Aaron Smithson CC'19

Student on the beach

Learning about Community Engagement and Urban Studies While in Melbourne

Aaron Smithson CC'19

" I learned more about community engagement while gathering public input on streetscape projects in the pouring rain than I have in classrooms or offices."

After studying abroad twice through Columbia summer programs in Venice and Latin America, I was convinced I would spend the rest of my college years in New York. My interest in Melbourne, then, came as a bit of a surprise.

I fell in love with Melbourne from afar—through class readings and internship work. As someone interested in public space and urban design, I was drawn to the city’s emergence as a twenty-first century model of urban livability (The Economist has ranked Melbourne first for livability for seven years straight) and decided to study there.

Arriving in Australia, the things I had planned out fell mostly into place. I took design classes that aren’t offered at Columbia, worked with the urban design consultancy CoDesign Studio, and lived in International House—a residential college with students from dozens of countries.

There were also unexpected undertakings, though. I learned more about community engagement while gathering public input on streetscape projects in the pouring rain than I have in classrooms or offices. I felt happiest when spontaneously traveling to Tasmania or Mornington, when stargazing on the side of the road or watching dolphins swim past the beach. I filled in huge knowledge gaps on Australian history and contemporary American neocolonial politics while taking Indigenous Studies classes—something I hadn’t envisaged earlier. As much as my time abroad has prepared me for coursework and professional goals in my field, I’m more appreciative of the moments when I found myself surprised by what I didn’t know, when I neglected to make a plan or look where I was going. By many measures, it was those moments that proved most formative.