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Building Her Own Urban Adventure

Thanks to a new online bachelor's degree in urban studies, Miranda Barrie has been able to work, travel, campaign, and study on her own terms.

People  |  Nov 13, 2018  |  By Pashtana Usufzy

Miranda Barrie has traveled the world while pursuing a degree in urban studies thanks to UNLV's new program. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

UNLV undergraduate researcher Miranda Barrie will present her work as part of the "Reflecting on 1 October: Using Research to Inform Public Policy and Heal Our Community," a community forum from Brookings Mountain West, in partnership with UNLV University Libraries, Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. in Greenpsun Hall Auditorium.


A senior in the College of Urban Affairs, Miranda Barrie epitomizes a new type of student — one who takes advantage of flexible ways fit academics into her larger life instead of orienting her life around her studies.

Barrie expects to graduate in spring 2019 with a degree in urban studies and dual minors in Spanish and public policy. She got there by balancing 19-credit semesters and a part-time job. It’s par for the course for Barrie, whose undergraduate career has been shaped by her ambitions and the flexibility of the entirely online urban studies degree she is pursuing.

“If you need a path that takes you straight to graduate school or takes you straight to a career, urban studies can do that for you,” Barrie said. “But also, for students like me who are really interested in lots of different aspects of urban life, it has allowed me to put together a degree program that really works for me.”

The urban studies degree, which officially launched this fall after a small number of students were allowed to enroll in past semesters, is offered through the college’s School of Public Policy and Leadership.

The major replaces the public administration degree and is better suited to the needs of a changing employment sector, said Christopher Stream, the school's director.

“Metropolitan and urban areas have grown. Not just in the United States but internationally, more people now live in urban areas than rural ones,” he said. “We wanted to better engage undergraduates into what is going to be their future.”

Stream said the flexibility of the major is designed to meet the needs of students who encounter barriers that might normally prevent them from graduating.

“Many of our students in the College of Urban Affairs are first-generation students. They have full-time jobs. They’re not a traditional student body, and so progression to graduation gets derailed because of family and jobs and life and other things that happen,” he said. “With this program, if they could not get to campus, they could continue their education.”

Online Teaching Meets Experiential Learning

The online aspect of the degree is a draw for students like Barrie, who hope to graduate with a vast array of experiences that would be limited by the traditional classroom setting.

“For me, it was an opportunity to continue my education no matter what I was working on and have a bit of a flexible schedule,” Barrie said.

That opportunity has opened doors for the globe-trotting student.

After taking a semester off to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Barrie traveled to Chile to learn Spanish while taking two UNLV online courses.

During her two semesters there, she was enrolled in a data class for the urban studies degree that led to her academic exploration of Santiago Resiliente, which is part of the 100 Resilient Cities program created by the Rockefeller Foundation to foster city resiliency in the face of economic, social and physical challenges.

Before she knew it, she was applying for and later accepting an internship with the program.

“Every single thing I was learning in class was directly applicable to what I was doing there, and that was really helpful,” she said. “It was all because of the online course I was taking at the time.”

Less than a month after returning from Chile, she headed on to her next adventure: a two-and-a-half-month stay in the United Kingdom, where she interned with the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at public policy think tank Demos.

Her exploration of politics, people, and communities has been bolstered by the online learning curriculum, which includes discussion rooms and personalized educator feedback, she said.

Adapting to a Changing Workforce

Urban studies students have an ability to work independently, think creatively and take active roles in their education, Stream said.

“The degree is really what you make of it. We do have some suggested areas of concentration, and students can certainly follow some guidelines if they’re interested particularly in data analytics or if they’re interested in community problem solving and community engagement,” Stream said, “but we also really allow students to design their own space in their own interests.”

The urban studies degree introduces students to the importance of collaboration between public and private sectors, nonprofits and citizens, said Robert R. Ulmer, dean of the urban affairs college. The goal, he said, is to equip students with competencies adaptable to any field. Whether it’s the hospitality industry, public safety, community activism, or government, students will leave UNLV with a holistic curriculum that includes courses such as critical thinking, communication, governance, philanthropy.

“The very essence of education is changing,” said Ulmer. “Students are actively engaged in problem solving versus solely reading about cases. We’re refashioning what an undergraduate education should be. It’s active education.”