Department of Geography and the Environment

Urban Studies Alumni


Sylvia Feghali

B.A. in Urban Studies and Sustainability Studies, Minor in Architectural Studies, Spring 2019

Volunteer Coordinator, Girls Rock Columbia, Columbia, S.C.

Since graduating I scored an awesome job working at an art museum as the Education and Engagement Assistant. While working at the museum I developed connections with the larger arts community and found my niche: arts-engaged social impact. I always knew that the arts world was a big driver of community development, but now I get to be part of that work in an organization where the voices of girls, trans kids and non-binary youth are amplified to build resilient, powerful, commanding community of now and of the future. I am also looking toward graduate school where I hope to continue studying and engaging in arts-centered community development.

I found a really powerful confluence of my two majors in grassroots community organizing. By focusing on equity within sustainability I've been able to draw far more expansive conclusions from my lived and studied environments than in focusing on the environment alone. The same can be said for Urban Studies. These majors offered me new perspectives through which to examine the world around me, across scales, to understand the relationships between people, our environments, and systems of power and privilege that can protect or harm us. I came to the arts through an engagement with Architectural Studies and design- as a freshman I was sure my calling would eventually be in Architecture, but as I moved through URB and SUS I found spatial design to be a discipline everyone engages in, whether consciously or unconsciously. I've since been on a quest to uncover how communities do so on the ground. 

My goal has been the same in every job I've taken- finding ways to meaningfully engage with or develop community. This is a framework I undoubtedly developed within Urban Studies and Sustainability Studies. It is very important to me to interrogate the politics of visibility as it is mapped out or erased from the spaces I inhabit. Right now, this means working specifically with young girls, trans and non-binary youth to challenge gendered power in our local music scene, and in doing so building up an awareness of power and privilege as we encounter them in other spaces and places. I was guided toward this path by so many wonderful instructors in Geography and across the university, but I am especially indebted to my peers (thank you Environmental Justice Collective and Feminist Geography Collective!) for encouraging me to develop a critical perspective that I can now share with volunteers in my organization and with the youth we serve, many of whom are already inspiring community leaders. 

I so value my experience writing an honors thesis. After hearing horror stories from other students, I was determined not to attempt one until my research topic all but arrived in my lap. I have to thank Dr. Caroline Faria for assigning the final project that I would develop towards a thesis, and for advising and offering so much creative assistance along the way. We've since developed my research toward an article that we've submitted for publication which is so exciting! It was a grueling process, I will not lie, but the relationships I developed with faculty, students, and researchers around the world were so worth it. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to pursue a project of this scale with the wealth of resources (human and otherwise!) accessible in the Geography Department. 

Lidia Villazaez

 B.A. in Urban Studies, Geography and Sociology, Minor in Architecture, Fall 2017

Community Outreach Manager at VIA Community Development Corporation

After graduation, I took a few months to stay at my internship then worked at a local pizzeria while I looked for full-time positions around the country. I was fortunate to find a position in the nonprofit world within 6 months of graduating and I've been at my current organization for over 3 years now.

My Urban Studies education taught me how to look at the full picture of how people and cities influence each other. It's important to understand how your actions, whatever field you work in, affect the community around you, and visa-versa, to create better places for people to live in. In my current position, I work in grassroots outreach and leadership development with a majority latinx/a/o population. An example of my work is being able to pressure city offices to have language accessibility so the community has more of a voice on issues that directly affect them.

The classes I took in Urban Studies really focused on the importance of community, on looking at the outcomes of urban planning decisions, and the value of grassroots approaches to urban improvements. They also often focused on the complexities of working with community while using the tools and knowledge from academia and this has been valuable within my field. All of these things have really helped with my community outreach work because I understand the importance of prioritizing community voices and the strength they have in affecting equity change on a larger scale. Grassroots community work plays a major role not just in the nonprofit world, but also the urban planning field. I've often worked with planners, both in the public and private realm, to conduct outreach for planning projects that directly affect the neighborhoods I work in. Building relationships and trust is a valuable part of being able to gather authentic and quality community input for projects meant to improve the cities we live in. The courses I took at UT really highlighted that and influenced my priority of working in this field within the nonprofit world.

I loved the range of courses I was able to take within the department. I was able to take GIS courses alongside architecture focus courses, as well as courses on sustainability. I felt like that allowed me to have a well-rounded education with multiple perspectives that could all be applied to my interest in Urban Studies.

  • Department of Geography and the Environment

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