Screen Shot 2021-02-01 at 12.39.32 PM

Alum Q&A: Katie Merry ’16

Katelyn “Katie” Merry works as a Community Planner for the US Air Force in Texas. Katie was an Environmental Studies Major, Class of 2016

What made you interested in studying Environmental Studies at Northeastern?

“I started out at Northeastern as an undeclared major and then I took a class with Professor Faber on climate change, and that’s what got me really interested in studying Environmental Studies. So I was really just exploring a few classes and found that I really enjoyed that one.” 

Are there any specific memories from your time at Northeastern that had a lasting impact on you? Any that influenced your career choices?

“I think the most important two were co-op and the Dialogue of Civilization. I worked with the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit that works in preserving natural lands. They also work with urban planners and they were working on climate smart cities. I found that to be really interesting so I talked with the folks there and they told me about the career options in urban planning and how it relates to what I was learning in class about climate change. It felt like a good way to put what I learned into practice. I also did a Dialogue with civil engineering to the Netherlands to study sustainable transportation. I learned about their transportation and public transportation and how the Netherlands managed to create a super comprehensive system. So while it was a civil engineering focused dialogue,it was heavy in urban planning influence and definitely felt relevant to everything I was learning and was a push for me to go into urban planning.”

How, if in any way, did the Environmental Studies program at Northeastern impact your career path?

“I think my favorite thing about the Environmental Studies program was that it allowed for a lot of flexibility. When I was in the program, there were different tracks you could follow within the Environmental Studies program and you also had the option to create your own track. There was a lot of faculty support to explore your specific interests which was great because Environmental Studies is so broad. It was nice to not feel confined to a track that did not appeal to you. I focused on sustainability and I found it really helpful in defining what I wanted to do after I graduated.”

Could you explain what you currently do for a living? What is a normal day at work like?

“Currently I am a civilian community planner for the Airforce. I live in San Antonio and I work for joint base San Antonio which is one of the biggest bases in the USAF. Every day is different. Our job on the base is to create planning documents which are similar to how a city works. For instance, a city has a master plan for the city. We have what’s called the Instillation development campus plan. Our job is to update those plans as needed which is a big effort. Between updating, we ensure those plans get implemented. We work with mission partners to figure out what they need (i.e. if they want to relocate to a different part of base, if they want to bring new people onto base) and we make sure any developments they need are aligning with the plans we put in place. We also do work with the community since we do have aircraft on the installation and it’s important to maintain the relationship between the community and base because there are noise impacts from the aircrafts, etc.. A typical day might be working on some notifications from the city on development that’s happening on base, going to a few meetings with mission partners, reviewing plans that we are stakeholders in and providing comments. At the base where I work, we have four community planners.”

How has COVID-19 impacted your career?

“COVID-19 has had an interesting impact because we are a federal agency. When COVID-19 first happened, there were mandates for people to work from home but because we provide basic training at this base, we continued operations through the COVID-19 pandemic to support our mission. We do a lot more meetings virtually which has been sometimes successful, sometimes a challenge; but there are some limitations in terms as to what we can do with virtual programs since we are on a secure network.  it’s been interesting trying to figure out which technologies are best suited for us and those we need to meet with. I think it’s a unique challenge as compared to those who work in private industries, but we’re getting there and it’s getting better.”

Are there any skills from your studies at Northeastern that you transferred into a career in community planning?

“Definitely, I think that one of the biggest things that Northeastern instilled in us is the importance of professionalism. Effective communication is important in both the co-op class and on co-op. The life skills that you learn at Northeastern are super important and valuable. For example, I meet with many people every day including those I’ve never met before and some who are not sure what they want or are a little frustrated. Additionally, I think Northeastern encourages people to take new opportunities and to try new things. Community planning for the government is not a typical path for an urban planner so I think that sense of ‘Why not try something new? Why not try a new challenge?’ is something that Northeastern definitely has embodied.”

What is your key piece of advice for anyone attending Northeastern?

“I would say make the most of every opportunity and study abroad. I have remained close with friends from my time at Northeastern and we all agree that the most formative part of Northeastern is the experiential learning. I would encourage people to take advantage of that whether it’s a whole semester abroad, a co-op in another city, a dialogue, or student organizations. The experiences are the things that stick with us the most.”


Marine and Environmental Sciences