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Editor's note: This story is part of a series of student profiles that are part of our December 2015 commencement coverage.
As he settled into life as a student at Arizona State University, Justin Peterson knew he wanted to connect with the community around him. Working at Escalante Community Garden and studying urban planning led him to the path he’s pursuing now — a career in which he can help shape a community with which he’s deeply involved.
When Justin moved to Tempe to begin his studies at ASU, he found what he was looking for as a new high school graduate — a setting very different from where he’d grown up, a small community on the coast of Puget Sound in Washington State.
Growing up he admired his grandfather who, for as long as Justin remembered, had championed development of a trail system in the nearby town of Silverdale. The trails helped visitors and residents appreciate the coastal setting while at the same time helping to preserve it.
Peterson spent many hours helping to post signs, pick up trash, trim vegetation and whatever else was needed to help maintain the trail.
As a college student in Tempe, Peterson pursued coursework that gave perspectives on this boots-on-the ground community building. He explored engineering, sustainability and business — and after 7 semesters, is graduating with minors in both sustainability and business, as well as a certificate in geographic information science (GIS). For his major, he chose urban planning.
However, he knew he wanted to balance his academic work with the kind of involvement he’d had working on the trail system in Silverdale.
He joined the Tempe Bicycle Coalition and helped with bicycle education and a city bike count, volunteered at the Mesa Healthy Communities Conference and participated in the Super Bowl Workshop. He attended community meetings in the neighborhood in which he lived, Escalante in Tempe.
Most importantly, he began volunteering at the Escalante Community Garden.
The garden is an urban sanctuary within walking distance of Peterson’s home. It’s maintained by volunteers and the food grown goes directly to the food pantry next door, which is run by the Tempe Community Action Agency (TCAA).
“The TCAA is a center of the local community and has events on a weekly basis. The work of the agency helps the lives of local residents and provides services for those in need,” Peterson said.
Peterson became a regular volunteer, working up to 3 days a week at planting, weeding and harvesting. As he became more knowledgeable, his responsibilities grew to distributing assignments to the other volunteers, and guiding them in where to do plantings.
“The garden offers the community an opportunity to be outside and be involved,” Peterson said. “It’s a place where people gather, parents bring children and teachers bring students.”
The City of Tempe is currently engaged in developing long-range plans for subsections of the municipality called Character Areas. Peterson attended a community meeting for the Apache Character Area in which Escalante is located. Here he met city planners — which led to an internship beginning this fall, at the city’s Community Development office.
“Working within the city government has given me an opportunity to see the dedication of the planners to creating Character Areas that reflect the community’s ideas,” Peterson said.
"Justin strikes me as the type of student who doesn’t just see planning as a career, but as a way to make a positive difference in urban communities,” said Jason Kelley, a lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and one of Peterson’s instructors. “He truly cares.”
As he prepares for graduation, with family arriving from Washington State, and the honor of being a Dean’s Medalist for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Peterson looks ahead. He’s applying to several graduate programs in urban planning, and expects to start graduate studies next fall; the next step in his chosen career.
“I envision a career where I can listen deeply to peoples’ opinions and ideas, and put them into a plan,” Peterson said.
“I’d like a career where I help bring the community’s ideas to life.”