"Anthropology helped train my brain to ask questions and understand the questions I was asking."
Debbi La Rue
MA City and Regional Planning, University of Memphis
U of M Graduating Class of 2012
Most Recent Position: Associate Planner and Client Manager, Ledford Engineering and Planning, LLC
Not every student follows the 'typical' educational path in getting their degree. Debbi La Rue's experience certainly didn't. After gaining some training in sustainable agriculture and science and technology studies, Debbi took time to explore her options by working in the Memphis food system at various levels. While in Memphis, she began working full-time as the market manager and executive director of the Cooper-Young community farmer's market and as a farmhand in Arkansas. She also decided to build upon these experiences by returning to school at the U of M.
"I tend to be interested in everything, that's one of the reasons why anthropology ended up being a good fit." More specifically, Debbi found herself motivated by questions about sustainability, political ecology, social justice, policy, grass-roots organizations and the relationship between democracy and space. She was able to explore these themes through courses like Community Development and Social Entrepreneurship, co-taught at the time by Drs. Stan Hyland and Katherine Lambert-Pennington. "I think that a lot of the concepts that I was introduced to in that class proved foundational just in terms of looking at the relationship between poverty and urban development...That experience started setting me up to be able to hold a much more critical perspective on what is effective community development."
Debbi believes the combination of conceptual training and hands-on service learning in different communities in Memphis directly shaped her experience moving forward into the City and Regional Planning master's program at the U of M. "I never would have gone into planning school if it weren't for anthropology." She cites her master's research as uniquely grounded in the social theory work she gained through anthropology. In researching permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, Debbi was able to integrate ethnographic interviewing in order to "get a better, more critical understanding of what design characteristics were most beneficial and appropriate for this population."
Debbi's most recent position was as an associate planner and client manager at an engineering firm in western Tennessee. Here she was able to work on historical renovation projects, plan development, financial management, and grant writing. Speaking more broadly about how her training in anthropology has impacted her career, "It definitely influences how I see housing." She also adds, "I think it helps be me a better problem solver because I can see the pieces that are invisible to other folks."
As someone accustomed to major transitions, Debbi is on route to California to begin a new career in the housing field. This latest transition will begin with grant writing for local housing authorities, a skill she believes "Anthropologists can actually have a very strong niche because they actually have understanding of these very complex issues and then focus them for an audience."
For current undergrads, Debbi recommends getting experience in whatever field interests you. Internships are a great example. These kinds of experiences can help students learn the key words they will need to use in the future to frame their anthropological training for a target job market. Also, any experience students can get with grant writing is always a plus.