September 10, 2016

by Lindsay T. Woodson (MDes R&R/MUP 2017)

Throughout my time as a dual degree candidate, I have assisted with Open House at the GSD. Whether in person or through email correspondence, I am routinely asked a question that is complicated yet quite simple in its truth. What type of job opportunities commonly exist for MDes students? The truthful response is that all types of opportunities exist but the difficulty appears when responding to the term commonly.

Since the broad answer complicates more than it clarifies, I follow up with personal experience. With the flexibility of the program, there is not a traditional trajectory for MDes graduates. While in the program, I have been able to secure unique internships each summer. Because my design interests align with public policy, I have been able to gain experience in city, state, and federal governments.

This past summer I was at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington D.C. It was an internship program provided through the Department of Homeland Security for those interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The MDes program equipped me with the tools and thinking to bridge traditional design practice and STEM fields within the government.

Working with the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA) directly under the Insurance Analytics and Policy Branch, I was able to plug into an upper level management effort. While the branch is fairly new within the agency, one of its central tasks is to handle various requests whether they are from Congress or non-profit organizations or internal staff. Quite like a think tank, the problem-solving approaches shift from day to day.

In the first two weeks after I arrived, Catholic Charities USA requested information regarding U.S. communities that could benefit from additional support through flood insurance assistance due to their particular vulnerabilities. This was a prime opportunity for me to craft a project central to my interests and immediately useful for the branch. I did not want the work to sit on a shelf once it was complete. I wanted it to start conversations and inform discussions. Little did I know that it would have steady attention within the agency.

I soon found out that my project would be feeding into larger efforts that the IAP branch was embarking on. In response to the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014, the long-term project aims to gain detailed information on the National Flood Insurance Program’s policyholders in an effort to serve U.S. communities more effectively.

The project utilized the Special Flood Hazard Area from, the Center for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index, and FIMA policy information. Though the results of my 10-week project were not a revelation, the maps serve as a tangible basis for richer conversations relating to data collection and quality, flood insurance rating, and financial mechanisms to serve vulnerable populations. In addition, we began to get more inquiries from headquarter and regional staff about our work and findings. Because FEMA is such a large agency, it was quite rewarding to see our work being shared at various levels.

Reflecting on my experience, it was very special to be part of a thoughtful and collaborative team pushing fresh and bold ideas within an agency that’s being challenged from all sides. Ultimately, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with insurance agents, statisticians, and floodplain managers on efforts that will impact many U.S. households in a positive way.

Damage from West Virginia flooding in June 2016. (Photo credit: Washington Post)