Creating a More Resilient, Just Future

New Emergency Management & Community Resilience Program Prepares Students to Work in Emerging Field

Female firefighter rests on rock in forest
A firefighter takes a break during the Beachie Creek Fire (Credit: U.S. Forest Service)

Sasha Burchuk was working as a freelancer and running her own furniture design studio when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It gave her an unexpected opportunity to pause and reflect on what's important and where she could help. 

"What do I want to do with my time and how do I constructively contribute to helping people who are in much deeper need than I am?" she recalls thinking.

Headshot of Sasha Burchuk
Sasha Burchuk is pursuing dual degrees in Urban and Regional Planning and Emergency Management and Community Resilience.

She started volunteering with Multnomah County's Emergency Operations Center, working with the Public Information Office to prepare content and communications and found a group of like-minded people.

"I kind of fell into emergency management by accident," says Burchuk, who has been interested in the intersection of the environment and human rights since her undergrad days at PSU.

She had already planned on pursuing PSU’s master's in Urban and Regional Planning, but started looking into whether she could also piece together an independent study in emergency management from the course list. To her delight, she learned that a new master's degree in Emergency Management and Community Resilience had just been approved. Burchuk hopes to be part of the first cohort starting this fall.

She's already given herself a head start, taking "Community Resilience in Socio-Ecological Systems" with geography professor Jola Ajibade, whom she says has changed her life.

"There are other (emergency management) programs but none of them have the critical theory or community resilience dimension that this one has," Burchuk, 36, says.

That unique focus was important to PSU’s President Stephen Percy when he and a group of faculty began envisioning what an innovative program in emergency management could look like in 2017. 

"We took the notion of community resilience to heart," says Percy, who was named interim PSU President in 2019 and its president in 2020. "We wanted to focus on how we work together to help our communities plan for, respond to and come back stronger from a major natural (or other) disaster."

Jeremy Spoon, program director and an associate professor of anthropology, says the Emergency Management and Community Resilience program is launching at a critical time. A few years ago, the threat of a magnitude 9 earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone was on everyone's mind. Now add to that the public health vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 and the increasing wildfires in the West.

"Our program is now situated to respond to these different challenges and to equip the next generation to work in this emerging field," Spoon said. "New jobs are coming out all the time because hazards are occurring more frequently."

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The program brings together faculty from diverse disciplines: anthropology, communication, geography, geology, public administration, and urban studies and planning.

The two-year, 53-credit master's degree combines applied learning with theoretical approaches and offers students:

  • The chance to study in an epicenter of urban and rural opportunity, surrounded by volcanoes, fault lines, forests and the coast;
  • Access to faculty experts with ambitious research portfolios and diverse perspectives on resilience; 
  • More than 120 elective courses, allowing students to tailor their degree to their specific interests; and
  • Capstone opportunities with community partners that provide real-world experience

Field specializations range from natural systems and sustainability to public health response and promotion, organizational strategies for effective emergency management, and social resilience, culture and community.

Students then get to apply their knowledge in a capstone course alongside a community partner. Possible partners include local, state and federal agencies; sovereign Native American nations; nonprofits; international NGOs and agencies; universities; and private companies.

Spoon says the program looks at resilience with a critical lens — whether returning to a pre-disaster state perpetuates social and economic inequalities that helped to cause a disaster in the first place — so that students can be best-equipped to work toward creating a more resilient, just future.

"Disasters impact the poor and marginalized the most, and if you have a systemic issue in society, it's going to be amplified by each hazard," he said. 

For students who aren't ready to take on the full master's degree, the program offers two shorter options: an 18-credit graduate certificate and a non-degree professional certificate program offered through PSU's Center for Executive and Professional Education.

Jackie Boyd stands in front of tree
Jackie Boyd has begun taking classes toward a graduate certificate in Emergency Management and Community Resilience.

Jackie Boyd, who will finish up her master's of public health in Environmental Systems and Human Health this June, plans on completing the graduate certificate to complement her public health focus. Boyd, who as a California native has become used to wildfires, says she first became interested in climate change and its impact on public health during her first quarter as a graduate student. 

"From there, I was really interested in how disasters and climate change are interconnected and what we can do to mitigate climate change and disasters and thus have better health outcomes," she said. 

Boyd says she would love to land a job as a disaster planner for a city or county.

"I'm hoping the certificate will help me become better versed in community resilience and how I can incorporate that into disaster preparedness and education," she said. 

Burchuk doesn't know what the field and job prospects will look like by the time she graduates but knows that she'll be well-prepared.

"I really love doing international fieldwork and at the same time, there are a lot of things here that need attention and support," she said. "I'll be happy as long as I have the opportunity to support people in their growth and self-determination."