Robert Vera

Political Science: The Degree 4 Me

Two episodes occurring in New York City which resulted in epic negative results —Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy —helped reinforce the decision UVU grad Robert Vera made to work in the public sector with the goal of making local communities more resilient to challenges.

Vera, who graduated from UVU in 2011 with a degree in political science, was living in his native New York City, in Queens, specifically, during 9-11. He remembers the impact that event had on his view of the future.

“I went to my roof after the first plane hit, and I could see Manhattan clearly,” Vera says, “and I remember seeing the second plane and thinking ‘Oh, it’s here to help.’ But then it hit as well and that feeling, that shock I felt spurred a lot of questions in me. It spurred a lot of deep thinking and made me realize the world was bigger that I had earlier viewed."

Vera is now the deputy chief for capital fiscal management for the New York City Parks Department and considers his decision to attend UVU pivotal in his life.

“It was a point in my life that I needed a change,” he remembers. “I wasn’t sure where it was going to come from, I didn’t know anything about schools out West, so this was kind of different for me —UVU certainly wasn’t on my radar. But as I was searching, my life collided with an old friend who was attending UVU and he sent me a random message out of nowhere and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with your life’-type of thing. He told me about UVU and it felt like something I wanted to do, so I packed up my stuff and moved to Utah and begin attending.”

Vera admits now that he is not normally an “impulse person” and usually prefers thinking things through and considering all angles rationally, “but this became a very important decision, life changing, I guess you could say.”

He chose to study political science —“that became a big deal to me after 9-11” and was able to intern at the Utah State Legislature. He said that experience was a highlight for him, along with the connections he was able to make with professors and fellow classmates.

“Interning at the state legislature was a pivotal moment in my journey at UVU,” he says. “It was something I will never forget. I was where theory met the real world and led to me wanting to pursue a career in the public sector ...I learned right away at the legislature that the greatest impact comes from the local community. The federal level makes a lot of noise and barking, but at the local level is where you can do the most good, so I knew right away I wanted to create an impact in my local community. Getting a degree in political science and coming back to where I was from and figuring out how to contribute in whatever way possible in city government was really important to me.”

Before a position in the NYC mayor’s office, however, would come a master’s of public administration from Cornell. He said Cornell was the best fit for his advanced degree, even though he knew “they expected a lot from me.”

Fresh from Cornell, Vera started as a budget analyst overseeing grants within the NYC Parks Department. He said that position allowed him to begin his understanding of the fiscal management of budgets, tracking money, talking to many interrelated agencies, and getting a view of the “massive and really important city services” parks are for people. The NYC parks system, he said, consists of more than 30,000 acres, 1,900 parks, more than 1,000 playgrounds, as well as ice rinks and other facilities, 14 miles of beach front, and more.

He was then asked to oversee the fiscal aspects of the task force assigned to help the city recover from Hurricane Sandy, specifically several hundred million of the $4.2 billion grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development.

“That was the best city education I could have had —coordination, helping the city recover from $19 billion dollars in losses from the hurricane, a huge recovery effort,” he says. “It was really fulfilling, and I worked specifically in the resiliency aspect, helping small businesses receive and use grants, working with tight deadlines, tracking their money, a lot of coordination. It was challenging but fulfilling.”

Vera has since transitioned back to the parks department where he oversees the capital side of the department’s budget, working with elected officials and watching negotiations between the mayor’s office and the council —“it’s always fast-paced, exciting and challenging.”

He says his advice for others looking to climb in similar fashion is to not look for all the answers immediately. Keep reaching, he says, and don’t feel you need to have it all figured out right now. “You’ve got a lot of life to live, and a lot of career to explore,” he says.