2019 Sam Fox School Civic Scholars

2019 Sam Fox School Civic Scholars Marcellus Johnson, Rhea Khanna, and Maddie Farrer.

Posted by Liz Kramer May 9, 2019


Three graduating seniors in the Sam Fox School participated in the Gephardt Institute's Civic Scholars Program, a rigorous, in-depth program for undergraduates who exemplify future potential for civic leadership. Civic Scholars enroll in two years of academic course work related to civic leadership and receive mentorship to prepare them for a life dedicated to public service. Additionally, scholars receive a $5,000 grant to complete a civic project in the summer before their senior year.

The 2019 Sam Fox School Civic Scholars, Maddie Farrer, Marcellus Johnson, and Rhea Khanna, now preparing to graduate, reflected on their experiences and the value of their program. Each of the students learned about the program through peers who had participated in the past—primarily from their friends in Arts & Sciences.

Architecture student Marcellus Johnson completed his project in Kinloch, a historic African-American suburb of St. Louis. He originally visited the area as part of the Community Building course taught by associate professor Bob Hansman. To learn more about the city’s history and its current challenges, Marcellus first spoke with with Emma Strickland, who told him about an urban design issue affecting the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When a new distribution center eliminated the street access to the church parking lot, the church building had to be reoriented and the parking lot had to be reconfigured. The complexity of these issues, along with the underlying political issues in the city, inspired Marcellus to explore the history of the area even further. He interviewed other individuals connected to the community about Kinloch’s golden era and subsequent decline, and also asked them to imagine what Kinloch might be like 30 years from now. He synthesized what he learned in a document that tells a more complete history of the area. He said, “It would be really easy to go to Kinloch now, and say, look at the sad state of this place, and not really go any further than that. You could take the narrative as it is, and not go any deeper than that.” Instead, Marcellus used the skills he learned in Community Building and Civic Scholars to not just accept what he saw, but to observe, question, and understand why things are how they are in Kinloch.

Communication design student Rhea Khanna’s project built on her research in early childhood education, focusing on the physical environment of schools, classrooms, and learning spaces. She interned at Kurani, a New York-based firm that designs spaces to improve learning outcomes. During her internship, Rhea learned how to use design elements like materials, colors, textures, and spatial configurations to engender positive classroom interactions. She also worked to develop new offerings that would make the firm’s service accessible to more schools. Rhea used the design thinking skills she learned from Sam Fox School classes like Design as a Catalyst for Social Change and Design and Research to understand what administrators, teachers, and contractors were looking for, and what the barriers were to implementing proposed changes. She then identified ways to reduce the time and cost for renovations. Rhea’s coursework helped her be mindful of the communities she was working with, and her internship gave her the opportunity to pursue her research with real schools and administrators.

Architecture student Maddie Farrer was particularly interested in the housing affordability crisis on the West Coast. As she said, “the home is the basic unit of success.” She began by reaching out to people she knew, and eventually secured an internship in the City of Sacramento’s planning department. As an outsider, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to help or make any suggestions of value coming to this new community. But she quickly immersed herself, and attended every departmental meeting, regardless of the content. Using her design skills to create maps and graphics, Maddie crafted a policy report that mapped housing opportunity areas, and highlighted opportunities for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These independent units can be built on the same lot as stand-alone home, and can create beneficial density, more affordable housing, and provide additional income for existing home owners. Ultimately, Maddie’s work was presented to the mayor and the city council. She commented, “I benefitted more than anyone else in the situation, as I learned how city government works, including learning about the timelines and the red tape first-hand. It showed me that there’s not just one pathway for someone who has studied architecture. I began to see how much teamwork is involved in civic decisions, and everything I don’t yet know.”

After graduation, Marcellus hopes to find a job and stay in St. Louis. He said, “Since I’ve learned so much from going to school here, it seems only right to take what I’ve learned in St. Louis and try to apply it here before I try to apply it somewhere else.” Maddie is looking to go further into urban design, and has been applying to municipal government fellowships, as well as private firms. Rhea is still deciding what she wants to do next, but know she wants to be part of an organization that is actively involved in problem-solving through design thinking, one that gives her the opportunity to be challenged.

All three students encouraged Sam Fox School students to pursue the Civic Scholars Program. They emphasized the strong relationships within the cohort, the opportunity for creativity within the project, and the exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking. Maddie said, “Civic Scholars takes you out of the studio, where we spend our lives. It’s a break and a new perspective, and it’s one of the greatest tools for turning your pledge education into something long-term.” Rhea also noted “A lot of people don’t realize that a big part of Civic Scholars is creativity. There is so much creativity in forming your own project, designing your own reports and assignments, and making all of the decisions about who you partner with and the challenges you want to tackle. It is as creative as you make it.”

The cohort of Civic Scholars is diverse in their interests, backgrounds, and studies. As Marcellus said, “It’s really important that architecture students get out of the Sam Fox School silo. Even though we have elective requirements, not all classes are equal in how well they allow you to engage with your classmates. The cohort experience gets you engaged with people who are approaching civic engagement from a completely different lens than you.”

For more information about the Civic Scholars Program, visit the Gephardt Institute’s website. Applications for second-year students open toward the end of the fall semester.