May 14, 2009
Mari Radford has been an integral member of communities in parts of the world that many Americans may be familiar with through newspaper headlines and the evening news, but few have ever experienced firsthand.
Helping ensure the safety of civilians and soldiers in war torn Mogadishu, Somalia, whose conflicts inspired the reality-based Black Hawk Down. Evacuating refugees escaping tribal violence in Rwanda. Building communities from the ground up in Russian Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Radford, 46, has been a ground level witness and participant in events on the global stage. Graduating with a Master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning (CRP) from Temple University Ambler and walking in graduation ceremonies on May 14 — Radford is also the keynote speaker for the Ambler College Graduation Ceremony — she intends to use her global perspective to help plan the safety of our communities for today and tomorrow.
Her journey from history major to U.S. State Department employee to CRP master’s degree recipient begins in Oregon continues to Africa and Asia and ends in Ambler — though this ending is just the beginning of the next chapter of her life.
“I completed my undergraduate degree in History in 1981, during the height of the one of the last economic slumps. The timber industry in Oregon essentially collapsed and there were few jobs to be found so my husband, Dean, and I decided to move east,” said Radford, of Fort Washington. “Dean joined the CIA and I worked for the State Department in a variety of jobs — we spent 15 years overseas. We spent three years in Tanzania, where I learned Swahili and worked at the embassy in Dar Es Salam running the motor pool and government contracting.”
Radford then helped get the U.S. Liaison Office in Mogadishu, Somalia — a war ravaged hot zone — off the ground from her posting in Nairobi, Kenya.
“While in Nairobi, the tribal violence in Rwanda exploded. We were directly involved in evacuating Americans and expatriates for the region,” she said. “It was extremely complicated creating a community for them where they could be housed and fed. It was one of the first times one of our embassies in that part of the world had been involved in an operation of this kind.”
After a brief stint in San Francisco (where the Radfords welcomed their second child — Ross and Reed are now 16 and 14) and two years preparing for their next assignment following the breakup of the USSR, Radford and her family made their home in Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia.
“It was a brand new embassy, a former palace converted for that use. We were among the first wave of families — both of my children went to international school and I helped get preschool programs started,” she said. “I was the community liaison officer and it was a wonderful job. While we were building the embassy, we were helping to build the surrounding community from the ground up — there was no electricity and no electricity meant no potable water; all of the trees had been cut down for warmth; families had resorted to eating squirrels and birds simply to survive. In this post-communism environment, there was a strong ethnic identity, but no infrastructure.”
After their time in Georgia, the family returned to the states after Radford’s husband opted to leave the CIA. Radford started a very successful chef business, promoting healthy meals. After four years in northern Virginia, a vice president’s position for Dean at SOS, the largest international MedEvac firm in the world, brought the family to the Philadelphia area.
Tragedy struck the family in 2005, however, when Dean passed away from a rare neurological disease. Radford had several decisions to make for herself and her family.
“I had thought about returning to Oregon where my parents still live, but I had been gone for 20 years. We decided to stay and start this new chapter in our lives,” Radford said. “I bought a house in Fort Washington, which was in easy walking or biking distance to transportation, school, the library. It afforded us the opportunity to make some real connections in the community.”
Radford then met Susan Spinella, Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University Ambler and a graduate of Temple’s Community and Regional Planning Master’s degree program, at a community event.
“I loved my jobs overseas and I was really trying to determine how to make those experiences marketable in the real world. Everything I heard about the Community and Regional Planning program seemed to legitimize my previous experience,” she said. “I entered the program in January 2007 and immediately connected with (Department Chair) Deborah Howe, who was also from Oregon. She really went out on a limb for me and provided me with a graduate assistanceship — the faculty became my colleagues, we shared office space; I was able to develop such a wonderful network of connections in the field.”
Radford said her State Department experience provided a “very logical link” to her CRP studies.
“In several of the places we served, we always had a suitcase packed, whether it was because of political unrest or physical instability in the region. One of the mandates of the State Department was to always have a sense of readiness,” she said. “Through all of my experiences, emergency management became a real interest of mine. I learned very early on that building communities was not just about where to place city hall, mapping out streets, and stormwater management. It’s also about how to plan for safety — I want to take my skills and apply them in an emergency management context.”
She’s already applying her skills in her community as a member of the Upper Dublin Planning Commission. An internship with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has also “paid off in spades,” she said. On June 1, she will begin a new career at URS Corporation as their FEMA Outreach Coordinator — “a perfect match for my interest in emergency management planning and my newly minted Community and Regional Planning degree!”
Of course returning to the classroom after 24 years did cause a bit of culture shock, Radford added.
“When I was in school previously, there was no online research; I was writing my papers on typewriters; and we primarily used a phone to communicate — at some of the locations we were stationed overseas there wasn’t even a working phone system!” she said. “In my first semester, I had a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) class, a technology that didn’t even exist 20 years ago — I had my 15-year-old helping me at home and the 20-somethings helping me at school.”
After capably managing courses like GIS and Planning Law with a little help and support from friends, faculty and students — both graduate and undergraduate — however, “I knew there wasn’t anything out there I couldn’t handle,” Radford said.
“With the evening classes, Community and Regional Planning really is a wonderful program for working adults — you’re not leaving the program with horrible amounts of debt and you don’t have to worry about daytime scheduling,” she said. “The faculty are all people working in the industry sharing their knowledge, their skill, and their connections — it’s a readymade network.”
Radford said the students readily share job leads and support one another in their career goals.
“There are so many planning career avenues to pursue — transportation, housing, community building, GIS, stormwater management, historical preservation, emergency management — and all of them are fascinating,” she said. “The program provides an extremely welcoming, supportive environment that’s prepared me for a career that I know will allow me to make a difference.”