Getting Your Hands Dirty

Bridging the gap between theory and practice
JUNE 2018
Urban Studies and Planning

How often have you stared at a blackboard wondering whether the formulae you’re seeing will ever be useful in a practical real-life setting? Ever wondered what’s the use of welding and workshop classes if you’re a computer science engineer? Well, to my astonishment, I found out that everything we learn does help us!


I am a second year graduate student in the Master of Science in Transportation and Master in City Planning (MST-MCP) Dual Degree Program. I’ve spent most of my time here taking a bunch of classes in economics, statistics, and machine learning. You might wonder, as did I, what the use of some of these classes was as they do not relate to my program per se. I often felt constrained by the core requirements imposed by the program. For example, I was required to take a programming class (due to it being a core requirement for the MST Program) although I use programming on a daily basis for my research and other classes. Two years and one potentially life-changing class later, I have come to believe that (almost) every little thing counts even though it might not seem so at the moment.


Let’s talk about the class that made me change my view. The MCP program has a practicum course as a core requirement. Before you go “Oh no, not another requirement!”, lend me your ears eyes. This course is structured as a way to work with an external client (usually a government agency or a private real estate developer) on a project which allows you to apply the concepts you’ve learned inside the classroom to a real-world problem. There are several such courses offered every semester and a particularly interesting project focusing on transit-oriented-development in Guadalajara, Mexico caught my eye. Getting into the class was competitive as we had to submit an application with a CV and a statement. Finally, in May 2018, I received the good news that I was in a diverse cohort of 15 students with backgrounds in real estate, housing, finance, transportation and urban design selected for the course.


We were scheduled to visit Guadalajara for a field trip and get started on the project during the last week of August. As luck would have it, a friend and I were stranded in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey. We were flying United (Boston -> Houston -> Guadalajara) and they had to shut down operations and could not reschedule flights for us.  Fortunately, we met one of the professors teaching the practicum at the airport and he was kind enough to book accommodation for us. The next two days were quite eventful with our activities ranging from being on the phone with United for hours, the hotel running out of food, and having to change hotels by wading through knee-deep water in torrential rain, to watching the Game of Thrones finale over ramen.


After two days, United transferred us to an American flight from Dallas. We hightailed it from Houston early the next morning and drove to Dallas with Professor Brent Ryan. The three of us arrived in Guadalajara having missed the first day of the practicum, but our enthusiasm remained undampened. The following week was absolutely amazing. We spent the mornings interacting with city officials and learning about legal and development processes. The afternoons were spent trying to cover as much of the city as possible and visit specific sites for further investigation. We supported local business-owners through our efforts to soak in the culture and cuisine during evenings. On our last day, we prepared a presentation for the Mayor of Guadalajara outlining our plan for the semester which was widely appreciated and made the sleepless nights feel worth it.


Over the Fall semester, the team came together amidst debates, meetings, pizza and mezcal (the real stuff) to produce a succinct plan for the City of Guadalajara to implement transit-oriented development around three key stations of the newly constructed metro line. We proposed solutions for affordable housing, revitalizing commercial development and rejuvenating the historic downtown into a mix of historic and modern urban vitality (Mezcla AlCalde). My personal contribution to the project involved tasks which I had never attempted before and seemed quite daunting. However, using skills acquired from earlier classes, I hit the ground running and managed to provide data-driven recommendations (and even bagged a job offer from a real estate consultant in the process).


This experience made me realize the importance of applying your education in practice. Make sure you understand the practical implications of those long-winded derivatives or a seminal theory from a dusty old textbook, for you never know when you might need to use them. This class was an eye-opening experience for me and helped me bridge the gap between theory and practice quite well. I would like to laud the MCP Program for having such a class in their curriculum and hope other departments follow suit. It isn’t about having a big server; what matters is knowing how to use it.


P.S. Professor Brent Ryan was featured in MIT News where he outlined our experience in Hurricane Harvey and what its implications for urban planning could be. My friend and I are mentioned as “two of his graduate students.” In other words, I’m famous.