Laura Keir ’10

Laura Keir Profile PicDegree: B.A. in Conservation Ecology from Sterling College; M.S. in Natural Resources from University of Vermont

Where do you currently work? What is your job title? I am a Planner at Rutland Regional Planning Commission in Vermont.

What is a typical day like for you? A typical day as a planner involves a mix of work on the computer as well as being out in the community. I am often in contact with multiple towns throughout the Rutland Region—from answering questions about grant opportunities, to helping a town update its emergency operations plan, to spreading the word about an upcoming training.

There are very busy days when deadlines are coming up or things are happening that must be responded to quickly, and then there are slower days when I can catch up on tasks that have been pushed aside for too long.

I often have the opportunity to interact with my colleagues in the office, officials from towns, professionals at other regional planning commissions, nonprofit organizations, and state employees.

What qualifications and qualities do you need for your job? To be a planner you need at least a bachelor’s degree, and many planners have a master’s degree—however, a degree in planning specifically is not usually required. A degree related to natural resources is very helpful, and other training can be acquired on the job. For instance I recently became a Certified Floodplain Manager through my current work.

In terms of skills and experience, written and oral communications are critical. It is good to have had experience with managing multiple projects and tasks simultaneously (like being a Sterling student and having an on-campus job!). Having worked in a setting where you are involved with local government is a plus, and being familiar with Vermont communities and politics is necessary.

What led you down this career path? I am passionate about involving citizens in environmental decision-making, in a way that is meaningful and allows policy and community decisions to be shaped by all kinds of people. Being a planner means that every project I work on is for a community or the region, and must be shaped by citizens. So it is very rewarding to help organize meetings and trainings for communities, to sit down with local officials and residents to create a town plan, and to be a conduit for information and opportunities which communities would otherwise not be aware of.

I may not be a planner for the rest of my career, but this job provides an interesting mix of environmental and social issues while always staying connected to local decision-making.

What’s been the most rewarding experience in your career thus far? At this point in my career, I cannot point to a single rewarding experience, but I do find satisfaction each time I am able to help a community solve a problem or seize an opportunity. If I can use my skills, experience, and knowledge to help a town apply for a grant for a needed project or access training for local officials, I know that I have helped make that community a better place. My job is to be a resource for communities in wading through many of the requirements that come from the state level, which can be a very tough thing for small Vermont towns to manage on their own.

Aside from my current job, it was extremely rewarding to finish graduate school! After two years of hard work, lots of research, studying and writing, what a relief it was to finish my master’s degree. And just in the past few weeks, I have had two journal articles published in academic journals as a result of my graduate school research, which feels like a big accomplishment.

And the frustrations? Because Vermont does not have county government, yet regional planning commissions function at a county-wide scale, this can be tricky to navigate. As a regional planner I am stuck in between state government—which makes the rules and municipal government—which must abide by the rules. So often I relay rules from the state, and try to help towns meet new requirements, which can cause some backlash from struggling towns.

How would you describe Sterling – in one word? Hands-on

What do you value from your Sterling experience?  Sterling exposed me to the variety of environmental work going on in Vermont communities and organizations. I visited organic farms, spent time at the statehouse, worked with nonprofits, and generally went out into the world and got my hands dirty! I value the hands-on learning that I had at Sterling, and the adaptive, practical, and creative professional it has made me.

Certainly being involved in the work program was useful in exposing me to different kinds of work, and building my professional skills. Doing a Senior Applied Research Project was also an important introduction to research, and how to design, stick with, and finish a longer-term research project.

What experiences or courses at Sterling contributed to your career path?  I knew before I came to Sterling that I wanted to pursue dialogue processes, and throughout my time at Sterling this led me to study how citizens are involved in environmental decision-making. The independent study courses that I pursued at Sterling were critical to my learning in this field, including being able to design and facilitate on campus dialogues. My Senior Applied Research Project was an extension of this work, and helped me make connections that led to my first job after graduating. Courses with Farley Brown like Environmental Policy & Law and Land Use Planning contributed to the knowledge and experience I bring to my career.

What is your fondest memory of Sterling? I always loved being able to walk down to the Sterling Farm—especially as the sun was setting after dinner—and visit the animals. The farm animals were always a comfort to visit and bond with. How often do you get to live in a spot so beautiful, with the rolling hills and fields?

What advice would you give current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours? Get as much work experience as you can, regardless of whether it is directly related to the career you are pursuing. Employers want to see that you are reliable and can do quality work, and that you have been able to hold down a job and have excellent references from it.

Stay in touch with past colleagues—and even the professionals you meet once at a conference—whether it’s just through LinkedIn or occasional email updates. You may be surprised how much an ambitious young person can impress upon the memory of a more experienced person in your chosen field, and how that person may be willing to help you out to further your career.