By Seema Thomas

The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent or should not be attributed to any organization. 

I arrived at Penn to study engineering, but over time I unintentionally evolved into an urban explorer looking at every dimension of urban life through the lens of Philadelphia. As an undergraduate, I was excited to be living in the fifth largest city at the time in the United States, intentionally chosen by me for its size, scale, diversity, and landscape.  Water was a fleeting thought when I began undergrad at Penn, not considering water in any substantive way prior to Penn.

Penn changed that. 

Inevitably, I began to notice the Schuylkill River during my frequent walks to Center City and slowly my relationship with water began to change. During my sophomore year, I stumbled upon an interesting oceanography course. It was a fascinating class where we discussed physical and chemical properties of seawater, and environmental issues related to the marine environment, naturally connecting them to local issues. Our professor connected what happened across two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to our daily lives in urban areas. Good university courses extend beyond the limits of classroom prompting us to continue to make other connections and hypotheses– I began to think about the well water on my grandparents’ farm to my day-to-day consumption (and even waste) of water. Then later as a Team Leader for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, one of my students, Tiffany, a bright-eyed kindergartner at Powel Elementary begged me to take her fishing. In an urban setting, I had no idea how to do this, so we spent an entire Sunday afternoon trying to fish in the Schuylkill. It didn’t work and I ended up buying a bagged goldfish from a nearby pet store to make amends.

After completing my undergraduate studies in engineering, I began applying engineering frameworks to cities, which ultimately made me shift career paths without leaving behind the engineering frame of mind. I shifted gears to urban planning and urban policy – thinking about the factors that impact how some communities thrive for some and how others fall short. During my graduate studies, I dove deeper into water- exploring devastated landscapes, learning more environmental justice, and discovering urban ecosystems. Beyond theory, I got involved in the application of what I learned, heading to New Orleans post-Katrina for a community mapping project and exploring its nearby wetlands, and even travelling to Laos to understand how hydropower projects impact surrounding communities.

Upon graduation from graduate school, I began working at DHS’ Science & Technology Directorate with a specific interest in disaster preparedness for underserved communities.  When an interesting opportunity to work at the nexus of local governance and urban development arose, I pivoted from the domestic scale to the international scale. At the World Bank, I began working on the intersections of local governance and water with an emphasis on citizen participation. This entailed working with communities and civil society groups in Tajikistan, Benin, and Niger to thinking about connectivity and understanding technology’s impact in urban sanitation on the back burner in its relationship to water in the front. Finding ways to support communities with local solutions based on local contexts became the cornerstone of my understanding of water.

Eventually I became an adjunct professor at the HBCU, University of the District of Columbia, also my father’s alma mater, working with many first-generation college students. To instill the importance of water, I crafted simulations (role playing) using real-world municipal water challenges, illustrating the role of political and economic forces with an emphasis on institutions and sustainability.

While my initial relationship with water could have been characterized as indifference, I have a markedly different perspective now, where I now understand the critical role that it plays in my life and the communities we serve.  I feel immense gratitude to Penn’s urban ecosystem and its array of studies, which spurred my ongoing interest in water today. 

Seema Thomas has been working on community development challenges for the past two decades. Her career has focused on developing and expanding innovative and inclusive initiatives to support communities from the neighborhood to the metropolitan scale, both domestically and internationally. She was an adjunct professor of urban sustainability at the University of the District of Columbia. In the past, she has consulted and worked for numerous organizations, such as the World Bank, DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate, Freddie Mac, the Urban Institute, and Oliver Wyman & Co. She graduated from Penn with Bachelors in Engineering, and holds a master in urban planning from Harvard and a master in public affairs from Princeton. Views her own.