Building mentorships

MURP mentors

Among the many staff, alumni and students who make the MURP mentorship program soar are (from left) Jorge Padilla, MURP assistant director; alum Bryce Bunker; Shereen Danial, mentorship chair of the Urban Planning Student Association, and Nancy Delgado, UPSA alumni chair. Photo by Han Parker

Giving back is part of the MURP program’s DNA

Bryce Bunker was a second-year student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at UC Irvine in 2012-13, when mentorships first launched, connecting Anteaters on campus with MURP graduates in the field.

“I call myself the guinea pig of the program,” says Bunker, who is now Irvine-based Griffin Structures’ program and construction manager. “I was connected with an alumna, and she lived in Long Beach. I was attending UCI but lived in Long Beach at the time, so we met up, we had coffee, we had lunch and built a great relationship.”

It was such a positive experience that after Bunker obtained his degree in 2013 and got a few years of professional experience in the commercial and residential development world under his belt, he became a MURP mentor in 2017.

A council of alumni from the UCI Urban Planning and Public Policy Department took over MURP mentorships the following year, but that panel collapsed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it seemed to take the mentor program with it.

“In 2020,” Bunker recalls, “my email inbox started filling and my phone started ringing again with people saying, ‘Hey Bryce, do you know anything about this mentorship program? Can you help us get it restarted?’ ”

His affirmative answers are now credited by many with saving MURP mentorships for new generations of Anteaters, although when that is repeated back to Bunker, he is quick to interject that he did not resurrect the program alone. In particular, he singles out MURP Assistant Director Jorge Padilla and then-student liaison Victoria Rivera Perez, who is now with the Riverside County planning department.

Thus, it took a master planned village to re-launch the mentorships in 2021, albeit as a remote-only option as the coronavirus lingered. Full-scale operations, including the return of face-to-face meetings between MURP students and mentors, resumed during the 2022-23 school year, although alums who are outside the area continue their meetings online.

“Bryce’s work for the past few years has been invaluable,” Padilla says. “He is one of the many alumni who has contributed consistently to our MURP program and has served as a lifeline between alumni and current students during his years of service.”

Padilla credits Bunker’s efforts since the pandemic with pairing three cohorts of mentees with engaged alumni mentors.

“I always mention to our students that the MURP program does not function with just one staff member — namely, me — and our MURP faculty director,” says Padilla, referencing Associate Professor Nicholas Marantz. “There are multiple people on- and especially off-campus who serve our students and the program. Bryce is one of those people.”

Besides Bunker’s positive mentorship experiences as a student, he believes having been raised by educator parents, living as a child on college campuses throughout the U.S. and interacting with collegians helped direct him to mentoring. His mother, Susan E. Borrego, is interim president of Cal State Stanislaus and previously served as chancellor of the University of Michigan-Flint, and his father, Kyle Bunker, has been an elementary school principal for three decades.

Though the younger Bunker did not go into the all-consuming world of education himself. His role as a program and construction manager keeps him busy enough. “From concept to keys,” Griffin Structures provides construction and management services to deliver hundreds of facilities and projects, including many California government buildings. Work and family life can leave precious few hours to meet with current MURP students, virtually or otherwise.

“I just carved out the time as well as I could, and I did it also through having three babies with my wife,” Bunker says. “There were times where I wanted to hand it off, but maybe I’m a bit too much of a control freak that I wanted to make sure things would go well. It was just easier for me to continue to run it than to have somebody new give it a try.”

His goal these days is to enlist more mentors, as the MURP student cohort is generally double the size of available MURP alumni to mentor them. Many mentor more than one Anteater. Currently being considered, Bunker says, is seeking potential mentors from the broader UCI alumni community beyond MURP as well as the Orange County planning industry as a whole.

“We’re trying to strategize right now and through the summer and going into next fall,” he says. “What’s the best way to get the biggest turnout? Because I’ll get at least 20 new students each year, and I would love for each one of them to have their own mentor to really build a strong relationship with.”

Second year MURP student Shereen Danial is appreciative of the strong relationship she has built with Michelle Drousé Woodhouse (MURP, ’04; B.A. Environmental Analysis & Design, ’01).

“Her extensive insight in various fields of planning has been invaluable as I am exploring which sector of planning is the best fit for me,” says Danial of Woodhouse, who is the chief design strategist with San Diego-based Bayside Engineering Construction and designer-in-residence at UC San Diego’s Design Lab. “Aside from career guidance, she actively supports my academic development by providing me with book recommendations relevant to my interests. I recently finished one — Happy City by Charles Montgomery—and it was fantastic.”

Fellow MURP second year Nancy Delgado is equally effusive about her mentor Jessica Loeper (MURP, ’06), who is chief operations officer, Environmental, Social and Governance with Verandi Partners, a full-service sustainability consulting firm based in Berkeley, and director of ESG at CommonWealth Partners, a Los Angeles-based real estate firm.

“She has been wonderful with offering insight regarding environmental planning, as well as sharing advice on my capstone project, urban planning conferences and job opportunities,” Delgado says of Loeper.

Delgado is the alumni chair and Danial is the mentorship chair of the Urban Planning Student Association. Both intend to graduate this Spring and see themselves fulfilling MURP mentor roles someday.

“Given my positive experience, I could definitely see myself becoming a mentor in the future,” says Danial. “I have been lucky enough to have wonderful mentors, so I would love to one day offer my support to UCI MURP.”

“I have always enjoyed meeting and learning from those who were once in my position, so it would be great to offer encouragement and advice to another MURP student who could benefit,” echoes Delgado.

Speaking of which, to this day Bunker receives encouragement from his MURP mentor.

“I still stay in touch with her,” he says of Melissa Soto (MURP, ’09), who is the Capital Program Development manager in Design & Construction Services at Cal State Long Beach and an active mentor to current MURP students.

Bunker also keeps in touch with lecturer Susan Harden, who has taught the MURP practicum course in 2010, including his 2013 class, and serves on the Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy Leadership Board.

“She actually connected me with my current employer in 2022,” Bunker says of Harden, who is senior managing principal at Circlepoint, an Oakland-based environmental services firm. “We got together for lunch, and she said, ‘Hey, Bryce, I think I’ve got someone you’d be interested in.’ In June, I will have been with Griffin Structures two years.”

Do you know who else keeps in touch with his mentor? Padilla (MURP, ’15).

“I had a mentor in the 2013-14 academic year, and I continue to stay in contact with him,” says the MURP assistant director. “I had lunch with him a few months ago.”

You may know Victor Van Zandt (MURP, ’99) as the longtime president and CEO of the Irvine Campus Housing Authority, but Padilla knows him as “another great UCI MURP alumnus and regular contributor and mentor to our program.”

— Matt Coker