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Dean’s medalist student’s chance encounter sparked passion for urban planning

School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning Dean’s Medalist Daniel Laufer.

December 04, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Daniel Laufer almost never learned about urban planning. Admitted to ASU as an engineering management major, Laufer was first introduced to the world of urban planning by happenstance after watching a documentary about the creation of New York City.

“It really sparked my interest and after I read up on it more; the book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ was a real page-turner,” said Laufer, who is graduating this December from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning with an undergraduate degree in urban planning. 

His interest in the field snowballed. Laufer, who is also a Barrett, The Honors College student, chose to do his Barrett honors thesis about urban planning and developed an evaluation tool to measure walkability in both suburban and urban areas in Arizona. Shortly after, he changed his major. 

“I saw it as a sign that if I'm more excited to do my thesis on urban planning than I am about some of my other classwork, I should make my classwork planning too,” Laufer said. “I made the switch and didn't look back.” 

Laufer says he loves the field of urban planning for its interdisciplinary nature and the real-world impact the field can have on people’s everyday lives. 

“There's a lot of opportunity to improve walkability, connectivity and transportation in Arizona without having to be so reliant on a car. It goes into housing, economic development, land-use planning, transit planning and they're all connected, that's what makes it so fascinating for me — to dive into the complexities behind the problems and find the solutions.” 

“There's a lot to unpack, but I'm always interested in learning about new challenges and how to make differences in the community that really can affect everyone.” 

Laufer’s passion has shown through his dedication to his studies. He is this semester’s selection by the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning for the Dean’s Medalist Award from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a recognition reserved for the highest achieving students from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities.

“A characteristic that stands out about Daniel is his passion for learning,” said Jason Kelley, lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “He has wonderful enthusiasm and is eager to learn about urban planning and the various issues that planners address. He is a top-notch performer in the classroom, consistently submitting high-quality work that exceeds expectation, and is well-deserving of this recognition.” 

Laufer’s advice to other students: Find your passion and follow it.

“Even if it means maybe changing your plans or going into something that you found out existed just a few months ago, go for it. See where it takes you,” Laufer said. “If you want to see something done or you want to learn something or you're curious about it — whether it be a major or a class or just one of those clubs in a club fair—  just go to one meeting, read a book about it, find out more about it. There are so many possibilities and opportunities in every little corner of academics, in careers and in life.”

Ahead of commencement, we asked him a few questions about his time at ASU.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: I’m a product of growing up in a bubble-like atmosphere in Mesa. The access to the sheer number of different perspectives and people at ASU has been so valuable. Understanding that there are different stories to tell and that each of those stories and experiences lends itself to different challenges and unique solutions. 

And from a more technical aspect, I’ve learned critical thinking and how to critically look at problems whether it be something like a big project like a thesis or just some small assignments and readings and understanding it completely.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: From a family aspect, my brother was going here, and my mom graduated from ASU. But I also think growing up in Arizona, it's almost a no-brainer. My brother had nothing but nice things to say, everyone I knew who went here loved it. It just seemed like the right thing. I look back and think, "Why would I choose any other school?"

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: It's a tough one, I would say the professor I spent the most time with was Dr. David King. He taught me the importance of critical analysis and also focusing in on the problem. His expertise from his realm of knowledge helped guide my critical way of thinking and analysis mindset.

I also would be remiss if I didn't mention one more professor who had a big impact on my school and life career outside of the academic realm, and that's Dr. Michael Mokwa who leads the ASU Tillman Scholars Program. That class and his guidance was a major part of shaping my definition of success, community service, passion, and values, and it was also during that class I made the decision to change my major. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus? 

A: The time I spent the most was at the student center, but other than that Vista Del Sol. For me, I think it’s not so much the place but the people. The fact that there was always a spot on campus to just hang out with friends or study was always nice.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? ‘

A: In February, I'll start as an emergency medical technician (EMT) with the Tempe Fire Medical Rescue Department. I'm interested in the fire career. It's my inner child, the call to service and the ideal behind it. I do plan to get involved with city boards, planning boards, transportation boards and any of a variety of advisory boards. I think this fire career lends itself to city planning, learning about city government and the zoning and planning behind it. Down the line, I hope to stay in city government, whether it be working in policy or running for office, or getting an online master's while I'm in the fire department. I’ll see where it takes me. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Where to start right? I think something with affordable housing, transportation or anything with accessibility. What form would that take? I think that's the real question but something along those lines to support others. $40 million would probably go fast for trying to solve those bigger problems, but it would be worth a try.

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