By Laura Phelon

Professor Stephanie Kelly of Geography and Regional Planning (GARP) at Westfield State University (WSU) is no novice to the department. For a long time, she was the only female in the department where she began teaching in 1986. Since that time she has attracted nearly 700 non-planning majors to her courses. Best known for being a role model to young female students, she has mentored 102 female students and explained how women play an active role in the field to over 300 male students. She has many connections and frequently connects students with internships. It’s no surprise that with all this hard work, she’s being recognized with the Faye Seigfriedt Award.

Each year, Massachusetts’ Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA-MA) honors one planner who has significantly contributed to the advancement of women in the field of planning. Kelly was the 2011 recipient. Kelly received her honor at the Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors Annual Awards and Holiday Luncheon at Faneuil Hall in Boston this past December.

The award efforts were led by colleague professor Marijoan Bull. In addition to sending a letter recommending Kelly for the award to the APA-MA, Bull had to collect a total of 15 letters of support from fellow professors, former students now working in the planning field, and one current student.

Though the process was a long one, Bull was happy to support her colleague.

“It is important to acknowledge the work of people who choose careers where they can make a difference, and we so infrequently take the time to celebrate accomplishments,” Bull said. “Professor Kelly has nurtured the Regional Planning program at Westfield into a strong, well respected degree.  I have seen how hard she works and the long hours she puts in to support her students. I felt that her 25 years of work deserved recognition.”

Former student Christine Flynn attributes Kelly as the reason she is currently working in the field. Originally a political science major, Flynn took several geography and planning classes for fun, something Kelly noticed.  One day during her junior year, Flynn was approached by Kelly and encouraged to meet with her to go over the requirements for the GARP department just in case Flynn ever wanted to change her major.

Now the Economic Development and Affordable Housing Planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Flynn remains grateful for Kelly’s support and encouragement both during her time at Westfield State and afterward.

 “Professor Kelly has always provided candid and honest advice, and has been a great sounding board for both students and colleagues,” said Flynn. “Her constant support throughout my academic and professional career has made my life that much easier and for that I will always be grateful.”

In many cases, Kelly is directly responsible for placing female GARP students at internship sites. Students joke that she has professional connections in nearly every state and can always find the right match for them.  Current student Elizabeth Abate ’12 already had a deep respect for Kelly after she dropped everything to help her improve her grade in her “Legal Issues in Zoning and Planning” course to prevent her from withdrawing, so naturally Abate turned to her when looking for an internship site. Kelly placed Abate with a developer in Worcester, but her support didn’t end there.

“Even after I got my internship she would call me with encouragement and see how everything was progressing,” Abate said.

Once students graduate, Kelly remains in touch with them, often inviting them back to campus to speak to her classes about their work.

“Her commitment to women students does not end at graduation, as she is there down the road to assist with graduate school decisions or forward job opportunities,” Bull said.

Kelly also reaches to students outside the GARP department. Her course “Introduction to Community Planning” is a big hit to non-GARP majors and has taught them the importance planning plays in communities. Recently, she collaborated with a general mathematics course that required students to use Google Sketch-Up to model buildings in downtown Westfield, applying practical math skills to the field.

Kelly is humble, yet appreciative of the award.

“It was extremely gratifying to me that the American Planning Association recognized my lifetime work,” Kelly said. “The award validates my career goal to mentor and serve as a role model for future planners.”

Throughout her career, Kelly has worked in a variety of different planning environments including developing strategic plans for medical clinics in Brazil, Australia, and Thailand. She has both studied and taught abroad during her sabbaticals. At local level, she served on the Sustainability Committee in Northampton that developed action plans to create pedestrian-friendly pathways across the city, improve energy efficiency in municipal buildings, and develop pocket parks. 

Despite her experience in the field, Kelly says she’s most proud of her work inside the classroom.

“My passion still is teaching students professional planning skills, and preparing them to make decisions that will shape our communities for a sustainable future.”