BRED grad honored as USC Discovery Scholar for senior thesis exploring creative ways to reuse vacant stores
By Matthew Kredell
Since the Bachelor of Science in Real Estate Development (BRED) was launched at the USC Price School of Public Policy in 2015, most students who have gone through the program opted to complete the degree by taking a capstone course, working in groups to solve a real-world problem. Melissa Schem, however, decided to instead take a less-traveled path in producing a senior thesis — a choice that helped her become the first BRED graduate to receive university honors at commencement as a USC Discovery Scholar.
USC Discovery Scholars are students who have produced exceptional original scholarship or creative work at USC while compiling a distinguished overall academic record. Schem was recognized for her thesis on the adaptive reuse of department store buildings that have, or may soon be, left vacant due to a retail company’s financial troubles.
“No one wants to leave those buildings vacant, so ways to reuse the buildings are needed,” Schem said. “I came up with plans to replace four such buildings with a range of ideas from commercial, residential, office space and a movie theater depending on what’s needed in the area and fits the location. It needed to be something that could be feasible, make money and not have the issues the company has been facing.”
Interestingly, Schem chose to pursue real estate development because she liked the group aspect of the program and collaborative nature of the cohort.
She entered USC as a human biology major but wasn’t enjoying it as much as she had hoped. Schem took a real estate law class as a freshman and found it better suited her. And then she heard that USC Price was launching a bachelor of science degree in real estate development and transferred in during her sophomore year.
“It was a really good transition for me,” Schem said. “Real estate classes were super interesting, concrete and on point with what I wanted to be learning… in the BRED program, everyone was working together in teams and helping each other. It fit my personality better, and it felt more like how it was going to be in the real world.”
She opted to work alone on a senior thesis, with the help of Associate Teaching Professor John Loper as her thesis advisor, because she had a good idea and valued the opportunity to spend a full year on the project.
In the summer after her sophomore year, she interned with real estate company Caruso, where she learned about looking at properties and the basics of real estate. After taking finance classes as a junior – including RED 375 “Real Estate Development Analysis” with Loper – she interned the next summer at Macerich, an owner and operator of high-end shopping centers, where she immediately had the opportunity to put to use what she had learned that year about budgeting and building pro formas.
“The supervisors were all really impressed that I had been learning these difficult finance skills so early because most people don’t learn some of the stuff we learned until a master’s program,” Schem said.
At Macerich, she sat in on a meeting discussing what might have to be done with a retail company’s 13 department store buildings within the company’s portfolio.
“Melissa was a delight to have as a senior thesis student,” Loper said. “She prepared a thoughtful thesis on options to reposition closed anchor tenants in declining regional malls, which is a very timely subject in the real estate industry. She had an equally impressive internship history, and now with Hines she has a bright future in the real estate industry, representing the very best of the BRED program.”
Schem began working as an analyst for the real estate development firm Hines in July. She was made aware of the opportunity through an email from Sonia Savoulian, associate director for programs in real estate at USC Price.
“This was my top choice because I will be working on a small team but within a huge company, and it’s more of a general analyst position so I will be exposed to many different projects and proposals,” Schem said. “I wanted to make sure I got exposed to as much as I can in this first job to help me decide what route I want to pursue.”