Student and Alumni Spotlights

Ayla Schermer

Bike advocacy inspires a public service career for former accountant

Ayla Schermer

Master of City and Regional Planning, Class of 2021

Hometown: Jersey City, NJ

Ayla Schermer is a former accountant turned passionate urban planner focused on creating safe, equitable, and sustainable streets and public spaces.

Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Ayla worked as an accountant for nearly a decade before discovering her love of urban planning through her bicycle advocacy work. She serves on the board of Bike JC, a nonprofit advocacy organization that aims to make streets safe and welcoming for bicyclists in Jersey City, NJ. A 2nd-year MCRP student at the Bloustein School where she will soon complete her studies in transportation planning, she was recently selected as a Presidential Management Fellow finalist by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program is a highly selective and prestigious two-year paid government fellowship sponsored by the Office of Personnel Management for recent graduate students who seek a fellowship in a United States government agency. The fellowship includes leadership development, training, and rotations among various federal agencies.

As a private sector accountant, the repetitive, impersonal nature of the job left her feeling increasingly unfulfilled. “My interest in, and commitment to, bicycle/pedestrian advocacy and transportation planning surrounded me with Bloustein alumni. I was constantly meeting Bloustein grads through professional networking groups and at conferences around the New York/New Jersey area,” she said. “These planners were all hard at work making a difference in the lives of the urban communities they serve. They built inspiring careers that I very much envisioned for myself, and they unanimously and unequivocally attributed their successes to their training and experiences at the Bloustein School.”

Last fall, Ayla attended a PMF Alumni Panel hosted by the school’s Career Services Office and left the event feeling inspired by the personal experiences of PMF fellows and alumni in attendance. “Despite working in very different positions across a wide variety of federal agencies, all of the PMF fellows/alumni shared a genuine passion and exuberance for the PMF program that was impossible to ignore. I was especially drawn to the rotational aspect of the two-year program, which would allow me to explore multiple roles among different federal government agencies.”

“My career trajectory thus far has really taught me that it is just as important to discover what you don’t like professionally as it is to determine your career passions. In fact, the former often helps to inform the latter,” she said. At that point, she knew that the PMF program offered a different path forward—a gratifying public service career that would allow her to work on meaningful and evolving projects while developing leadership skills in varying roles.

With her graduate education and outside-the-classroom experience focused in the transportation field, Ayla is interested in pursuing opportunities with agencies that fall under the Department of Transportation, especially the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). She is also interested in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Census Bureau, agencies integral to urban planning and directly impacting the lives of people.

She believes that one of the greatest benefits of the PMF program is the opportunity to grow and develop by experimenting in new and different areas, choosing to keep herself open to opportunities that might not perfectly align with her education or experience. “For that reason, I am not ruling out any agency at this time. The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management all do incredibly important work which I am very interested in,” she said. “I look forward to learning more about the wide variety of government agencies which hire PMFs and finding a placement which will both challenge and excite me.”

Looking ahead, Ayla aspires to perform work that will improve people’s daily lives by building cities and regions that work effectively and equitably for all. She is especially passionate about creating safe, equitable, and sustainable streets and public spaces, and diversifying and improving people’s mobility options. “Relatedly, I care deeply about making it easier for people to live comfortable, car-free or car-lite lifestyles, and hope to work on policy and streetscape changes which will make this possible and desirable,” Ayla concluded.

Beyond learning about the Bloustein School through the extensive alumni network, she was also drawn to Bloustein’s rigorous urban planning curriculum. “The MCRP program at Bloustein was actually the only program/school that I applied to,” she admitted. “I was confident that I would be able to craft my ideal course of study here, with the school’s esteemed faculty to guide me along the way.” Attending Rutgers would also allow Ayla to remain in her home neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, and continue to create positive change locally while attending graduate school.

Though navigating graduate school and job searching during a global pandemic has certainly not been ideal, Ayla felt completely supported at every step of the way. “I would like to sincerely thank the Bloustein faculty, student services staff, and career services staff for all of their guidance and assistance, especially in the remote COVID-19 environment.”

In addition to bike advocacy, Ayla is very active in the Hudson County community as an elected county committeewoman, a Jersey City Climate Action Plan working group member, an NJTPA ‘UpNext North Jersey’ advisory group member, and a City of Hoboken transportation intern, for example. She is also an avid Broadway theatergoer, an acapella singer, a sports fanatic, and a travel lover who checks out the cycling infrastructure everywhere she goes.

by Karyn Olsen