As a Northern Virginia native, first-year Virginia Tech student Miles Polhamus can see the writing on the wall. Although the comforts, conveniences, and opportunities of densely populated urban areas may continue to attract newcomers, there’s only so much room for an ever-growing population.

“I’ve been exposed to the shift of people moving into urban areas pretty much all my life,” said Polhamus. “There’s not enough space for everyone, so what are we going to do with all of these people? How are we going to house them? How are we going to feed them in a sustainable way?”

Of course, this complex urban issue isn’t isolated to Northern Virginia. “It’s a global trend,” said Polhamus. “This is a problem that needs solving, and jobs related to that will continue to grow. That’s why my major is so important right now.”

As a student in the university’s new smart and sustainable cities major, Polhamus is ready to address these challenges. With both parents being alumni, Virginia Tech has always felt like home, but Polhamus knew he had to become a Hokie when he found out the innovative program — one of the first of its kind in the United States — would be offered. 

That, and the opportunity to join the first cohort of the Calhoun Discovery Program (CDP) in the Honors College, sealed the deal.  

The new smart and sustainable cities major, which is housed within the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and is now in its second year, blends urban analytics and decision-making with sustainable approaches to development. 

It’s a fitting complement to the CDP and its emphasis on an open-ended, collaborative, and transdisciplinary discovery process. The latter program brings students together from nine different degrees into an environment where students, together with faculty as well as industry and non-profit partners, dive into deep problem-solving. 

“I think collaborative group work will go a long way in terms of being able to work successfully with professionals,” said Polhamus.

Polhamus is currently enrolled in two different courses from both the smart and sustainable cities and Calhoun Discovery programs, and he’s already noticing how well his interdisciplinary studies will benefit his future career. For example, he had an assignment to find an internship for his Urban Careers class. Every opportunity he found required that the intern be able to work well in group settings and have a variety of skills.

“I think the CDP is really going to help me gain that experience and knowledge, so I’m really excited,” he said.

Polhamus already knows he wants to focus on transportation and become a transportation planner working with either the Virginia Department of Transportation or in the private sector. He understands that the shift of people moving into urban areas isn’t slowing down, and he wants to learn more about why this growth is happening and how to address it in an equitable and sustainable way through transportation.

Polhamus, an avid runner, already enjoys one form of active transportation. After competing in the sport all four years in high school, he decided to stay active through the Virginia Tech Running Club.

“It’s a way to stay fit and meet new friends,” Polhamus said. “I thought I was done after high school, but I came here and realized I didn’t want to stop.”

Polhamus is already looking ahead to make sure he can meet his academic goals. Ever the scholar, he did his research before coming to Virginia Tech and learned about the accelerated master’s program in urban and regional planning. He hopes to take master’s level classes during his senior year that can count toward a graduate degree. 

SPIA undergraduate program director Ralph Hall is hopeful the new smart and sustainable cities major will not only bridge these types of academic gaps for students, but also integrate university strategic initiatives into the broader undergraduate curriculum. 

Hall, an associate professor in SPIA, worked with colleagues to recruit several new faculty members to help support the new major. Together the growing team of faculty integrated themes from Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries vision as well as elements of InclusiveVT into the new major. 

SPIA undergraduate academic advisor Chris LaPante explained that faculty and staff were focused on the future of their students when planning for the degree. They envision graduates as problem-solvers and interdisciplinary agents among the many different people in the room.

“The goal is for students to have to work together and have crossover with engineers, landscape architects, and architects as well as other students in real estate, environmental science, and political science,” said LaPlante. “A really cool cross section of people and disciplines can take part in this and work together.” 

Hall is excited for students like Polhamus in the smart and sustainable cities major.

“I’d love for them to be able to leave with the confidence to use their skills to make meaningful change,” said Hall. “They can leverage the knowledge they’ve learned at Virginia Tech to help the future they want to see come into existence.”

— Written by Colie Touzel