What do you do?
“It was mostly the job that brought me to Alaska,” Manish Singh said about his journey from India to Fairbanks. “Then from the job, it was the opportunity and just how beautiful this place is that led me to stay.”
The son of a police officer and a housewife, Singh grew up in Pratapgarh, a small city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. In school, he excelled in science and math. As a teen, he took engineering exams and was admitted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, earning his bachelor’s degree in architecture.
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After graduating in 2011, “I took a job at a private university. I was working as a consultant and assisting in teaching a couple of courses. That’s when I got interested in what I do today as a career — urban planning.”
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
While exploring the field, he realized there were better opportunities overseas.
“America has a strong system for planning,” he said. “The government and private sectors work together. Unfortunately, other developing countries don’t really have a strong planning framework.”
He continued, “I decided to go to graduate school. With the compatibility of the language and the education itself, I decided to apply to America,” adding, “America is a much more favorable option when it comes to offering jobs to immigrants.”
Singh was accepted into the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for a Masters degree in Urban Planning. While there, he assisted the town of Canton with urban planning and offered proposals that are still in use.
After earning his master’s, Singh pondered where to go in his highly competitive field.
Why did you choose to study urban planning?
I studied planning because I am fascinated by cities. I wanted to help cities to steer the development of their physical, social and economic space to ensure resiliency, opportunity and quality of life. Urban Planning is an interdisciplinary field of study that provided me an opportunity to explore economic development and real estate in addition to the conventional land use and transportation planning.
How did you end up in Alaska?
“I decided to focus on states where not a lot of people would be applying. Alaska was one of them. At that time I thought the place is really cold and not many people want to go there.”
Singh found an opening with the planning department at the Fairbanks North Star Borough and was hired in 2015. Arriving in May of that year, his initial plan was to get a few years of experience then move on to other opportunities, a common career trajectory in his field. What he didn’t expect was that Fairbanks would take hold of him.
Do you like Alaska?
“I made a lot of friends. I started exploring recreational opportunities, lakes and trails. I started enjoying the outdoors, running and biking, pretty much anything that I could do here. That summer changed my perception about Alaska. My conclusion after that summer was, ‘I have a real job, it’s a real city, it has similar challenges as other cities, and my skills could be as utilized in Fairbanks as with any other city. After that summer I decided I would not apply for any other job.”
Outdoor activities were new to Singh. “I have lost a lot of weight since coming to Alaska. I have run the Midnight Sun Run twice. I enjoy running. This is something I could never imagine when I was in India.”
What is your current job and how did your planning degree prepare you for it?
I work as a Planner for Fairbanks (Alaska) North Star Borough focusing at the intersection of policy, land use and economic development. During graduate school, I worked as a research assistant under the supervision of Prof. Stacy Harwood in collaboration with University of Illinois Extension and Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development. I completed economic development studies for the City of Canton, IL that prepared me for my current responsibilities.
What advice would you share with someone who is considering a career in urban planning?
Planning offers the opportunity to work with people so always look for such opportunities where you can contribute in a planning project. Work with you supervisor to craft a capstone project that assimilates your career goals, theoretical background and helps you develop leadership, collaboration and interpersonal skills.
How is the social life?
Singh was also pleasantly surprised to discover the sizable population of Indian immigrants in Fairbanks, which he estimates numbers around 60.
“It’s a close-knit community. There is an Indian group at the university. They have a big celebration of Diwali. They also have smaller celebrations throughout the year. I have seen people from Pakistan, Bangladesh. They join our group, and we have a lot of fun. During the summertime, we often play cricket at the university. Imagine playing cricket in a place where you mostly have snow throughout the year.”
Singh has experienced isolated incidents of prejudice but has mostly found Fairbanks quite friendly. “There have been a few instances on the street where people with probably less education say something or yell at you. But there have been only a few. Mostly it has been a very welcoming experience. I think it has been more welcoming than any other state would be because Alaskans have common challenges.”
He said his coworkers have been especially helpful, although despite being fully fluent in English he sometimes misunderstands American idioms.
“My boss and other colleagues would use phrases and I would ask, ‘What’s getting ducks in a row mean or shooting from the hip?’ I will take my smart phone out and Google it,” Singh said.
Another humorous incident occurred when he took a call from a resident who heard his accent and “thought that Fairbanks North Star Borough has outsourced their planning services to India. I had to explain that I was actually downtown.”
Singh mentioned one fixture of Fairbanks that surprised him. “In India, we have outhouses but it is directly connected to your income. In Alaska, having an outhouse is just part of life. It isn’t about being rich or poor.”
With a thriving immigrant community and strong local interest in his culture, Singh believes Indian businesses could succeed here. “These days, cooking has gone beyond American boundaries. I think a grocery store or an Indian restaurant would be very helpful.”
Singh feels comfortable having one foot in Indian culture and another in Alaska’s.
“There is no way I would consider myself not being Indian. I will always protect that sense of culture within myself,” he said. “That does not mean I do not respect other cultures. I try to blend into other cultures while protecting my own. As an immigrant you have the best of both worlds. It’s not that I only hang out with my Indian friends, I have other friends. My colleagues and other Americans.”
With his wife here, a job he loves, and a lifestyle he keeps discovering more about, Singh plans on staying.
“I have a lot to catch up with what a real Alaskan can do for recreation,” he said.