Returning to School for a Sustainable

UW Continuum College teams up with campus partners to offer fee-based graduate degrees designed for working professionals like Jessica Brown, who’s using her UW master’s degree to improve sustainability across the Puget Sound region.

Buses, trails and roadways have always been an essential part of Jessica Brown’s life. Growing up in Federal Way, transit was an important way to access higher-paying jobs in the city. As a teenager, she often walked along the shoulder of busy roads that didn’t have sidewalks to get to the bus. And once Jessica was on the bus, she rode an hour each way to downtown Seattle.

While Jessica ended up starting her career as a hydrologist, her interest in transit and access remained. When she reached the mid-point of her career, Jessica was ready for a change. And a chance to work on her true passion — transportation. 

And that’s exactly what Jessica’s done. A 2023 graduate of the UW Online Master of Sustainable Transportation (MST) program, Jessica earned a promotion to sustainability environmental program manager within the Port of Seattle’s Maritime Division. 

“My role is to incorporate sustainability and equity into the maritime division capital program and our operations. And I also work on sustainable ground transportation,” she explains. “The role is more dedicated to sustainability; it’s a higher-grade position and I get to focus on something I’m passionate about.” 

Expanding Her Toolkit

Graduates of UW’s MST degree program have gone on to work in fields such as urban and regional planning, logistics, transportation and sustainability policy. Similarly, Jessica knew she’d need a new credential to land the position she wanted, but she also couldn’t quit her job to become a full-time student.

Fortunately, she discovered the MST program, which opened up a world of opportunities. “That I could keep my job full-time, get a master's degree and move up in my career was a real draw,” Jessica says. “The MST program had all the academic rigor and excellent international reputation of the University of Washington and was on a schedule that I could fit into my life, I found real value in that.”

Jessica Brown at Port of Seattle

Jessica Brown looks out over Port of Seattle.

Even with a program that fit her lifestyle secured, the prospect of returning to school as an adult was daunting. Jessica explains she went into the program worried she wouldn’t be able to keep up due to her life commitments, but as it turns out, being surrounded by people who wanted to keep learning added to Jessica’s experience quite a bit. 

“Many of my classmates were working professionals and I got to hear in real time about how our peers were thinking about applying the course content, which in turn gave me new ideas,” she says. “I got to bond and grow with my cohort. The online experience didn't stop me from making friends and staying connected with people from class.” 

The instructors in the program were equally impactful, as they all brought a wealth of information and experience from working locally in different transportation fields. “Some instructors had been educators for 30 years and others were teaching in the program while working at high-level consulting jobs,” she says. “We got exposed to people with experience in freight transportation, planning, active transportation and community design, which was amazing to draw on.” 

Jessica adds the instructors kept the class engaged by comparing the ways population densities impact different planning strategies and the political barriers communities face when implementing projects. Skills which ended up being vital for her career. 

Living the Dream

Despite her initial reservations, Jessica poured herself into the program. Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the program’s faculty and resulted in her being honored with an unexpected award — the 2022 Master Sustainable Transportation Student of the Year. 

Ed McCormack, the director of the Master Sustainable Transportation program, explains his team gives the Student of the Year award to one exemplary student based on academic achievement, program participation and contributions to sustainable transportation. 

“We give the award to somebody we think that's going to get ahead in sustainable transportation and that's personable and easy to work with. Jessica fits all those categories,” he says. “She had the top one or two cumulative GPAs in the program and right now, she's helping set up an alumni association for the program.”

It's never too late to go back to school. If you’re enthusiastic about learning, you should give yourself a chance and not hold back.

 — Jessica Brown, Alum, UW Online Master of Sustainable Transportation

Ed notes he enjoys watching students graduate from the MST program, advance their careers and impact the larger community. “We don't train technicians and we're not training standard transportation engineers that design traffic signals and roads. We focus on teaching policy, analytical and evaluation skills so students can manage programs,” he says. “We're training people to understand how sustainable and transportation policies affect how transportation fits in our society.”

Jessica’s contributions to the Port of Seattle — a public agency that supports more than 120,000 jobs and $38 billion in business revenue — wouldn’t have been possible if Jessica hadn’t taken the plunge to go back to school. An approach she encourages other students to take. 

“It's never too late to go back. If you’re enthusiastic about learning, you should give yourself a chance and not hold back,” she says. “There's something exciting about being exposed to new information, diving deep into scientific studies and being rewarded for curiosity. It’s the kind of challenge that makes you proud of your accomplishments.”