Elijah Mason stepped through the door of his second-ever UW College of Built Environments (CBE) class. He was nervous, but also excited. “I chose the course because it was a planning practicum,” explains Mason. “We were going to be doing real work for the community, not just handing in assignments.”
Mason arrived about 15 minutes before the start of class and walked in on Urban Design and Planning Teaching Associate David Blum, who had also arrived early for the first day. According to Mason, Blum was startled to see him. “He could clearly tell that I wasn’t from Seattle.”
Blum and Mason developed a friendship from their initial encounter that changed Mason’s college career. “Having Blum in my community opened doors to crazy experiences I never thought I’d have in my college experience, or even in my life,” says Mason.
The search for community ties
Community is everything to Mason. He was just five years old when his dad passed away, and he was raised by his mother in Casa Grande, Arizona. He had just his mom, two brothers, and his uncle’s family to rely on. The communities he’s built through sports and other activities mean the world to him.
Mason is also a stellar athlete: a two-time PAC-12 Champion and three-time All-America First Team discus thrower. Unfortunately, he damaged the ulnar nerve in his right arm throwing shot put during high school and was underrecruited for college sports. After reaching out to UW track coaches, Mason was offered a scholarship and started at the university in 2017.
To determine his major, Mason looked back to a high school economics class. “We had to enter an urban planning competition and basically build our own cities,” recalls Mason. Remembering his interest in urban planning and community building, he landed upon the Community, Environment, and Planning (CEP) major and transformed his life.
According to Mason, CEP is the best UW major for students with defined career goals. With one core course per quarter and electives chosen around students interests, “You have the opportunity to map out the best course experience that you could imagine,” he says.
Mason reveled in the psychological aspects of urban planning. He spoke with excitement about how human psychology both conceives and is affected by a city’s design. Cities are built of human interactions, even while they moderate how we interact with one another. “I took all of that information and was able to walk out of the CEP program with a special understanding about communities and how they work,” says Mason.
During his undergraduate career, Mason studied diligently. Being a student athlete was like a separate full-time job. He became co-president of the Black Student-Athlete Alliance (BSAA), an organization designed to help Black athletes find community at UW. He successfully pushed for the hire of an Associate Athletics Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Sheridan Blanford.
Throughout it all, he had mentor David Blum to offer experiences that would change his life.
“Concrete changes to the world”
“I’m sure this article will recognize what an outstanding human being Elijah is,” remarks Blum. “Because he really is.”
Blum has spent the last half an hour reminiscing upon his mentee’s undergraduate accomplishments and recent pivot to UW’s Foster School of Business, where Mason is set to earn his M.S. in Entrepreneurship in June 2023.
The two were kindred spirits from the start. Blum, a native of Philadelphia, is an alum of the Master of Urban Planning degree program at UW’s CBE. He’s lived in Seattle since 2006. Mason felt isolated after his move from Arizona, and worked hard to find community at UW. “We were more closely connected from the get go because, I think, he’s been a fish out of water here, particularly as a Black student,” explains Blum. According to the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, only 4.8% of the fall 2022 undergraduate student body were Black.
Blum spends a lot of time pondering how to improve his students’ prospects after graduation. One of his solutions: prioritizing practical experience. His students work as consultants for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private sector firms on feasibility studies for real estate development projects and sustainable assets, such as public parks.
“In some cases, these studies have resulted in concrete changes to the world,” explains Blum. “Maybe a building gets torn down and a playground gets built, or the design becomes part of a mixed-use project that gets funded.” Clients save money on professional consultant fees, and students gain practical experience.
Mason’s first project with Blum was a feasibility study on lidding I-5 in the U District. A stakeholder group was advocating for a “lid,” or cap, over a section of the highway to create new recreational and housing space, which would reconnect a neighborhood bisected by I-5’s construction.
The project expanded Mason’s network as he researched with area professionals. “That was really the start of our relationship,” says Mason. “Ever since then, Blum’s kept me under his wing.”
The biggest boost to Mason’s career came through his involvement with the Ascend program. Ascend is a partnership between UW’s Foster School of Business and JPMorgan Chase designed to help people of color, women, veterans, and inner-city entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Blum brought Mason in as an Ascend co-teacher focused on market analysis in the real estate development industry.
At first Mason didn’t know what to think; he’d be the youngest person in the room. “So, I’m teaching market analysis, and I’m using my expertise from CEP about how cities work and what I’ve learned about real estate” says Mason. The course was a success and resulted in several graduates creating a new real estate development company, with land under contract for a housing development. The skills Mason learned as co-teacher aided his subsequent move to the Foster School of Business.
Transformations from within and without
Mason wasn’t the only person transformed by his experience in CEP. The College of Built Environments also benefitted from his energy and perspective.
Mason was one of many students isolated by COVID lockdowns. CEP Program Manager Megan Herzog notes it as a particularly bleak period. She says that Mason was a strong presence in the program despite obstacles to connection because of his strong commitment to community ties.
He was also at UW during Black Lives Matter protests against police violence in 2020. Herzog remembers that many students in Mason’s cohort wanted to engage in the nationwide political movement. Mason was one of six Black students in CEP at the time.
“Elijah is a natural leader and has a very open and communicative demeanor,” says Herzog. “I think a lot of his peers looked to him to say, ‘What do we do? How can we be good allies?’” She says Mason’s feedback was crucial to shaping conversations around making the college a more equitable place.
Herzog was Mason’s academic advisor during his senior capstone project. True to his interests, Mason focused on how UW could create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for Black students, with a focus on housing and community engagement. His off-campus housing, managed through the Department of Athletics, was plagued with issues. “A lot of what he was looking at was housing, but also student connections and how those are built and fostered,” remarks Herzog.
Mason exceled in the CEP program. He found community through the BSAA and helped the organization flourish. He’s an athlete of national acclaim. After finishing his master’s degree at Foster, Mason will move with his fiancé to Charlotte, NC, to start a career with Truist Bank.
Blum sees Mason as a win-win story: a dedicated student with a drive to succeed who provided the university with a gift.
“There were times when Elijah just wanted to give up,” says Blum. “But, he came out of the program with a very positive set of practical skills. I’ve learned a lot from him and love being around him because of his energy. And, I think he’s given the university a great learning opportunity. We have to ask, what do we do when students like Elijah, with different goals and perspectives and economic backgrounds, come here? How do we support undergraduates in getting the practical skills they need to move forward in life?”
As for Mason, he’s excited about the upcoming move and nuptials. He’ll be part of the Truist Leadership Development Program, rotating through bank branches and states to get a feel for the business. And, he’ll take the community he gathered during his time at UW with him.
“Usually people can say they’re from this city or this place,” says Mason. “But I’m not from anywhere, not even Casa Grande.” His mom is from Indiana; one grandmother is from Kentucky. His coaches and other mentors have come from Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington, Arizona, and Florida. He has a knack for weaving a fabric of community from people whose only thing in common is their admiration for him. “The people in my life make me feel like I’m from all those places. I don’t come from a place; I come from a group of people.” Those people will surely be rooting for Mason’s continued success as he leaves UW and creates community wherever he goes.
By Jen DeMoss. Jen is a freelance writer based in Michigan.