Alumni Spotlight: Leopold Wambersie

By Leopold Wambersie, B.S. in Environmental Systems Engineering, Class of 2016

At the beginning of my Senior year of undergraduate studies I enrolled in a new class I hadn't heard much about. This class was unusually structured, and ended up taking me down a path I couldn’t fully anticipate.

I had just made a transition from Architecture to ESE (Environmental Systems Engineering), and because it was my Senior year I was worried about whether it was the right decision - and whether I would be able to graduate on time. Despite this uncertainty I thought the switch was a worthwhile decision - I had become disillusioned with what I saw as the superfluous nature of architectural discourse, and I wanted to apply my design and engineering skills to more socially and environmentally relevant problems. ESE had an Urban Track that focused on infrastructure, building design, and planning, but the classes were relatively disparate and belonged to a variety of departments.

SUS stepped in at the right moment, providing a framework within which I could combine all these topics. The class was broad in its ambitions, and that suited my needs. As the year progressed, I saw that the class was as open-ended as the problems it dealt with - a perfect example of 'you get what you put in'.

This is not to say that there weren't any concrete lessons learned: we were introduced to new GIS (Geographic Information System) software, and learnt the history of policies that have had an impact on past and present development patterns. We had many opportunities to practice our presentation skills, and we spent time writing researched articles on chosen topics.

However, the most important takeaways came from the fuzzier aspects of the course - the parts that require initiative on the behalf of the student. These include the open-ended trips to San Jose city hall, the chances to talk to guest speakers, the access to municipal data-sets, and the opportunities to get project feedback from individuals in the thick of the issues.

A year out, I can reflect on the impact SUS has had on me. I gained an understanding of the types of design and coordination problems that exist in the Bay Area and the wider urban world. I better understand the extent to which information is important in decision making, but also the extent to which it is ignored if incentives are misaligned. I see urban issues such as housing and transit as the most powerful levers we have to improve sustainability and quality of life. I got to peer inside the black box that is municipal government.

 Leo, on the right, with classmates and instructors on a trip to San Jose City Hall, January 2016.

Leo, on the right, with classmates and instructors on a trip to San Jose City Hall, January 2016.

Most of all, I now see cities as a legitimate field of study unto themselves. I've started reading books on urbanism, going to talks, and reading research papers. After graduating with my degree in ESE I went on to work as an engineer for a firm that specializes in public transit projects, and I'm currently working on the Caltrain Electrification project. In fall 2018, however, I anticipate beginning my graduate studies in the field of Urban Planning, with a specific focus on Transit. My experiences with SUS played a big part in this decision, and I'm genuinely excited about my future in the field.

This reflection was written in September 2017. Since then, Leo applied to grad schools, and was recently accepted into the Masters Program in City and Regional Planning at Berkeley. See a mental map Leo made as part of reflecting on post-graduation life.