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Q&A with EMUP Alum, Stefen Chraghchian

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Stefen Chraghchian works for Marcus & Millichap as associate director of capital markets doing loan originations. He graduated from the USC Price Executive Master of Urban Planning program online in 2021. Chraghchian discusses how the EMUP degree provided a challenging, yet collaborative environment which helped him to boost his career trajectory.

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

A: The factors that motivated me to get another degree really was to mostly shore up my background in the field of planning. As someone that is involved in the real estate field and grew up in real estate, I’ve always been interested in all of the facets of the industry, and I felt as if I had a good background on the debt side, on the acquisition side. I had, obviously, some experience through the Planning Commission on how cities are run and how cities work, but I wanted to formalize my background in planning to make myself as strong of a planning commissioner as possible for my city of Glendale. Second, behind that, I do a lot of construction financing, so understanding the entitlement planning phase is very important and adds value to my client where, most brokers, typically they don’t even have that type of a background.

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: I first heard about the program through emails that I received. As a Trojan alum for undergrad, I’ve remained connected with the Trojan family, so I always had the idea to potentially go back. I just didn’t know for what program, and given the whole work-from-home environment that we went through during COVID-19, the online option was the perfect way for me to work and do school at the same time and manage my schedule well. I think that’s why it was a perfect fit for me and, really, it was seamless with my work schedule, and that was much appreciated.

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

A: Personally, I’m a very competitive person. I obviously wanted to try and be the best possible student in the program or get straight A’s and provide the best quality work possible because that’s a reflection of myself, so I guess that was my primary goal during the program. But, outside of that, it was just another opportunity to meet additional Trojans, this time post-grad. It was really interesting to hear everyone’s different perspectives from the different fields within real estate, so that was a really rewarding experience and something that I really appreciated, and it just furthered my connection to the Trojan family once again.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in EMUP, both the online modality and the in-person residencies?

A: In terms of my experience with EMUP, I didn’t actually get to do any of the in-person residencies. [Due to COVID-19], they were all online. Outside of that, the online experience was great. It was very seamless and easy to follow. We had a few hiccups maybe in the first week of the first semester, but after that it was pretty much smooth sailing with the whole interface with USC and Blackboard. I had a bit of a head start having used Blackboard in undergrad and all of that, but I thought it was very easy to follow, and I had no complaints as far as how the online portion was run. It would’ve been great to meet in person, but I understand why we couldn’t. I didn’t really get a chance to meet my cohort until graduation, but I’m looking forward to meeting additional people from the program.

Q: How did you balance the demands of study with your life, both professional and personal?

A: I balanced my studies with my professional and personal life by scheduling in a very organized manner, especially on Sunday nights just for every week that was ahead. On Monday, Tuesdays and sometimes Wednesdays, I typically had class after work. Being on the West Coast, it was a bit of a benefit to me, I believe, because I wasn’t finishing class by 10:00 or 11:00 PM. I had a few hours after class to do homework and start the following week’s work. I did find myself spending a lot of time on the weekends as well, but I tried not to let it take away too much from my personal life, though it was hard to balance the three, I will say.

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

A: As far as the professors go, I still keep in touch with Liz Falletta and Don Spivack. I’ve gone back and forth with Marlon [Boarnet] a few times, and that’s obviously been great. As far as my cohort, there’s a few of them that I speak with frequently, and then we have a few different group chats that we sometimes talk in. That’s definitely something I’m looking to continue moving forward, and, hopefully, there’s more opportunities for all of us to gather in the same place.

Q: You mentioned that you keep in touch with professors, is that typically for professional advice or just staying in touch?

A: For example, with Professor Don Spivack, we both are part of Urban Land Institute’s Housing Council in Los Angeles, so we have an overlap there. He’s given me a lot of career advice in the past in planning, specific advice as well. As far as Liz [Falletta], I mean, we’ve talked about some of the projects that I’ve worked on. We just have a shared passion for some developments within the area, so we’ve had that connection.

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?

A: I would say the diversity of backgrounds and knowledge in the EMUP program was very valuable. It was actually, if not my favorite, one of my favorite parts of the program – just hearing different perspectives from the different students within the cohort. In my background on the planning commission, I brought a unique perspective from the finance standpoint handling debt transactions, whereas a lot of others in the cohort were architects. We had some people with a law background. We had other people with planning backgrounds working for cities. We had people working for SCAG and Metro, so just the cross-section of all the different disciplines I think was very important and rewarding for me, because that’s really how the cities that function optimally work, by bringing in experts within the different facets of real estate because we have such a broad field.

Q: Can you talk to us about a project you did during your program? How did it prepare you for the future?

A: I would say one that I really enjoyed was my team’s project on Treasure Island, the development site up in the Bay Area. Just having to present it in front of a panel of developers and hear their questions and the type of comments and feedback that they would give I felt was a very good experience. In my field, sometimes I have to give a pitch to win someone’s business and it involves talking in front of a board, or I need to answer complicated questions about a development or about a loan process. I think going through it with the EMUP program in a school setting really gave me all the tools I needed to properly account for questions I may not expect and do all of the due diligence necessary to answer to the best of my abilities.

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 program were most impactful to you?

A: In terms of how soon I applied it to my professional role, I would say each week of the program, anything that I learned in some way was applied. I’ve grown up in real estate, so I have a lot of background and experience in various facets of the industry, but particularly for my role on the planning commission as we got ready to review our upcoming housing element and any specific plan updates we reviewed. I felt that the program gave me a lot of the tools I needed to properly and thoroughly review these proposals and give the most educated responses for the betterment of my city.

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

A: I could say that the EMUP program has furthered my career in a few different ways. First and foremost, and this isn’t something that I mentioned, I believe it helped me get on the American Planners Association board for their California chapter. These two things occurred very similarly in terms of when I was admitted to the program, but I do think it helped my case as a qualified candidate, because I was taking additional time in my schedule to do something to shore up my planning knowledge once again even though my current job is in debt and finance. I could say it translated to that directly, and, as I mentioned previously, from my experience on the Planning Commission in the City of Glendale, the program really shored up any gaps in my planning knowledge so that I can best address anything that comes to our desk or to our board.

Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?

A: I would definitely recommend the EMUP program to any prospective student especially if they’re in the field of planning or even if they’re in the finance field, but are looking to go into development or some broader field of real estate where you need to understand multiple different disciplines. In terms of the advice I would give them, just be ready to have a busy schedule for about a year and a half. It’s definitely worth the time and effort that goes into it, and I think you’ll come out with a great appreciation not only of real estate as a whole, but the planning field specifically and, most importantly, the Trojan family and the Trojan network and how that can assist your career moving forward.

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