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Emma Buchanan: Advancing Appalachia

2017 SPIA grad and returning master’s student aims to help her home region of Appalachia thrive through her work.


Degree/year:  B.A. in Public and Urban Affairs and B.S. in Applied Economics and Management, 2017; current Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning student

What’s your hometown?  I grew up in Glade Spring, Virginia, which is near the Virginia/Tennessee line in Southwest Virginia. Now I call Christiansburg my home because I bought a house in the area last fall to fix up and flip while pursing my education in Blacksburg.

What are you doing now?  I am beginning my Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Tech this fall and working as a graduate student researcher the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience. At the Global Forum, I am on a research team studying everything from rural resiliency, to the impacts of natural disasters on housing, and extractivism (the process of extracting natural resources from the earth to sell on the world market).

What do you like most about your current work?  Working at the Global Forum is very rewarding. The research that we are doing is making differences in Southwest Virginia and across the country. I also am happy to work at the Global Forum because I still have the opportunity to be in school while I am completing meaningful work.

How did you get your position?  Last summer I worked with a professor at Virginia Tech on a summer research project. While continuing the summer research throughout the school year at the Global Forum I made good impressions on the research faculty. They offered me a graduate assistantship in the spring semester, which I gladly accepted.

How did your experience at SPIA help?  I would not have had the opportunity to work at the Global Forum if it were not for SPIA. Paying attention to the emails for job opportunities and working with faculty really paid off!

What are your long-term professional goals​?  I love where I am from, and I want to give back to Appalachia. I hope that whatever job I pursue after graduation, I can give back to the region that made me who I am. When I finish my master’s degree, I will pursue a career in town planning. I am open to work in any sort of community development position, but I see my ideal job as working as a town manager or county administrator.

​What experiences as a SPIA student were the most rewarding for you?  Internships and research positions have been the most rewarding to me while at Virginia Tech. I did my first internship at Blacksburg Transit, where I enjoyed learning about transportation planning. My first research experience was on a project known as the “Frenemies Project,” which opened my eyes to how research is not only for hard science disciplines. I also worked at the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development, where I had the chance to learn more about regional planning organizations. Finally, working at the Global Forum has not only given me experience in research, but also has provided the opportunity to earn my master’s degree. All of the experiences I have had on and off campus have shaped my professional goals and my master’s thesis topic. While at Virginia Tech in the MURP program, I will be studying how asset-based planning can be a tool for rural resiliency.

Tell us more about your work as an undergraduate researcher on the highly publicized “Frenemies” Project that revealed how people who are ideologically opposed can have a more collaborative civil dialogue.  That was my first research experience, working with Dr. Todd Schenk, assistant professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning program. The goal was to study how individuals who are utterly opposed on topics can reach a point of collaboration. The experience allowed me to get my feet wet with social science research, which led me to the topics I study today. Working with Dr. Schenk was also rewarding. Because of his passion for his research, our project was extremely successful and led to additional opportunities during the year. This summer I have continued my work with Dr. Schenk. We are looking to expand the Frenemies Project further!

Why is Urban Affairs and Planning a good major to pursue?​ Urban Affairs and Planning is a stepping stone allowing students to learn how to effectively give back to their communities. The major is also home to inspiring faculty who give students the opportunity to work outside of the classroom. While an undergrad, I was not only a student in the UAP department, but I was also a dual major in the Agricultural and Applied Economics department. The UAP department worked with me to ensure my educational goals were met.