“Take a graduate-level course freshman year? There’s no way I can do that!” That was my response when my academic advisor, well aware of my obsession with public transportation, tried to convince me to take Intro to Transportation Planning. I wasn’t having it, and I settled on other classes instead.
This was really just me being nervous; I had been well aware of this class even before I applied to Penn. When I was looking at schools, I had two main criteria: it’s in a city, and it has a cool-looking transportation program. Penn obviously satisfied the former, and as I did research on the latter, I was amazed at what I found.
The City Planning major is a master’s program, but my friend who had graduated assured me that I would be able to take some of its classes as an undergrad. And those classes: transportation is such a niche thing to love, but the program has a ton of fascinating courses on the topic. That was a huge influence on my wanting to apply at Penn.
But okay, a graduate course freshman year? No way.
Come sophomore year, I finally felt ready to tackle Intro to Transportation Planning. And as it turned out, it was something I totally could’ve done earlier: this has turned out to be the best class I’ve taken at this school so far.
A big part of that is definitely bias – I love transportation, so I’m naturally likely to love a transportation class. But I took transportation-related classes freshman year, and while they were fine, they were nothing to write an entire blog post about. Intro to Transportation Planning was different, and I think it all comes down to the fact that it’s a graduate course.
It may just be me, but I tend not to make friends in my classes. Here, though, pretty much everyone is pursuing a City Planning degree: they share my hyperspecialized interests. This may be an easier thing to find in other majors, but throwing a bunch of transportation enthusiasts in a single room isn’t something that happens often! And contrary to what I thought would be the case, I don’t feel like “that undergrad” – everyone is very friendly.
Because this is a graduate course, the class content is specialized as well. We’ve been learning everything from history to policy, to how to use the statistical software R. Our assignments have ranged from parsing through commuting data to standing at an intersection for three hours counting traffic. I didn’t get anything this cool in other classes!
Finally, there’s the professor, Erick Guerra, who is just fantastic. He’s really passionate about transportation, writing a ton of papers on the subject, and he’s a great lecturer. Not to mention he has a lot of connections in his field, so we’ve had some amazing guest speakers from many different organizations in the transportation world. At one point, I got a decent-but-not-perfect grade on a midterm, and he invited me to come to his office hours to talk about it more in detail – that really meant a lot.
This isn’t to say that all of these things are unique to graduate courses. And it’s not to say that you need to take this class – there are only so many people out there interested in transportation. But what I am saying is that it’s important to open your mind and go outside your comfort zone when picking classes. I didn’t do that freshman year, and I ended up with fine courses…but in retrospect, I could’ve easily handled Intro to Transportation Planning. Just because it’s a graduate course doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically harder than an undergrad course.
So if you’re really passionate about something but the undergrad offerings aren’t great, it might be worth checking out graduate courses. It’s an incredible opportunity we have here to take those specialized classes as undergrads – why not explore it?