In 2019, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design welcomed its first cohort of students into the Moelis Scholars Program. The program, designed to support students from diverse backgrounds who are interested in careers in city planning, housing and community, and economic development, provides tuition benefits, research stipends, and mentoring in the two-year Master of City Planning program.
Currently, second-year students Céline Apollon and Jazmin Diaz and first-year students Christopher Carlos Brzovic and Julian Turley are part of the Program. Here, Penn Today highlights their professional interests, personal experiences, and thoughts on their future careers in urban planning and community engagement.
City planning to support marginalized communities
Apollon is in the housing, community, and economic development concentration. Her interests were shaped by volunteering with refugees in Paris during a French exchange program and serving as a volunteer at a Bosnian refugee camp in 2019. These experiences, as well as her academic background studying economics as an undergraduate, helped foster an interest in city planning.
Wanting to find a graduate program that aligned with her professional and personal interests in community development, especially for marginalized groups including refugees, immigrant communities, and communities of color, Apollon saw Penn as a place where she could learn from researchers working in this area.
Apollon says that her “push factors” for going into city planning have also been influenced by her experience growing up in Atlanta, being a Black student at a university that wasn’t engaged with the local Black and brown community, and spending time in her father’s country of Haiti. “I thought about how we can use informal methods of community development in U.S. cities, and how learning from those informal practices can help Black and brown communities,” she says.
One key insight she’s gained from her coursework is how tools such as data analytics, which are crucial for decision-making, are often not used in ways that could most empower the communities that are most in need. “A lot of the decisions policymakers are making are based off data, and it's mostly people who don’t represent the marginalized communities who are analyzing that data,” says Apollon. “Now, I feel empowered to get more into data analytics so that I can have more of a voice in these decisions that impact so many communities.”
This year, Apollon worked with Urbane, a Black-owned real estate and urban design firm, and in the future hopes to work internationally, applying her newly acquired design and data analytics skills on projects that delve into how to create more connected communities.
“One aspect that I really have been enjoying within the Moelis Scholars Program is that we are all really close and we all can bond over fact that being at Penn as a minority student is hard,” says Apollon. “It’s been really helpful to have this program, to go to one another when we’re struggling, and to have all these scholars by our side.”
But what if we owned it?
Diaz is also concentrating on housing, community, and economic development, and describes her own journey into planning as “unorthodox.” Through a combination of working with immigrant-rights organizations, her academic background in anthropology and Spanish, and her experience as a first-generation student and daughter of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, Diaz became interested in learning more about how cooperative models can build wealth, seek economic justice, and foster solidarity for historically oppressed and vulnerable communities.
“What drew me towards planning and community development is being able to have a space where we could reimagine things that hadn’t been done before alongside communities who have been robbed of their power,” says Diaz. “I became really interested in looking at the intersection of building alternative economic models and social movements as a tool for liberation in marginalized communities”
In addition to the skills and perspectives gained through data and spatial analytics courses, both Diaz and Apollon say that through this program they learned about the significance of the environment and the impacts of climate change, especially on marginalized communities. “I became really fascinated by the topic in general especially issues of environmental justice and how to implement resiliency at a local level,” says Diaz.
After working with USAID Guatemala as a Summer Fellow as part of the Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship Program, Diaz will continue working with USAID as a Foreign Service Environment Officer. After that, Diaz says, “my heart belongs at the intersection of grassroots organizing and reclaiming an economy built on values of solidarity and care, engaging workers and residents in their struggle through popular education, and fostering spaces that reflect the innovation and creativity of marginalized communities. I believe that with my past experience and the skills that I learned here, I'll be able to offer a lot more, wherever I am, in the future.”
Building equitable communities through entrepreneurship
Turley is concentrating in public and private development and has a long-held interest in entrepreneurship, which he defines as being dedicated to solving an interesting problem in order to build community. His previous efforts include raising funds for community gardens in his school district and co-founding a startup tech company while majoring in political science at the University of Michigan.
After working at a start-up in the San Francisco Bay area, Turley found himself attracted to learning more about the field of city planning after seeing firsthand the role of real estate on gentrification and urban displacement in the region. And as a Black student who didn’t see people like himself in professional roles while growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Turley is also motivated to help others like himself “see what else is out there,” he says.
“My mission is to build equitable communities through entrepreneurship, particularly those who are marginalized, so they are seen and soothed, and feel safe and secure within the communities that they reside in,” explains Turley about his personal mission. “What drove me into city planning is that it’s multifaceted, and it's all about living, working, and playing.”
Having finished his first semester of coursework, Turley has so far enjoyed the introduction to property development course with Vincent Reina, whose research inspired Turley to come to Penn. In the future, Turley’s professional goal is to work in real estate development in a role that allows him to continue his mission of building communities through entrepreneurship.
Turley adds that the skills he’s already gained in just his first semester of the program will be crucial moving forward. “Being able to know where the data is, gather it, collect it, organize it, and understand the story, I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways from this semester so far that I’m confident is something I will take away for the rest of my career,” he says.
Working at the intersection of complex systems to address homelessness
Brzovic’s concentration is in the housing community and economic development. He worked for AmeriCorps in Burlington, Vermont, before transitioning to a role in a nonprofit community action agency working with people experiencing homelessness and mobilizing community volunteers. Brzovic, who himself experienced eviction and housing insecurity while growing up, says the job was “life-changing and defining” but found that the group’s efforts reached a plateau due to a lack of affordable housing, and Brzovic wanted to find new ways to improve the systems in place to address housing insecurity.
“I really started wanting to move upstream from the homeless services system, to look at housing and its intersections with other systems that are producing homelessness or housing insecurity,” says Brzovic. “The pandemic was the moment that catalyzed my decision to go to grad school, and I chose city planning because I was attracted by the way that it is inter sectional, spatial, and local. It’s not an abstract discipline. Instead, you’re looking at how things like affordable housing, food insecurity, and access to health care all intersect.”
A highlight for Brzovic so far has been the introductory class for the housing, community, and economic development concentration taught by Domenic Vitiello. The course includes field trips and meetings with community members, which Brzovic says has helped him get to know the West Philadelphia community and his new city.
“I’m really interested in working on a local scale and being connected to the community that I’m working in,” he says about his future career interests. “In terms of how this program will help, I’m already able to think in a more spatial way, and I’m excited to continue using these tools, bringing those skills, and pushing myself to work on problems.”
The Moelis Scholars Program was established through the leadership of Penn alumnus Ron Moelis, CEO and founding partner of L+M Development Partners and the primary supporter of the program. Moelis Scholars receive support that includes two years of tuition remission, a research stipend, help finding paid summer internships, funding to attend the annual National Planning Conference, and a year’s membership in the American Planning Association. The program is complement to the Stuart Weitzman School of Design’s Penn Planning Equity Initiative, an agenda of research and public programming focused on urban inequality.