Sarah Brennan graduated with an undergraduate major in Geography and Environmental Science a few years back. She has been working in urban planning and community development projects, both in Australia and South Africa, ever since. We recently caught up with her:
What attracted you to major in geography and environmental science?
When I began a Bachelor of Arts/ Bachelor of Science, I undertook a broad range of subjects, as I had not yet decided on a particular academic or career path. I had always been interested in people and places, and a major in geography provided the perfect path to understand the processes and impacts that shape the world, environment and societies around us. In my second and third year, I focused on human and developmental geography and found the electives challenged my world view and perceptions of how places have developed, and how ideas take shape on the ground.
When did you finish your studies and what have you been doing since?
I completed my studies in 2007 whilst undertaking a student exchange at Monash South Africa. Since then I have been working as an urban planner for Arup, a consulting firm. I began work in Melbourne, then Johannesburg and have been based in Brisbane for the past two years. My work mainly encompasses land use, transport and community planning. I’ve been involved in developing municipal planning schemes with Indigenous communities; state-wide transport policy, master plans for large scale infrastructure, and sustainability frameworks to assist organisations with furthering sustainable practice within their operations.
I have also been involved with a number of participatory design and community development projects in South Africa since university. These have involved working with community members to address issues that affect their local areas, such as sanitation upgrading or evaluating urban renewal plans to reflect the needs of all residents and stakeholders.
What are the most useful skills you’ve gained from your studies?
Strategic awareness and the ability to see how various issues, factors are interrelated and influence each other. This has been particularly important when establishing strategic policy and action plans that need to take account of legal requirements, institutional arrangements and a multitude of stakeholder interests. Being able to analyse a situation and understand why existing conditions are the way they are, is essential to setting appropriate recommendations and the best course of action at both an organisational level and at a wider scale for example future planning for cities. Being able to ‘read’ and interpret what is going on in places has also enriched my travel experiences.
What advice would you give new undergraduate students about doing their major in GES?
Geography is a broad area of study and can be complemented by taking a minor or a double major in a wide range of fields for example political science, engineering or business. Similarly, career choices of geographers are varied, so it’s a good idea to look into possible careers. Sustainability, which is a central focus of geography, is of increasing importance in most fields of work. Along with sustainability, most of the challenges that face the world are increasingly complex. Employees are looking for people who can assess those challenges, and how their organisations activities or jurisdiction may be impacted and suitable courses of action that will also fit into the bigger picture.
There are numerous field trips offered through GES as well as opportunities to study abroad. The geography field trips provide a great way to link concepts and theories with practical challenges on the ground.
Tell us about your most memorable experience with the school of GES.
Definitely the field trip in Regional Sustainability in Mpumalanga, South Africa. We met with various organisations and community groups to learn about the issues ranging from climate change, water rights, to community based health care to see how these various issues affected the sustainability of the region. Meeting the people and organisations who are doing so much was enlightening. Whilst there were many highlights, the moment that has stuck with me, was when we were walking around inner city Johannesburg and being made explicitly aware by our lecturer that cities need to be built for the people that live within them. It is people who make the cities, acknowledging inclusion and justice as major factors in the sustainability of cities. This principle has stuck with me since and shapes the approach I take to my work and the outcomes I seek through projects.