USC Price School of Public Policy

From affordable housing to air pollution, Price students gain global perspectives on major issues

September 21, 2016

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This summer, USC Price students engaged in international labs and opportunities in China, Germany, Brazil and Italy.

By Cristy Lytal

Advancing the USC Price School of Public Policy’s global reach, more than 50 students took part in international labs and experiences over the past summer, exploring topics that span community development in Brazil, disaster response in China, air pollution in Italy and governance in Germany.

Students from USC Price master’s programs in public administration (MPA), public policy (MPP), planning (MPL), health administration (MHA), and international public policy and management (IPPAM) engaged in three separate international labs; while the “USC Price on the Rhine” program in Germany drew participants from both the undergraduate and graduate programs.

“Whenever you actually take students to a place to be immersed in learning, this is another great example of the kind of work our master’s students do — which is to derive very practical solutions that are context-specific to improve the quality of lives for people in underserved communities,” said Professor Gary Painter, who led the Brazil lab.

Brazil lab: Addressing community needs

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Photo by Uyen Do | More photos from the Brazil lab are available on Flickr »

In the municipality of Eusébio in the metropolitan area of Fortaleza, Brazil, 14 students from the MPA, MPP, MPL and IPPAM programs proposed social enterprises to serve community needs for their client Fundação Alphaville. As the foundation arm of Alphaville Urbanismo, a large real estate development company, Fundação Alphaville supports projects that promote economic self-sufficiency, environmental sustainability and a healthier society.

“The lab was a unique chance to get into international policy, allowing me to learn and bring back lessons and push for some domestic changes here at home,” said Victor Sanchez, MPP student and graduate research assistant at USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. “The Brazil lab specifically was talking about the need to look at development through a more critical lens. That was just super relevant, even to the crisis in L.A. with housing affordability and the rise of development in downtown and other areas.”

Working under the guidance of Professor Painter, director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, the students visited several local communities, ranging from unauthorized housing to an upscale planned community built by Alphaville Urbanismo. They toured a recycling cooperative, which offered formal employment to people who were informally collecting cans and bottles from trash dumps, and more than doubled their incomes as a result. They also met stakeholders from Alphaville Urbanismo, Fundação Alphaville and the mayor’s office.

“I really appreciated the students’ willingness to learn and willingness to listen to what the community needs were, because that really made the whole experience much more successful,” Painter said.

To this end, the students delivered a report and presentation centered on social enterprises, which are for-profit companies with a social mission. They described case studies of successful social enterprises and proposed ideas for Alphaville Urbanismo’s development in Eusébio including a community garden and nursery to grow local produce and native plants, a community retail hub and a social enterprise incubator.

The USC team also immersed themselves in the local culture, attending a soccer match in a former World Cup stadium and extensively touring the city.

“It was great to build connections with some of the people there,” said Sanchez. “You’re in a beach town. You’re talking to these amazing people. You’re eating amazing food. You’re trying to solve these really hard issues. You couldn’t ask for anything else.”

China lab: Promoting disaster preparedness

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More photos from the China lab are available on Flickr »

Six students from the MPA and MPP programs headed to Fuzhou, the capital city of China’s Fujian province, to propose strategies for emergency preparedness in the face of typhoons, flooding, and other natural and unnatural disasters. They worked in partnership with scholars and professors from Fuzhou University’s School of Economics and Management to provide recommendations for their client, the Department of Human Resources and Social Security of the Fujian Provincial Government.

According to the lab’s instructor Eric Heikkila, professor and director of international initiatives at USC Price, the lab built on an ongoing relationship between USC and Fuzhou University, encompassing a recent joint workshop and an upcoming national conference on emergency management, among other collaborative exchanges.

During the lab, Fuzhou University arranged for the USC students to visit government officials at the Fujian Earthquake Administration, the Flood Control and Drought Relief Command Center, and the Safety Bureau of Fujian. They also showed the students disaster-prone areas, such as a dam and a low-lying area prone to flooding.

“Part of the learning experience for students is learning that, in the nature of consulting, half the work is defining the task,” Heikkila said. “So it’s different from the classroom where you’re told at the beginning, ‘Okay, this is what we expect you to do.’ Here, there’s a great deal of scope for figuring out what you are actually going to say when you get up there and you deliver your report.”

In their presentation, the students highlighted vulnerable populations including children and the elderly, community perceptions of emergency preparedness, and technologies such as social media and apps for responding to disasters.

For Meredith Fear, an online MPA student who works for an education advocacy nonprofit in San Diego County, the lab offered a departure from her day-to-day duties.

Fear opted to take part in the China lab to experience “a truly different kind of challenge that will give me wide exposure to government operations, albeit a very different government than what we have here in the United States or locally.”

“It definitely fulfilled that hope for me,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to really stretch my thinking about what I want to do in my professional life.”

The cultural experience was equally enriching for the students, from rafting on the Oolong River to forming deep bonds with their Fuzhou University colleagues.

“We really ended up becoming friends with the students from Fuzhou University, just as much as we were friends with one another,” Fear said. “It was a deeper cultural exchange than I ever had hoped for. That was a pretty special part of the program.”

Italy lab: Mitigating air pollution

Photo courtesy of Antonio Bento

Photo courtesy of Antonio Bento

Twenty-five students from the MPA, MPP, MPL, MHA and IPPAM programs addressed the issue of air pollution in Milan, Italy, and the surrounding region.

“The Italy project was very interesting, because this coming year, they are having the election for the mayor, and one of the big topics of the election is: What is the city going to do to end all of the increasing levels of air pollution that come from transportation?” said Professor Antonio Bento, chair of the Department of Policy Analysis and Real Estate at USC Price, who led the lab.

As a key partner, SDA Bocconi University School of Management arranged meetings between the USC students and officials from multiple levels of government — from the transportation division of the mayor’s office to the regional air quality office. Professor Veronica Vecchi from Bocconi University delivered a lecture about the Italian political and social context, and led a tour of the transportation authority in the port city of Venice.

“The students felt very empowered, because stakeholders asked them many questions about the case of California, a state that is widely known to be at the forefront of environmental policy,” Bento said. “It was interesting for them to see that other parts of the world are actually looking to them as experts who could provide interesting solutions.”

In their report and presentation, the students proposed several such solutions to reduce traffic congestion, a leading contributor to air pollution. Their recommendations included a vehicle kilometer traveled fee, ecofriendly auto parts, electric cars, battery and tire recycling, bicycle and car sharing, among other innovations.

“You don’t come into the class as a student, you come into the class as a consultant,” said Jared Thomas, a student in Price’s online MPA program, who runs an educational nonprofit for foster youth and recently interned for the Santa Monica city manager. “It was a very rewarding process to learn that mindset. You research for an entire semester, you go abroad and learn about the problem, and then you have to revisit and dramatically edit the policy that you are thinking about proposing, based on what the client wants.

“And that was probably one of the biggest lessons that we got out of the class,” he added, “when there’s a problem, come to the table with a solution, not just criticism.”

On the Rhine: From the US to the EU

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More photos from the “USC on the Rhine” program are available on Flickr »

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students from USC and other universities embarked on the “USC Price on the Rhine” program. During the month-long program, the students lived side-by-side with European students at Speyer University, studying comparative public administration and policy with a focus on the United States, Germany and the European Union (EU).

“This year was probably the best yet,” said Assistant Professor William Resh, who directs the program. “The students were very informed generally about current issues within Europe. They were especially interested in the refugee crisis within Europe. Also, the timing of being there before the vote for Brexit was amazing.”

As part of their immersive learning experience, the students enjoyed excursions to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France; several EU institutions in Brussels, Belgium; the historic city of Heidelberg, Germany; and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. Next year, the program will expand to include a three-day visit to Los Angeles’ sister city of Berlin, where students will explore the legislature and key departments and agencies.

Students also attended seminars by Resh and professors from Speyer University about comparative public administration, comparative constitutional law, European economic integration, EU policy and institutions, and a case study on the EU and its neighbors. Each undergraduate wrote one seminar paper, and each graduate student wrote two seminar papers.

Special guest speaker Colin Barrow, former leader of the Westminster City Council, discussed the prospect of Brexit. He also participated in a roundtable discussion with Hansjörg Eger, who is the mayor of Speyer, and Frank Zerunyan, USC Price professor who is the former mayor of the Rolling Hills Estates.

MPA student Esther Yang, an extern in the Los Angeles Superior Court, said that “after this program, I don’t feel like things going on outside of my local municipality bubble or outside of my national bubble are necessarily someone else’s business — it’s all of our business, it’s all of our responsibilities.”

“There are things that we could tackle and solve today, in our very interwoven world, if we would think about these public administration and social issues together,” she added. “That’s my biggest takeaway from this program.”

Yang also noted that the learning extended well beyond the classroom.

“I was rooming with a German law student, and I was doing a research paper on the Syrian refugees, which for her, it’s a firsthand experience,” Yang said. “The personal interactions with people from Germany and across Europe made me realize everyone’s in it together, and we need to see it from a wider perspective.”