By Julia Chanen
When I think about how my time with the Department of Urban Planning at Ball State University has informed my Peace Corps service, the technical skills I gained in various classes are the first things that come to mind.
In Lisa Dunaway’s studio, I learned how to create small-scale plans at the neighborhood level, the importance of language choice when speaking with and writing to community members and how to make the planning process more accessible. In Nihal Perera’s classes, I learned about asset-based development, to prioritize individual agency and to let people lead development on their terms. In Michael Burayidi’s studio, I learned how to facilitate the project design and management cycle from beginning to end, from the first needs assessment to celebrating the completion of the plan. In Sanglim Yoo’s class, I learned qualitative research skills and the importance of gender-balanced data.
While all of these skills have undoubtedly been assets during my Peace Corps service—in the classroom as a TEFL teacher, while learning about a new culture and integrating into my host-town, and while working on community-led projects with both Kosovars and with other volunteers—the core lesson learned from these classes is that relationships matter more than anything else. How we interact with the people we work with as planners and the potential impact of our work is all based on mutual respect, trust, and cooperation. This idea, above all else, has been the most transferable aspect of my education.
The first goal of the Peace Corps focuses on building the skills and capacity of those we work with, but the second and third goals address cultural exchange. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is less about the “work” being done and much more about building relationships, exchanging culture and values, and learning to see the world from a different perspective. Being able to step into someone else’s shoes, to understand their perspective, even if I don’t agree with it, is one of the most valuable skills I will leave the Peace Corps with and has made me a more empathetic and responsive planner.
Many volunteers choose to attend graduate school after Peace Corps, having discovered a new passion or inspiration for their career. I debated for a long time as to whether I made the right decision to attend graduate school before my service as opposed to after, but I know that I made the right choice. Arriving in Kosovo with a “people first” attitude allowed me more patience, both with myself and my Kosovar counterparts while learning about Kosovo and while my host-community learned about me. I don’t believe that I would have been as receptive to learning about the different norms and perspectives that come with working in Kosovo had I not studied at CAP prior to Peace Corps service.
The beauty of urban planning is the broad applicability of the principles of the field. Though I am not currently practicing traditional planning, as a Peace Corps volunteer working with a non-governmental organization, I still use the knowledge and skills I learned at Ball State daily and will continue to do so throughout my career.