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In the face of personal hardship, ASU planning grad is guided by purpose

Keith Morphis, a Master in Urban and Environmental Planning fall 2020 graduate from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, with his family. Photo courtesy of Keith Morphis

December 11, 2020

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

Keith Morphis is a model of possibility. In March 2020, amid the sudden shuffling to online instruction, binge buying, and social uncertainty brought upon by COVID-19, Morphis fought his own silent battle.

He was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.

Upon receiving the news, Morphis, a Master in Urban and Environmental Planning fall 2020 graduate from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, didn’t shudder. Instead, undaunted, he matched personal calamity with action.

“All right, I have cancer, what's the plan?” Morphis recalled saying to his doctor moments after receiving his diagnosis. “Everyone faces challenges, but I think as human beings our measure is how quickly we can get back up.”

When times were hard, Morphis says he found stability in his school work.

In the spring 2020 semester, Morphis completed an intensive coursework of 18 graduate-level units, worked as a full-time intern for the city of Scottsdale and served as a teaching assistant. All of this on top of periodic visits to the hospital. 

“There were times when it became difficult, but in a way, having all those classes actually helped me,” Morphis said. “School helped me block out the noise; I just tried to make a schedule and keep busy.” 

Morphis had a successful surgery in June 2020 that removed the entire cancerous tumor. Three weeks later, he was back at his internship and refocused on his studies. 

“Keith has this really positive energy and enthusiasm, he’s always in a good mood, and after talking to him, I’m in a good mood, too,” said Rebecca Reining, manager of graduate programs for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “When I learned about the challenges he’s faced, I was in awe. He never complained, never let it get him down. He really inspired me.” 

Inspired to become an urban planner following the birth of his son in 2015, Morphis left a successful career in finance to follow his passion and attend graduate school at ASU — all the more challenging, as it meant being away from his wife and son, who live in Las Vegas, for two years. 

“When my son was born five years ago it sparked in me, ‘I want to make the world a better place for him,’” Morphis said. “I had this opportunity to be here, to be fully immersed for a year and a half to two years and I was going to make the most of it. With cities and urban planning, there's so much to fix; this is for him.” 

Motivated to be reunited with his family full time as soon as possible, Morphis loaded up his fall 2020 course load on top of completing two internships and continuing his role as a teacher’s assistant. He will be graduating a semester early.  

“Keith has really taken the initiative to pursue opportunities to enhance his education, and make the most of his time here,” Reining said. “I believe that what you get out of a graduate degree, and life, depends on what you put into it, so I won’t be surprised to see him flourish.”

Morphis has secured a full-time position with the Maricopa County Department of Transportation as a transportation planner. His family will be joining him in Arizona in the coming year. 

“Life isn't always an easy route. Don’t let it dissuade you,” Morphis said. “Overcoming your biggest challenges usually feels the greatest. Always keep striving, keep pushing forward, don't let things get you down.”

We asked Morphis a few questions ahead of commencement. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I like the Southwest. I like the culture and the climate in this part of the country and ASU is the premier university in the region. Being the largest, it also had the most resources, so I feel it gave me the best opportunity to learn especially since Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation and a lot of planning problems would be addressed here. 

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

A: That's a hard one. I feel bad because I feel like they all have something to teach, you know, it just depends. Dr. Ehlenz has been really great with helping me understand writing and placemaking; Dr. King with transportation and having a holistic approach looking at transportation systems and land use; Eileen has been great because she's helped set me up for graduating early, helping me understand the system and looking for opportunities. I mean, it's like a list of everyone there. Everyone contributed something — like Barbara was really great, she helped me with contacting people and trying to set up internships.

Q: What's the best piece of advice you'd give to those still in school?

A: Be open-minded about learning things. Be open-minded to learning other subjects or things that are not related to planning. I took a real estate class and a public administration class. It dealt with areas that are linked to planning but not necessarily planning. In order to be a better student of your expertise see how it relates to other things that it connects to because a lot of times I think people just kind of get stuck in the weeds of their area. Be open-minded to learning other topics that may not be directly with what you want to learn but related. 

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: A lot of my growth is understanding issues. Coming from a middle-class, suburban background, I thought (planning) was going to be very cut and dry like economics — just get rid of these policies and you can fix everything. It’s not cut and dry. There's a lot of issues, a lot of history that needs to be overcome for certain issues to be resolved. There's deeper human connections of understanding. We're telling stories. Everyone has a story and so assuming that we can just flip a switch and everything is fixed is not accurate. You need to really affect human connection to resolve issues.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I spent a lot of time in the computer lab actually. Especially during COVID, I wanted access because for me it was about that structure. I joke that I probably spent a good 10% to 15% of my actual time in Arizona in that room.

Also, there is the concrete table that's out by the elevator on the fifth floor (Coor Hall). I would get something to eat and hang out there and enjoy the quiet and solace. I used to be there on the weekends before COVID and I would enjoy it because the music school is nearby and there'd always be one or two students playing their instruments. I would just sit there, eat my sandwich and enjoy the music. It’s beautiful. I would say, ‘I'm never going to get this again. This is just peace.’”

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

A: Something on a local level. I would use it to lobby a housing policy that's a little less restrictive or maybe improve bike infrastructure in Las Vegas because it’s pretty bad inside the city.

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