Immigrant Heritage Month: Serena Alexander

During Immigrant Heritage Month, San Jose State University will be telling stories of our students, faculty, staff and alumni who have unique and inspiring immigrant narratives to share. In addition, we will be highlighting our research, scholarship and creative activities that enhance our understanding of immigration and the contributions of immigrant populations to the fabric of SJSU’s campus community and society at large.

Serena Alexander, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning, is of Armenian descent and grew up in Iran.

Serena Alexander, assistant professor of Urban and Regional Planning, is of Armenian descent and grew up in Iran.

Serena Alexander is an assistant professor with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. She is of Armenian descent, but was born and raised in Iran.

“I immigrated to the U.S. in January 2009 with my family and resided in Los Angeles. I later moved to Ohio so that I could complete my doctoral studies,” she said. “I became a U.S. citizen in 2014. Coming back to California and starting an academic position was a dream come true. Aside from the fabulous weather, California’s diversity was a major draw for me.”

Alexander joined SJSU in August 2016 and her research focuses on strategies that communities can employ to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to adverse impacts of climate change. She is working with 23 cities in California to examine ways to reduce transportation emissions and build more resilient communities. She is also involved in analyzing the potential impacts of autonomous vehicles and shared mobility on transportation emissions, among other projects.

She said her immigration experience taught her she is stronger than she thought she was, especially when pushing herself outside her comfort zones; it taught her patience in pursuing goals; and to keep trying to achieve her dreams even when facing obstacles.

“I refuse to accept that my goals might be virtually impossible to reach, I convince myself that I have to work harder or be more creative,” she said.

Her heritage allows her to understand the importance of openness to racial, cultural and value diversity, and the role that building strong and connected communities can play in creating an inclusive environment. She ensures her classroom is an inclusive environment and her students are trained to lead strong and diverse communities effectively.

“Most immigrants want to fully integrate into their new society as quickly as possible, but they may not realize that their unique experiences can help them better solve the problems their families or communities encounter in the new context,” she said. “Maybe we can all encourage them to see a greater value in cultural differences and unique experiences.”

And, of course, she also has her favorite Armenian and Persian foods.

“I will never get tired of sweet but not overwhelming Armenian traditional pastries such as gata,” she said. “Persian food is particularly creative and very balanced but takes a long time to prepare. My favorite is fesenjan, a chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce served over basmati rice.”

Spartans, reach out to us at if you would like to share your immigrant heritage stories.

SJSU Launches Real Estate Program

SJSU Launches Certificate in Real Estate Development

SJSU Launches Real Estate Program

The Certificate in Real Estate Development program will offer students the knowledge and skills needed to initiate, navigate and manage real estate development projects located in existing communities in Northern California.

(Editor’s Note: If you are interested in registering for SJSU’s Certificate in Real Estate Development program, please contact Assistant Professor Ralph McLaughlin at 408-924-5860).

When Arrow Development, the creator of many Disney rides, opened its doors in Mountain View back in the late 1940s, there was plenty of land to grow.

It’s a totally different story now, with the world’s best and brightest cramming into Silicon Valley, making real estate a hot commodity.

So it follows that SJSU’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning is poised to launch a Certificate in Real Estate Development program this fall.

The 12-credit, four-class sequence was developed with guidance from an advisory board chaired by Cabouchon Properties’ Scott Lefaver, who also serves as a Santa Clara County planning commissioner.

Urban and Regional Planning Department Chair Asha Weinstein Agrawal and the board announced the advent of the initiative at the “CRED Symposium Program: The Future Real Estate and Space Needs of the Tech Industry in the Bay Area,” held April 25 in the Student Union.

Around 150 real estate professionals, city planners, faculty members and students gathered to discuss the region’s past, present and future real estate needs. Presentations and panel discussions offered many insights:

  • The stock market’s recovery means “robust demand” for real estate.
  • “Campus is king” as most tech workers want to be close to the CEO and colleagues because “that’s where the secret sauce is made.”
  • There are over 1,000 startups in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.
  • Rather than build anew, startups will continue taking over old buildings — like “hermit crabs.”
  • But filling R&D facilities with office workers means a shortage of amenities — like enough bathrooms!
  • “Open landscapes” are replacing private offices, even for executives.
  • Cell phones, stipends and VOIP are replacing wired phones.
  • Large companies may one day build their own corporate housing.

SJSU President Mohammad Qayoumi opened the event by explaining SJSU intends to create more programs like CRED. Those who complete the program will receive a certificate of completion.

The idea is to develop a series of “stackable certificates” adding up to a regular degree. All the programs would be designed to meet the needs of industry, and classes will be held online and in-person to accommodate people working full time.

CRED Symposium sponsors included Commercial Real Estate Women, NAIOP, Barry Swenson Builder, Urban Planning Coalition, Silicon Valley Business Journal, American Planning Association, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, American Institute of Architects Santa Clara Valley chapter, Corenet Global, Urban Land Institute and SPUR.

7x7SF: Urban and Regional Planning Lecturer Ranks Among the City's Top Thought Leaders

Urban & Regional Planning Professor Seeks to Save Ocean Beach

San Francisco-based magazine 7×7 recently posted its annual Hot 30 list. Among those featured was Benjamin Grant, a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning who also serves as San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR) 
program manager and Ocean Beach Master Plan architect.

Leilani Marie Labong writes, “It’s Indian summer in San Francisco, and temperatures are on the rise. As are the local luminaries in our annual Hot 20, er . . . Hot 30. That’s right. We were so impressed by the crop of talent and brains moving the needle this year—in fields as diverse as technology, music, education, sports, and arts—that we added 10 bright stars to our list…

“Oakland resident Benjamin Grant has devoted the past two years of his career at SPUR to preparing a roadmap for the inevitable: sea-level rise at Ocean Beach, thanks to that leading culprit of environmental havoc, global warming. ‘Ocean Beach isn’t just a piece of infrastructure that needs to be armored,’ says Grant, who holds a master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley. ‘It’s also a national park, a sensitive habitat, and a beloved landscape for the people of San Francisco.’

“The Ocean Beach Master Plan’s approach sets it apart from other urban-design initiatives with six key moves—from native sand-dune restoration to bicycle and pedestrian upgrades north of Balboa Street—to improve and protect the beach. ‘When it comes to climate change, we can’t put our heads in the sand,’ says Grant, whose recent venture into fatherhood deepens his motives. ‘We need to get ahead of it to create the best future possible for Ocean Beach.'”



Silicon Valley/SJ Business Journal: City Planners to Benefit from New Certificate Program

SJSU’s urban planning degree tops for working professionals

Published by the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal April 27, 2012.

By David Goll

The 41-year-old Urban and Regional Planning master’s degree program at San Jose State University is recognized as one of the nation’s most highly rated programs having a reputation for providing practical, real-world lessons for its students.

The program trains planners for a wide array of Bay Area public agencies, from the city of San Jose to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But it also provides a pipeline of talent for privately owned development and construction companies in the region.

It’s the only program in the Bay Area that is geared to working professionals. The only other such Bay Area program — the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley — is considered more theoretical.

“Half of the faculty are practitioners, planning directors and principal planners, who teach students the nuts and bolts of the planning business,” said Scott Lefaver, a member of the program’s first graduating class in 1972, a former faculty member and current chairman of the Santa Clara County Planning Commission. Lefaver is also spearheading a move to establish a planning and development certificate program in the department designed for planners and developers. It’s an effort to expose those in both professions — often at loggerheads — to the requirements of their jobs, the pressures and challenges each sector of the industry faces.

It’s an attempt to create more understanding and cooperation in the development process, Lefaver said. It’s based on a pioneer program at the University of Southern California , where Lefaver earned a doctoral degree in public administration. It will be a “hybrid” format, he said: mostly online with a few face-to-face classes.

As a result of state budget cuts, Lefaver is leading an effort to raise $100,000 from private sources to launch the certificate program. About $80,000 has been raised so far. Lefaver said major contributions have come from John Vidovich, owner of De Anza Properties, a Sunnyvale-based residential development firm, and Charles Davidson, a developer and philanthropist who made a $15 million gift to San Jose State University’s College of Engineering in 2007.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, a San Jose State associate professor and chairwoman of the Urban and Regional Planning department, said state budget cuts have had a major impact on her program. This spring, there are 100 students enrolled, down from a high of 160 a few years ago. As in past years, about two-thirds of her students are professionals working in public agencies and private companies.

“We have a very diverse group of students,” she said. “Many of them are seasoned planning professionals who see our program as a way to advance their careers. But we also have people from unrelated fields, like teachers or high-tech workers, who want to change careers.” The cuts have an impact on future workforce development.

But that hasn’t stopped Weinstein Agrawal from looking at ways to broaden the program’s appeal. One way is by offering Saturday workshops for those who can’t study full-time in such subject areas as Urban Geographic Information System (GIS) Technology.

One of the alumni is Hing Wong, a 1996 graduate, and senior regional planner at Oakland-based ABAG, the regional planning agency for the nine-county Bay Area. Wong teaches a quantitative methodology course in the program.

“Taking quantitative methodology helped me do a much better job analyzing data,” Wong said. “Working in a regional planning organization, you must do a lot of forecasting. Skills I learned in the San Jose State program have helped me to that part of my job.”

During the current semester, the department’s curriculum includes 39 course sections on topics ranging from local politics to introduction to land use, comparative urban design and Urban GIS technology. San Jose State has one of nine accredited programs in California, a group that includes Berkeley, USC, UCLA, the University of California, Irvine; and the California Polytechnic State University campuses at Pomona and San Luis Obispo.

SJSU in the News: Professor Emeritus Who Championed Progressive Movement Dies

Bert Muhly, former Santa Cruz mayor and icon of progressive politics, dies at 88

Originally published by the Santa Cruz Sentinel Dec. 16, 2011.

SANTA CRUZ — Former Mayor Bert Muhly, the two-term city councilman and one-time county planning chief who as a university educator and political kingmaker championed progressive movements ranging from local growth limits to statewide coastal protection and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, died Friday at his home on the Westside.

He was 88.

The cause of death was heart failure, said his wife, Lois, a retired elementary school teacher. The couple, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 50 years, celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in October.

For decades, Muhly employed his education in urban planning to press for government policies that controlled development and safeguarded natural resources. He was also instrumental in electing regional officials to national posts, all while keeping a keen eye on local grassroots political talent who could help him advance liberal causes.

“It was a beautiful place when he moved here,” Lois Muhly said, explaining his political drive. “There were so many fine qualities that he wanted to preserve for his children and grandchildren.”

The former UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University professor was remembered Friday as a passionate and diligent activist who, as part of the vanguard of California environmentalists in the 1960s, contributed to legislation that created the powerful Coastal Commission that now governs development along 1,100 miles of the state’s shoreline.

Countless Democrats turned to Muhly during the last five decades, seeking guidance, fundraising and moral support.

“Bert was a Santa Cruz icon,” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, said Friday from his office in Washington. “I don’t think I’ve seen a person so outspoken on human rights and progressive politics, especially in Central America.”

Muhly traveled more than two dozen times to Nicaragua, including once to deliver a donated ambulance to Santa Cruz’s sister city of Jinotepe. He was strongly opposed to the Contra movement of the 1980s, which was backed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration to battle the Sandanistas after an overthrow of the country’s dictator.

The Muhlys cofounded Three Americas, a nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness and funds, often through the sale of fair-trade coffee, for communities in Central and South America. The group helped to raise $10,000 this year for the Chile-Santa Cruz Friendship Committee, Lois Muhly said.

Bert Muhly served on the City Council from April 1974 to November 1981, and was chosen immediately to serve as vice mayor and then as mayor in late 1974. During his years on the council, Muhly served as the city’s representative to the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, and was at one point the organization’s president.

Retired physician and former mayor John Mahaney, a conservative member of the council, remembered his one-time colleague as standing firm on an anti-growth agenda.

“He was a really honest forthright guy,” Mahaney said. “Sometimes we didn’t agree, but I had a lot of respect for him and his abilities.”

Muhly also was adept at getting friends into places of power, famous for the earthy crab cake fundraisers he and Lois, a former Soquel Union Elementary School District teacher, hosted on their deck.

In addition to advancing Farr’s career, Muhly worked to elect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA and chief of staff at the White House, to Congress from the Monterey area.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane, who worked with Muhly on Panetta’s congressional campaign, said Muhly was one of the first people he came to know when he became politically active in the 1970s.

“He was the sort of the beginning of Santa Cruz moving into a more environmentally conscious and progressive community,” Lane said. “If he supported a cause, then he just drove it forward. He just never let go of it.”

Farr said Muhly helped launch his first campaign for the state Assembly in the 1980s and was instrumental in his 1993 bid to join the U.S. House of Representatives. Farr said he felt as though he was Muhly’s adopted son at times.

“I practically lived in their house in Santa Cruz while I was running my campaign,” Farr said. “The house was full of fascinating people. Every meal was a think-tank discussion.”

Born Louis Bert Muhly in Maryland on June 18, 1923, Muhly earned a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration from UC Berkeley in 1948 and a master’s degree from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the university four years later.

He served as the director of planning for Tulare County for three years and worked for an engineering firm for two years before coming to Santa Cruz County, where he served as head of the planning department and is credited with drafting the county’s first general plan at a time when UCSC was being established.

After nearly a decade in that post, he chose to leave the professional side of municipal planning to be an educator. The move afforded him the opportunity to enter the world of advocacy free of the political constraints posed by his county post.

Muhly was an instructor in the environmental studies program at UC Santa Cruz and later the graduate planning program at San Jose State University, for a total of 19 years. He retired from San Jose State as professor emeritus in 1989 but maintained an active voice in local land use issues.

“He was one of the pillars of progressive politics in Santa Cruz and was particularly influential at a time when community dynamics were changing, and he certainly actively supported more candidates that you could count,” said former mayor Cynthia Mathews, who joined neighborhood activism in the 1970s. “He was certainly very encouraging to me even at that early level.”

The Muhlys wrote to the City Council and Sentinel last month, suggesting Beach Flats Park be named for Scott Kennedy, a former mayor and fellow activist for nonviolence who died Nov. 18.

Lane said the gesture shows Bert Muhly never tired of advocacy.

“He was plugging away until the end,” Lane said.

Lois Muhly said she and her family would wait until after the holidays to make arrangements for a memorial service.

In addition to his wife, Muhly is survived by five children: Patricia Vargas of Santa Cruz, William Muhly of Happy Valley, Jenifer Hutson of Santa Cruz, Janet Windt of Santa Cruz and Ernest Muhly of Soquel. A daughter, Sally, died in 2000. The couple has numerous grandchildren.


BORN: June 18, 1923

DIED: Dec. 16, 2011


OCCUPATION: Professor emeritus, San Jose State; former instructor at UC Santa Cruz, former planning director for Santa Cruz County

CIVIC LIFE: Mayor of Santa Cruz, 1974-1975; member of the City Council from 1974-1981; former president of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments; co-founder of Three Americas nonprofit

Passengers boarding VTA light rail.

SJSU, VTA Research Project Wins International Award

VTA light rail train

SJSU/VTA research suggests parking code requirements for housing near mass transit could be reduced, saving resources for other priorities.

By Pat Lopes Harris, Media Relations Director

We all know what it’s like to pay to park our cars. But what we think about less often is how much it costs to create parking, whether it’s underground, in structures, or on surface lots.

With municipalities placing a high priority on apartments and condos near mass transit, an important question has emerged: How much parking is enough?

In response, SJSU’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning collaborated with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to study parking utilization at 12 South Bay housing developments near VTA light rail and Caltrain stations.

They found that local parking code requirements for such properties could be reduced by as much as 26 percent, saving resources for other priorities.

In recognition of their game-changing research, SJSU and VTA will receive the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ Parking Council Best Practices Award for 2011 at this year’s ITE annual meeting in August. Lecturer Eduardo C. Serafin led the SJSU team, which included more than 20 graduate students. Read a VTA news release on the award. Read the report.

SJSU in the News: EPA Announces SJSU to Help Measure Effectiveness of New Coyote Creek Cleanup Program

U.S. EPA, City of San Jose announce $943,000 pilot program to reduce trash to San Francisco Bay

More than 290 tons of trash removed from San Jose’s Coyote Creek watershed since 2008

News release originally posted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency June 9, 2011.

Read a related San Jose Mercury News story.

Contact Information: Mary Simms, (415) 947-4270,; City of San José: Steve Luckenbach, 408-975-2615,

San Jose, Calif. – San José Mayor Chuck Reed and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld today launched the Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities pilot program at a press conference in San José, California, to highlight a significant pollution problem impacting San Francisco Bay.

The Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities pilot program will be aimed at reducing pollution and improving water quality along a three-mile stretch of Coyote Creek. The program will employ and assist the homeless, deter dumping and litter, and engage neighbors as creek stewards along San José’s Coyote Creek.

“This pilot program uses an innovative and collaborative approach to restore the health of Coyote Creek,” Mayor Chuck Reed said. “I’d like to thank the EPA and our other local partners for providing the bulk of the funding necessary to help foster the long-term stewardship of our local waterways.”

“Trash pollutes the environment, and it spoils our enjoyment of San Francisco Bay,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “EPA is pleased to augment state and local efforts to improve water quality, providing support for a project that will eliminate a major source of trash reaching the Bay.”

The event was held at Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Coyote Creek outdoor classroom where the EPA announced details of a four-year competitive grant to the city of San José in the form of $680,000 in federal funding from the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund. Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $22 million to EPA for a competitive grant program, which now supports 31 projects, leverages more than $13 million, and strengthens partnerships with 40 organizations to protect and restore San Francisco Bay watersheds.

Local matching funds for the grant are being provided by the Santa Clara Valley Water District ($130,000) and the eBay Foundation ($20,000) to support creek cleanup, community engagement, and social service aspects of the project. The City of San Jose’s contribution of $113,000 is allocated to support efforts and is being paid out of the Integrated Waste Management Fund and Storm Sewer Operating Fund.

Trash, toxic household products, and human waste along Coyote Creek between Tully Road and East William Street have severely compromised water quality in Coyote Creek.

In the last three years, the water district and the city have pulled approximately 300 tons of trash from homeless encampments and trash accumulations in Coyote Creek; of this, approximately 150 tons were from the project area.

“Trash not only impacts the fish and wildlife in the creek, much of it ends up in the Bay,” said Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Chair Don Gage. “It’s always best to stop pollution at the source. If this project succeeds, it be could a model for long-term pollution prevention.”

The Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities project seeks to:

  • Engage with targeted communities to expand their role as stewards of Coyote Creek.
  • Work with community organizations to implement effective, innovative methods to engage the homeless in removing trash from Coyote Creek by supplying incentives, training, and a path out of homelessness for up to 50 individuals.
  • Implement a plan to prevent illegal dumping.

This program is made possible with the active participation of various agencies including the city of San José, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Downtown Streets Team, Destination: Home and San José State University.

The success of the pilot program will be measured by its ability to deter trash-generating behaviors through active creek stewardship. The project will start July 2011 with expected completion by June 2015.

SJSU in the News: University Joins Effort to Aid Homeless While Reducing Trash Along Coyote Creek

San Jose snags nearly $1 million in funds to reduce trash, employ homeless along Coyote Creek

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News June 10, 2011.

By Tracy Seipel

On the day that Shannon, desperate and homeless, decided to kill herself, she stumbled upon a program in which the homeless clean up Palo Alto in exchange for housing and food.

If something like that could save her life, the 58-year-old woman said Thursday, then a similar program in San Jose might hold the same hope for others like her — and even help clean up the environment.

That idea is behind a new program called Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities, believed to be the first effort funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of trash that flows into a waterway — aided by the very people who contribute to the problem.

“I’ve never heard of this being tried before,” Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator told a group of about two dozen supporters gathered at the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Coyote Creek Outdoor Classroom, near a well-manicured downtown San Jose neighborhood.

Local officials say much of the trash along Coyote Creek comes from homeless people living along its banks. If they could be rewarded with vouchers for food and housing to pick up garbage along the creek, they might also find the encouragement to leave the creek area and transition into more permanent jobs and housing.

“We know the source of the trash in Coyote Creek that goes into the bay,” Blumenfeld said, referring to the people who have set up camp there. But, he stressed, the program must be run “through a partnership that inspires and creates dignity.”

In the past three years, Blumenfeld said, 180 tons of trash were collected from Coyote Creek by the city of San Jose, Santa Clara Valley Water District and volunteers.

Debris gets caught in the creek’s vegetation, damaging the habitat many species rely on and thwarting salmon from passing and breeding.

All told, the funding announced Thursday for the unusual project totals $942,000, the bulk of it from the EPA.

Downtown Streets Team, the nonprofit Palo Alto-based program that Shannon joined last year, will oversee the San Jose effort for the next four years, starting in July.

“The model we have in Palo Alto proves it works,” said the program’s executive director, Eileen Richardson, who attended Thursday’s event. “The big thing is restoring the hope and dignity to these women and men — making them feel like part of a team.”

Since 2005, Richardson said, her organization has taken almost 200 homeless people in Palo Alto off the streets and given them jobs, apartments or both.

But the San Jose plan is more expansive. After a count of the homeless is completed at the end of this month along Coyote Creek — where she believes at least 100 people live in encampments — Richardson hopes 18 will participate in the program. Her goal is to move 50 homeless people into permanent homes after two years.

Thursday’s announcement was especially satisfying for San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo, who spearheaded the San Jose plan with his staff two years ago after seeing what Richardson had done in Palo Alto.

“Homeless have been seen as the problem,” he told those gathered near the creek, “but we see homeless as part of the solution.”

In addition to the $680,000 EPA grant, the Santa Clara Valley Water District contributed $130,000, followed by the city of San Jose with $112,000 and $20,000 from eBay.

But at least one homeless man who attended the event seemed skeptical.

“There are programs that work and programs that blow smoke,” said Andrew Costa, 58, who has been homeless and living along Coyote Creek since he was laid off from his job at Safeway in February.

Added Costa: “I’m just trying to figure out if this is going to work.”

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.

  • $386,000 to the city of San Jose to manage the program and train the homeless
  • $137,000 to assist the city’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative
  • $117,000 for security measures to prevent illegal dumping
  • $40,000 to San Jose State to measure the trash pickup
  • $262,000 in matching funds from San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and eBay, to boost all of the above
    Source: EPA