Robbie Cook ′13
Hometown: Fort Worth, TX
Major: International Studies/Urban Studies
By Caroline Ponseti ’15
In his college search, Robbie Cook fell in love with the liberal arts school approach—but his affinity for urban design added another necessary criterion. “When it came down to it, I realized I really needed to go to a school in a city,” says Robbie. “I needed to be surrounded by people, by ideas, by energy—not a cornfield.” For Robbie, a senior from Fort Worth, Rhodes’ location in the heart of Memphis made it the perfect fit. “Driving around Memphis, I could see myself getting involved with the organizations that make Memphis unique and significant, and I’ve had the ability to do that through my curriculum.”
Robbie’s studies have allowed him to view Memphis from an angle completely unique to Rhodes. His dual love for international and local politics and interactions inspired him to design his own major, a bridge between Urban Studies and International Studies. “I loved studying the way large countries interact with each other, like the way the United States interacts with nation-states like France,” Robbie explains. “At the same time, I didn’t want to lose community and grass roots aspects.” His challenge was to combine these fields to create a comprehensive curriculum. Robbie dubs his study abroad experience the “lynchpin” that made his major work. On his “Semester at Sea,” he sailed to nine countries around the Mediterranean and studied architecture, art, and religion. “It bridged the gap between theoretical International Studies from Memphis with real-world, practical applications of what I was learning in Urban Studies,” Robbie explains.
From “International Politics Since 1945” to “Green Urban Design in the Mediterranean,” a course he took when he was abroad, Robbie has experienced a truly interdisciplinary major. Though International Studies and Urban Studies are the core of his curriculum, his major incorporates nine departments, including Political Science, Economics, and History.
With the guidance of advisors Dr. Elizabeth Thomas of the Urban Studies Program and Dr. Stephen Ceccoli of International Studies, Robbie has created a solid foundation for his pursuit of a career in international real estate development and city planning. “I don’t have a specific concentration. But to be able to attack it from nine different ways—it was a lot of fun.”
“Robbie has taken advantage of opportunities—and in some cases, created new opportunities—to extend his learning beyond the classroom,” says Dr. Thomas. Robbie participated in the evaluation of HOPE VI, a federal public housing program, as a member of Professor Heather Jamerson’s research team. The team assessed the redevelopment of the Cleaborn Homes public housing area in Memphis. In addition to conducting data collection and analysis, Robbie worked with a variety of stakeholders, including professional planners, city officials, and public housing residents. As a result of his contributions to the evaluation project, Robbie was offered an internship position in the planning department of the Memphis-based architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss.
Robbie’s connection with his professors extends far beyond the classroom. “I’m even renting from Professor Gramm, my Economics professor,” he laughs. Last year, Robbie became the youngest ever member of the Rhodes College Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has three Student Trustee positions to bring student input to three committees: Finance, Academics, and Student Life. Robbie’s position on the Finance and Buildings committee exposed him to the behind-the-scenes view of the construction of the West Village Residence Hall and Refectory renovations. “Everything that we were shown about the renovations was exactly what the student body was being told, nothing was hidden or glossed over,” Robbie says. “It was incredible to observe the transparency between the board and the students, first hand.”
In his sophomore year, Robbie decided to run for the trustee board position, which had traditionally been filled by seniors. “Being a junior during the first meeting, I came in kind of intimidated. I shouldn’t have been. The board was so excited to have a junior voice,” says Robbie. “It was a tough election. But in the end, it was totally worth it.” Due to a natural gap between the board and the students, it’s difficult for student ideas to get into their sphere. “What’s important to me is that I act as a solid bridge between students and the board,” he explains. Robbie and his fellow student trustees plan to host several town hall meetings throughout the year to bring the board’s ideas and plans to the students.
After his graduation, Robbie hopes to implement his studies internationally. “Through this major, Robbie has utilized a comparative approach to investigate planning challenges and opportunities in contemporary sites around the world,” says Dr. Thomas. He has applied for the Henry Luce Fellowship, which awards college graduates yearlong grants to work in Asia. If awarded the fellowship, he would like to work for a government or planning firm in urban development to ensure healthy, livable communities in the prevalent, rapidly urbanizing areas of Asia. With his extensive involvement on campus and in the community, Robbie has taken advantage of all the liberal arts education has to offer—and put his own spin on it as well.