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PROFILE: “Happy Accidents” Chart His Planning Career

UC employee and student Cory Thomas has traveled the globe as a Master’s of Community Planning student. Ironically, he didn’t actually plan on his new academic course. It just happened by accident.

Date: 4/5/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Submitted by Cory Thomas
UC ingot When Cory Thomas came to UC to work full-time four years ago, he didn’t even know what the university’s School of Planning was or what community planners did.  But, as part of the Admissions Office team, he had to find out fast if he was going to provide academic guidance to others.  It turned out that one of the first prospects he sold on the program was himself.

Cory Thomas learns how to make tortillas in a rural Salvadoran community

“Planning,” he discovered, “Turned out to be everything I’m interested in: the environment, politics, social justice, global economics, law and health.  Planning is about how communities form and govern themselves, how communities connect with people and vice versa.  It’s hard to pigeon hole just as I’m hard to pigeon hole.  So,” concludes Cory, “It was the perfect fit for me, and a happy accident that I found the program.”

So, Cory, gave up his life so to speak to concentrate on working full-time while pursuing a full-time master’s in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.  Once an amateur sculptor – he gave that up.  The casual classes he took for fun – no more of those.  A swimmer and cyclist – he had to forego those pursuits.  And all but his closest friends couldn’t necessarily count on seeing him. 

In exchange, Cory, originally from Lima, Ohio, has now traveled to Central America for two years straight, worked a summer in Greece and is just back from New York City where he studied the inner workings of the United Nations.  “But the very best part of the program for me,” says Cory, “Is the other people.  We have graduate students from ten different countries.  We’re like our own meeting of the U.N., always learning how other countries and societies solve problems.  When we graduate, I’ll literally have good friends in every part of the globe.”

In the spring of both 2002 and 2003, Cory traveled to El Salvador in Central America.  The first year, he was just another student seeking to learn about the region’s economic and cultural heritage and challenges.  The next year, he helped lead the group.  “Those trips were a way to put faces with the stories in the news.  As an undergraduate, I’d been in a group opposed to sweatshops, and this trip was a chance to meet the people actually working in those shops,” he explained.

Cory visits the Parthenon while working in Greece

Next – in the summer of 2003 – Cory traveled to Crete, a Greek island in the Mediterranean, as part of a team of UC students and faculty lending their professional skills to local municipalities in order to ease some of the island’s most pressing problems – pollution, environmental degradation, gridlock and population shifts as well as loss of traditional economies and folkways – all connected to unchecked tourism. 

“It was all another happy accident that came together,” Cory says.  “I had to do an internship, and I wanted to do so abroad.  The School of Planning was organizing the work in Crete, and I was able to obtain an educational leave.”  He adds that his time in Greece was unforgettable.  Yes, the Greek hospitality, food and sunshine were great, but he also saw first hand how UC is building relationships half a world away.  “This was no mock exercise.  We were working for real clients with real problems and had to do so despite differences in language and culture.  I specifically worked to help municipalities with transportation problems, and it was no vacation I can tell you.  We worked 18 hours a day,” recalls Cory.  “It was great for our host communities and for the students.  As both a group and a world, I saw how connected, interdependent we are.  As students, we were in it together.  It’s the same for our world too.  We’re all in life together”

That was pretty much the same message Cory carried to the United Nations Commission on Social Development during February meetings involving that group.  Cory and another student traveled to New York as a representative of UC’s environmental student group.  While there, they met with likeminded students from across the country and with U.N. officials. 

Cory and fellow students David Parish and Sinta Edelman at work in Greece

In looking back at the opportunities provided him by his planning coursework, Cory admits the program has “compelled me to change.  I’m less idealistic about change but no less passionate.  I now see that passion must be combined with logic and objectivity, in understanding where other people are coming from, in realizing that no big issue is simple and straightforward.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t work for change.  But we do so intelligently.”

Once he graduates in June, Cory plans to continue in his Admission Office work.  Like his planning studies, it’s work he loves because every day is different, bringing him into contact with prospective students from around the world.  He’s also become the advisor for one of UC’s newest student groups, “UC Students Against Sweatshops.”

Eventually, he plans to pursue more advanced academic work, either in the field of planning or of law, with hopes of some day teaching at the university level.  In the short term though, he just plans to return to sculpting, maybe take an art class or two, pump up the tires on his bike, reconnect with old friends and, of couse, keep his eyes open for the next “happy accident.”

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