know all the basics of running the finances of any real estate development or any real estate investment. You are very grounded in the basics like understanding economics. But there’s this understanding of politics as well, understanding history, diversity, the importance of equity, and inequalities in our cities.

For me, I have this communications marketing background but I fell in love with the data science class. That was my favorite class in the whole thing. And I was like, “Data. Data. I love telling stories, and now I can tell stories with data. I can make pretty pictures and maps.” And that’s how I ended up continuing my graduate studies, because it is an important part of urban planning. They definitely communicated to us that this is just one of many paths that you can take with an urban planning degree.

For a lot of our classmates who already had advanced degrees, the degree up-leveled what they were doing. But for me, I couldn’t go back once I learned about the whole data science, GIS component of it. [So, now I’m] pursuing this second masters in human security and geospatial intelligence, which is basically how we use satellites to collect imagery. Then we can make maps and design resiliency plans and escape routes. I couldn’t be studying what I’m studying with the same efficacy without that urban planning background.

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

A: My relationship with the professors, the staff, the students both in my cohort and in the program at large was excellent because you have this online experience where you get very close to your classmates. The professors are in person in that sync mode, but then we get videos in async mode. Then there’s an opportunity to meet on campus for intensives where you really get to bond and get that interaction in person. And that’s just a nice touch to just solidify those relationships. 

Everybody has been so supportive of me going forward. I’ve gotten into the programs that I’m in now because of my professors supporting my applications. I’ve gotten scholarship money because of my professors supporting my applications. And they are very much advocates and cheerleaders and completely available to the students not only during the program, but well beyond.

Q: What advice would you give to someone pursuing this program?

A: The only recommendation I would have for someone who is thinking about a program like this is to think about your own career needs. If you’re well-entrenched in a career, this is a great program in the fact that it’s so efficient. They kind of put them all back to back, and you do not take a break. You can take a break if you want. And we did, towards the end of our program, have some people who needed to slow it down, kind of refold into our group. And they were very welcome and bonded just as quickly with the rest of us.

Q: Do you consider yourself a lifelong learner?

A: I absolutely consider myself a lifelong learner. What I did not realize is that I was going to be a lifelong USC learner! My relationship to USC has been reinvigorated because I go to USC now and I went here 20 years ago. And that ability to refresh it and re-embrace that relationship has been so special. And I realize I’m not the only one. There are so many people who did their undergrad here and then come back for graduate school. But it’s okay if you didn’t do your undergraduate here, you’re still welcome! It is absolutely true what they say, though, about it being a Trojan family and a Trojan network. There’s something very, very special about this particular university and its culture. And its culture of inclusion and its culture of connection. And your education and your relationship to the university does not end when you graduate. In some ways you are just beginning, because now you’re launched into a network of over 400,000 alumni that are your network.

Q: Is there anything else that you want anybody who may be considering the program to know?

A: I would say that if you are considering the program, you are absolutely welcome into it. If you already have an advanced degree, there is still a lot more to learn, and this program will provide it. It is appropriately challenging and rigorous. And it does not matter what you’re already coming to the table with. 

It is a wonderful opportunity to get back into an academic environment and get that education to think about things not only in improving yourself, but really rethinking and seeing how the world is changing and has changed. And, [thinking about] how we can contribute to actually being part of a solution to these big things that impact all of us. 

To sum up what urban planning is, I think of it as four quadrants. I think it has everything to do with the built environment. So all of our buildings and roads and infrastructure, that’s one of the quadrants. The other quadrants, it’s everything to do with people and everything to do with their lives. Their birth, death, marriage, health, children, generations, interactions, inequalities and equities. Everything to do with people. Then it’s the natural environment and how we all need clean water, clean air, clean soil, but how nature bites back with its fires, its floods, its earthquakes. And then it’s the economy. Everything to do with economics and how we need trade and industry and jobs and the economy. And it’s all tied together by politics, public policy, and public administration. And then you can put layers on it – you can put layers of data, history, science, law, and business. 

That’s why, to me, it’s such an exciting place to be, because it’s so applicable in whatever field you’re coming from or whatever field you want to take it into. 

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