Aaron Gerard: Building Community Through GIS

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After two years with the Peace Corps in Namibia, teaching English and, maybe, GIS, Aaron Gerard, '19 Urban Studies, envisions building a housing co-op in Tacoma's Hilltop.

Aaron Gerard, ’19, Urban Studies/Community Development & Planning, had a non-linear path to graduation. Moving on from Washington State University and Seattle Central College, Gerard ultimately found his niche in the Urban Studies Program at UW Tacoma. The key to his success here? “The people around me keep me involved,” he said. “In Urban Studies, we’re our own community. We watch out for each other and encourage each other to keep going even when it’s stressful or difficult.”

Gerard’s dream is one day to buy a house on Hilltop that can work as a co-op to serve the community. Some of the projects he hopes to launch under the umbrella of the co-op include a community garden, a shared library, and a public clothing and water exchange for the surrounding communities. “There’s so much we have to compete for in the world, but imagine how much we could get done if we all worked together,” said Gerard. “My goal with starting a co-op would be to work with locals and legacy residents to meet basic needs as well as encourage education, specifically with digital mapping to increase awareness about community concerns.” Inspired by UW Tacoma’s mission as an urban-serving university, Gerard said, “Ultimately I want to be able to give back to the people in Tacoma where I’ve lived most of my life.”

“The environment at UW Tacoma as an urban-serving university fostered a diversity in age, ethnicity, and background, which helped me to gain a better understanding of others and the needs of our community.”
— Aaron Gerard

Gerard began a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Washington State University (WSU). Feeling lost in the crowd of large classes and a scattered community, he decided he needed a change and applied to UW Tacoma. “The first time I applied, I was rejected because of my grades,” he said. “My classes at WSU were huge, and lacked a personal touch that made connections with teachers and engagement difficult for me.”

To bring up his grades, Gerard went to Seattle Central College for two quarters before applying to UW Tacoma again. He was accepted in autumn 2017 and started on campus during winter quarter. “There were so many reasons why I wanted to come to UW Tacoma — the smaller class sizes, the ability to form closer connections with professors, and because it is more flexible for working students. It also came highly recommended from my brother and sister who are alums,” said Gerard.

Gerard found a passion for community building and digital mapping through the Urban Studies program. “I really wanted to learn more about cities, how they’re built and how they operate,” he said. “I’m interested in social work, and thought these studies would give me a better understanding of how to bridge the gap between theory and practice.”

Gerard had the opportunity to work with the Tacoma Housing Authority as a community development intern which deepened his interest in city planning as well as sustainable and affordable housing. “I’m still not completely sure what I want to do as a career, but my top considerations are social work, teaching, and public administration,” he said. “Right now I am volunteer-teaching Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) to three students at Tacoma's Lincoln High School. I want to foster active, hands-on learning and a sense of investment in our own communities. It’s challenging and extremely rewarding.” The students are receiving school credit for their participation.

In keeping with his dedication to education and adventure, Gerard will be joining the Peace Corps shortly after graduation. “I’ll be in Namibia for two years teaching English,” he said. “ I haven’t been assigned to a city yet, but my hope is that I will be able to incorporate teaching about community mapping to show what a valuable tool it can be to both rural and urban areas to understand how a city functions as well as how it can improve.”

Return to 2019 Commencement: The Husky Family

Written by: 
Catarina Terrill / June 12, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu