Gavin Schaefer

Student spotlight details

MSc in Sustainable Urban Development student, Gavin, found the transformation in thinking during the programme remarkable, from stubborn idealists to conscientious debaters through extensive in-class discussions.


'Before I enrolled in the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development I was in Vancouver working on large-scale global projects as an architect. With this background, I was well-versed in progressive environmentally sustainable building techniques in dense cities. Through my volunteer experience in the community, I was slowly developing a more holistic understanding of how design fits into the bigger picture of the built environment, and that left me with quite a few questions that my training had not prepared me for.


'While working as an architect, I kept discovering the challenges of implementing sustainable solutions in the built environment were not necessarily ones of design. Instead, I found that it was the complex interplay of finance, policy, real estate, construction, and design acting together that restricted progress in this area. I wanted to learn more about how I could position myself in this conversation beyond my narrow professional training. By pursuing the MSc, my ambition was to broaden my foundation of sustainable practice in the built environment through interdisciplinary studies.


'Perhaps because I was coming into the programme with the mentality of a professional, I started with an expectation that I would be finding answers through my enrolment. Instead, the pedagogical approach starts with a robust training of critical thinking and unpacking of how complex the problems of sustainability truly are. As a result, what I left with were more questions.


'This came as a surprise as most of my other education was focused on training in practice, and not questioning the practice itself. The transformation in thinking of our class during the programme was remarkable, as we stopped being stubborn idealists and started becoming conscientious debaters through extensive in-class discussions. Certainly, this is the skill set required to tackle complex global issues impacting people from different places in different ways, but by no means does it come easy.


'The quality of the classes and readings were excellent, but if I were to focus on what I found most enjoyable it was the relationships built with my fellow classmates and tutors. I had not had the opportunity in my life to be exposed to so many intelligent people from a global background, so it was humbling to hear the expertise that my colleagues brought with them. Putting the problems that I faced into a broader context helped me achieve a level of distance, which provides an opportunity for a clear-headed analysis. I keep in touch with my colleagues, and it’s surprising how often our paths cross in the world.


'With a bolstered background in policy, real estate, and finance, I am furthering my knowledge of sustainable construction by working at Katerra in Seattle on large-scale pre-fabricated mass timber projects across North America. The use of wood and off-site fabrication offers numerous benefits, but as I have learned throughout my career the challenges are not necessarily technical. Navigating complex policies, getting financing, and thinking about problems holistically is a large part of my current role. My studies at Oxford have well prepared me, and I am excited about a challenge that draws from a wide range of backgrounds. To this end, I am also halfway through getting my designation through the RICS, which was a unique opportunity offered by the MSc being an RICS-accredited degree.


'Like most things in life, you will get out of the programme what you put into it. Budget a lot of time to dive into the readings, to reach out to your colleagues, and have discussions with the excellent faculty. If you do this and bring an open mind, you can look back on your time at Oxford as some of your most fulfilling and intellectually stimulating days. I will always recall the programme fondly, and I have pride in putting so much of myself into facing the complex challenges posed by Sustainable Urban Development.'


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