Wilder School Grad Promotes Quality Housing for the Poor at HUD

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VCU Master of Urban and Regional Planning alumna De Nita Square’s schedule is not for the faint-hearted.

Each workday, her alarm goes off at 2:45 a.m., and she leaves her home in Richmond by 3:30 a.m. so that she can arrive in Washington, D.C., by 7 a.m., at her job as a management and program analyst at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Strategic Planning and Management. After working until 3:30 p.m., she begins her three-and-a-half-hour commute home.

But Square isn’t complaining. The long commute is the result of a new job at HUD headquarters that started in January following a stint at HUD’s Richmond field office. In her new position, Square evaluates HUD programs, recommends improvements and measures the agency’s performance goals.

“What we evaluate and report on goes to the Secretary of Housing, and he, in turn, reports it directly to the President,” Square said.  

Square has made a long career out of supporting efforts to help people find decent, affordable housing, having worked at the Norfolk Community Services Board and the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority before joining HUD’s Richmond field office.

But even with years of work experience, Square often felt she could do her job better if she pursued a master’s degree. She began researching universities with urban planning programs. In the fall of 2008, she contacted VCU Professor John Accordino, Ph.D., who coordinated the master’s program in urban and regional planning at the time.

“One evening after work, I met with him. I was worried about going back to school – about grades and taking tests and preparing for the GRE. But he convinced me I didn’t need to worry,” Square said.

Accordino said new technology can be intimidating for a returning student who has been away from college for a while, and he has respect for professionals such as Square who decide to join the master’s program.

“De Nita's strong work ethic and her desire to get the skills she needed to really help the people she cares about stood her in good stead. It's a pleasure to work with a student like that,” said Accordino. “I'm not surprised that she's been promoted to the national office and I think we'll be seeing more wonderful things coming from De Nita in the future. We're lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her.”

Square’s VCU graduate school experience started in the spring of 2009 with a single housing policy course taught by Michela Zonta, Ph.D., assistant professor of urban and regional studies.

“That was my very first impression of the program and it was a great one,” Square said. “That class put the seal on it for me. I knew I had to get more knowledge to go further. I started off slow, but I went full-time after that.”

For the next two years, Square balanced her responsibilities at HUD with a heavy load of graduate courses. It was a busy blend of work, classes and family.

And the pace became even more frantic for Square in the spring of 2011, when she was planning her wedding and looking forward to graduating in May.

For master’s degree students in planning, the final semester is an especially busy time. Each student prepares a Studio II project, which incorporates lessons learned from earlier classes into a comprehensive plan to address an actual issue or challenge for a real client. Square’s Studio II plan focused on safety improvements to Richmond’s Piney Knolls neighborhood. 

“I really wanted to bring some light into this neighborhood,” Square said. “It’s urban and low-income and developers are reluctant to come in because they saw an area filled with high crime.”

But in the middle of putting her project together, life took an unexpected turn.

“I got very sick. I was tired and in a great deal of pain. Doctors determined I was suffering from H1N1 – swine flu,” Square said.

She missed six weeks of classes. Much of the time she was too sick even to do classwork from home. For the first time in her life, Square began to doubt her ability to accomplish a goal.

“I sort of disappeared. People thought I was on my honeymoon. I was scared. It was one of the roughest times of my life,” Square said.

Her VCU adviser, Ivan Suen, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban and regional studies, was supportive of her efforts to finish her classwork. Her husband and mother also encouraged her. In the end, Square said she “fought with everything I had” to complete her classwork on time for the spring graduation.

Square credits the knowledge and experience she gained through the master’s program for giving her the confidence to apply for the job at HUD headquarters.

“My classes helped me to understand that quality housing is not just about numbers,” Square said. “You need to talk to people involved to really understand a community’s needs.  My classes in housing policy, race and gender, adaptive re-use – really all of my classes – have helped me.”

A year after graduation, Square’s delicate balancing act continues, with a new job, a long commute, selling her house in Richmond and moving the family to Washington. But with a smile, she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You have to work at life. Nothing comes easy,” Square said. “I am very blessed.”