Urban studies student Dafne Hernandez-Banderas explores cities to learn

Growing up, Dafne Hernandez-Banderas noticed people.

She watched people in coffee shops, at bus stops, in the library, and at her high school in Los Altos Hills, California. She noticed children arguing with their mothers, couples holding hands, friends laughing over their lunches, and individuals standing alone.

City study illustration

“I would just watch people’s interactions, noticing their differences,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by what people do, why they do it, and how that impacts everyone else.”

Years later, as a junior transfer student at Seattle Pacific, Hernandez-Banderas found herself observing people yet again. This time, she was in a bustling local coffee shop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on an assignment for her “Introduction to Urban Studies” class. She recorded in a journal her observations of people passing through the shop, from the ways some people avoided interacting with strangers to how smoking cigarettes and walking dogs drew other strangers together.

“Urban studies is the study of the city as a living organism — how its organizations and institutions interact and impact society,” she says. “I got to know my new city by watching the different people who make up the society.”

In June, Hernandez-Banderas will become the first graduate of SPU’s urban studies program — the only program of its kind in Seattle. Katherine Nesse, director of urban studies and assistant professor of sociology, points out that while other related programs in the city have more narrow focuses, SPU’s program takes a holistic, interdisciplinary perspective and includes practical skills.

Students explore city planning, urban politics, public policy, demography, sociology, and social inequality, with the goal of developing new strategies to positively impact urban communities. Professors from four disciplines — urban studies, sociology, history, and theology — teach the core courses, and elective courses span nine departments.

“I got to know my new city by watching the different people who make up the society.” —Dafne Hernandez-Banderas

“So much of modern life is shaped by cities,” says Associate Professor of Missiology David Leong, who teaches urban studies elective courses on urban and cross-cultural ministry. “This is as true today as it was for ancient Rome. Rather than retreating from cities, Christians have wonderful opportunities to serve, listen, and be transformed by urban communities.”

At SPU, urban studies only starts in the classroom. Course projects frequently propel students off campus to conduct research, and all students complete at least two internships.

“As an urban Christian university, if we’re actually going to act on our faith and fulfill our mission to engage the culture and change the world, we must understand the institutions and structures of the city around us,” says Nesse.

Last summer, Hernandez-Banderas landed a two-month internship at the Family Law Facilitator’s Office for the Superior Court of California in San Mateo County. The office offers free legal counsel on domestic cases for residents who cannot afford attorneys.

Hernandez-Banderas assisted attorneys by taking notes at court hearings and helping clients with paperwork. She also ran a weekly workshop on divorce processes, where many attendees were domestic violence victims who thought the process would require expensive attorney’s fees or court appearances.

“They were usually afraid and needed someone to listen,” she says. She listened to their stories and walked them through the required paperwork and legal steps.

“If we’re actually going to act on our faith and fulfill our mission to engage the culture and change the world, we must understand the institutions and structures of the city around us.” —Katherine Nesse

Other clients came into the office facing eviction or trying to escape a housing situation where they faced rising rent or domestic violence. “I saw a lot in person that I then studied in the classroom at SPU,” says Hernandez-Banderas. “I couldn’t believe what they had gone through. When I worked on class projects after that, I remembered the people I had worked with and their stories.”

After the internship, she wrote a paper for course credit on tenants’ rights in California, drawing on research and her own experience in the law office. Last autumn, she took a class on housing and community, where students worked in groups to find homes for hypothetical families in the face of Seattle’s housing shortages and soaring rent. In another class, she used a digital tool called ArcGIS to create maps comparing income to race and housing in California and Seattle communities.

“Dafne is incredibly intelligent and never daunted by challenges,” says Nesse. “She’s soft-spoken, but very thoughtful. Often she’ll quietly enter a class discussion with an idea that no one else considered.”

In January, Nesse connected Hernandez-Banderas with an internship at the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber supports businesses in South Seattle’s Rainier Valley, one of the city’s most diverse districts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hernandez-Banderas serves as assistant to Executive Director Susan Davis, spearheaded the redesign of the chamber’s website, and manages community events.

Most recently, she planned a luncheon for business owners to learn marketing techniques from a Google representative and organized the chamber’s annual silent auction, raising scholarship funds for area high school students. Currently, she is helping plan an event showcasing the stories of women and minority business owners to illustrate the importance of shopping locally.

Dafne Hernandez- Banderas
“Dafne is one of the best interns I’ve ever had,” says Davis. “Every day is different here. You have to be energetic and detail-oriented, ready to work hard and listen. Our employees have to care about what we’re doing and who we’re serving. Dafne does all of those things.”

Hernandez-Banderas is already putting her class knowledge to work. She used ArcGIS to create a map for the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce. The map shows the disparity of school funds across the southern neighborhoods in Seattle and will be displayed at the auction.

“It’s so valuable to be an urban studies major in Seattle because I get to witness firsthand the topics we discuss,” she says. “The issues I’m studying affect me and those around me. I have become a part of this city.”

Hernandez-Banderas plans to work in Seattle for a few years before attending law school, where she will study family or immigration law.

Wherever her career takes her, she is sure it will involve watching, listening to, and engaging with people.

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