Convocation ‘20: Kaelin Koufogiannakis

Faculty of Arts’ Top Student Follows her Curiosity to a Career in Urban Planning

Donna McKinnon - 09 June 2020

As a frequent participant in various University of Alberta summer camps as a youth, Kaelin Koufogiannakis was no stranger to campus when she enrolled as a mathematics major in 2016 with a $50,000 President’s Centenary Citation, the U of A’s most generous undergraduate scholarship. But when she discovered urban planning through a Human Geography and Planning course – everything changed. Not only did she find a career path, she “followed her curiosity” to the Faculty of Arts planning program, where she found the flexibility and interdisciplinarity that would give her the freedom to take her dream as far as her imagination could go.

Although she will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Planning, with an Arts Co-op designation, Economics minor and a Certificate in Sustainability, Kaelin is equally passionate about volunteerism and community engagement, particularly with active transportation, climate resilience, LGBTQ2S+ inclusivity, and youth empowerment. After graduation, she expects to be even more involved with these community initiatives. 

An outstanding student throughout her program, Kaelin is one of three recipients of the 2020 Governor General's Silver Medal, which recognizes the top academic students graduating from an undergraduate degree program, and will also receive the Douglas E Smith Medal in Arts, awarded to the top academic student graduating from the Bachelor of Arts program.

What drew you to the area of your study?

Picture a career that involves sociology, political science, economics, ecology, geography, geology, history, psychology, public health, design, and communications....and you've got urban planning! Over 80% of Canadians live in urban environments, and both technological and climatic change are rapidly influencing what urban living might look like in upcoming decades.

Although this means that my generation of urban planners will be faced with huge challenges, we are also presented with one of the greatest opportunities to rethink what it means to sustainably live, work, and play as our population grows. This is particularly true in Edmonton, a city that is still young and discovering what kind of 'big city' it wants to be. The next decades of planning and development will determine whether Edmonton becomes a leader for urban resilience and innovation, or finds itself another sprawling metropolis stuck in the 20th Century.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

The most valuable lesson I took away from my program is that urban planning is only successful when communities, developers, and city planners collaborate. Even the best master plan cannot be brought to life if it isn't economically feasible or supported by community members. Through my internship experience in the consulting industry, I came to appreciate how the development industry plays a major role in innovative city building, one that I am excited to be part of as I build my career in the private sector.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

When I look back on my degree program, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out what program to end up in! I am passionate about many subject areas, and initially entered the U of A in the Faculty of Science for Mathematics. However, in the months leading up to university I had discovered urban planning through volunteer work with the City of Edmonton Youth Council. I enrolled in HGP 100 (the fundamental Human Geography and Planning course), and soon realized that I had found the career path for me. Though it was only a glimpse into the interdisciplinary work of planners, further courses revealed the complex way our cities evolve over time, and I was hooked. I switched into the BSc Planning program for second year, which incorporated Earth Sciences and Biology courses through the lens of Planning. The Faculty of Science program inspired me to pursue a Certificate in Sustainability, and join the Science Internship Program.

My internship experience in the private sector elevated my interest in sustainable land development, and by the end of my third year I realized that my interests were more aligned with the course requirements of the BA Planning program. It took several weeks and many advisor appointments to figure out how to transfer to the Faculty of Arts so late in my program and still graduate within four years, but we made it work. Arts Work Experience allowed me to finalize my cooperative education requirements, and I completed the coursework for a Minor in Economics in my final semester.

While switching programs and faculties over time added some challenges to my degree program, in retrospect I am very happy that I continually chose to be flexible, follow my curiosity, and make the extra effort to make my degree requirements fit my interests. Experiencing both scientific and artistic approaches to urban planning allowed me to understand a broad variety of perspectives on urban issues, from the rock formations we build cities on top of to the socioeconomic systems that influence how we live within them.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

All year, I had been looking forward to the moment I could leave my last exam and run down the hallway to celebrate finishing my degree. Although that dream wasn't realized, I am grateful to have still been able to graduate and have a full time job lined up, so I can't complain. I started a group chat with other Human Geography and Planning students who are convocating this semester, and we are planning to virtually watch the June ceremony together online. In the meantime, tuning into Dr. Hinshaw's updates every day has definitely helped keep me grounded.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

See if your program allows you to undertake a Directed Study course! It allows you to work directly with a professor to craft an independent project based on your interests. I did two directed studies during my degree, and they ended up being some of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I had academically. For one, I rewrote sections of the Zoning Bylaw and had the opportunity to present my ideas to City of Edmonton planners. For the other, I worked with another student to research e-scooters for local Business Associations. Tailoring your university education to your interests is very rewarding, and comes with the bonus of building relationships with professors and working professionals.

I also wish someone had told me earlier that there's a little hallway in the basement of CCIS next to the furnace which is a great place to warm up during winter!

What is next for you?

I have accepted a position as an Urban Planner with Stantec, following my work there as an intern over the last two years. It is so exciting to finally be jumping into the workforce full time and having an opportunity to shape the city I am proud to call home.

While I'm done school for now, learning will always be part of what pushes me forward. The practice of urban planning is continually evolving, with much to be learned in both work experience and academia. I hope to complete an MBA program in the future to support my goal of running a sustainable land development company.

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.