CMC senior awarded prestigious Luce fellowship

This summer, Elena Castellanos ’21 heads to Asia, where she’ll work with either an urban planning or design firm as a Luce Scholar with the Henry Luce Foundation.

A dual-major in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) and public policy at CMC, Castellanos said she was grateful to be selected into the prestigious Luce Scholars Program. Each year, the Luce fellowship program aims to provide young Americans who have “great leadership potential” with an immersive experience in Asia.

This year, the competitive program received nominations from over 70 participating colleges and universities, with 164 semi-finalists who contended for 18 spots in the 2021-22 class.

Castellanos is CMC's eighth Luce Scholar, following Melia Wong '19, who was placed at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong from 2019-2020, and is currently pursuing an MPhil in Musicology at Oxford as a Barry Scholar. Before that, Robert MacGregor '13 was a Luce Scholar placed at Patamar Capital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from 2018-2019; he is now completing a joint MBA/MPP from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard Kennedy School.

While Castellanos won’t know until April exactly where she’ll be placed, she said she’s excited to spend the year “expanding my imagination of what public spaces can look like and how public life can serve diverse purposes in different contexts.” In addition, Castellanos noted she is seriously considering Seoul, South Korea as her destination because “creating public spaces has aided the city in promoting placemaking, improving quality of life, and boosting local economies.”

Castellanos first became attuned to the intrinsic value of public spaces while working at her local Los Angeles County library. Her interest deepened as an Appel Fellow during her first summer at CMC, when Castellanos traveled across the country researching Latino enclaves. During her trip, she stayed in East Harlem and lived with a local Puerto Rican family, immersing herself in the community’s everyday life. “I came to understand the fear and anxiety existing residents felt about their changing neighborhood,” she said. “The stories I heard in East Harlem, and the other places I traveled to, exposed me to the need for urban planners to care for the soul of the city and its physical being.”

Describing CMC as her “playground for creativity and curiosity,” Castellanos credited the encouragement she received from her mentors: Philosophy professor Paul Hurley; Brian Davidson ’08, director of fellowships advising; and Gemma Bulos, director at the Kravis Lab for Social Impact. In addition, Castellanos said professor Albert Park also was a” great source of support” throughout the Luce application process. 

Last year, as a student in the Hive’s Design Environmental Behavior Change class, Castellanos worked with the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in Los Angeles to investigate the role urban planning plays in “democratizing participatory procedures and prioritizing community context in project outcomes.” (CMC alumna Chelina Odbert ’99 directs KDI.)

“At KDI, I realized the built environment is not value-neutral, but rather an artifact of political power and social strife,” Castellanos said. “As I collaborated on their Gender Inclusive Transportation project in partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), I realized a planner’s role is to be a bridge-builder between public institutions and the community. KDI’s planning philosophy inspired my senior thesis.”

Castellanos plans to build upon her time in Asia by attending graduate school and working for a nonprofit urban planning and design firm. “Eventually, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in urban planning to reflect on how participatory planning approaches can affirm everyday people’s experiences during the planning process and in academic scholarship,” she said.

Being a Luce Scholar will provide Castellanos with “an opportunity to explore an entirely new cultural context and learn about how urban planning and design contribute to a city’s social fabric,” she said.

—Anne Bergman