When journalism student Velyjha Southern’s car broke down, it probably felt like the start of a bad day. Little did she know that this misfortune was the first step down a new path—one that would lead her to a new calling in life.
“Sometimes you have in mind exactly what you want to do. But sometimes, I guess destiny takes over, and it leads you from one place to another,” she told Fast Forward.
Without a car, Velyjha was forced to wake up before the sunrise each morning to catch the 6 a.m. bus to school at Texas Southern University. At first, she sat in one of the bus’s front rows and slept during the two-hour ride. But that didn’t last long. It was only a couple of days before the storyteller in Velyjha began to take notice of the sights, sounds, and people with whom she traveled on her daily commute. Because she was a writer by nature, she began to journal about what she imagined to be the stories of the people she saw as a way to pass the time. She even devoted a section of her blog to her experiences riding the bus, which she aptly titled The Bus Chronicles.
“It is safe to say that the very essence of Houston is on the bus. Diversity rides the bus,” she wrote in her blog, talking about the wide variety of people who relied on public transit as a way to get around, from businesspeople to students like her.
Velyjha’s imaginings about the stories of her fellow travelers eventually led to a growing interest in public transit. She began to think about and realize the importance of the bus system in the lives of the people in her city. The journalist in her began to ask questions. Suddenly, she found she wanted to know more about the public transportation system itself. How did it operate? Who was in charge? How could it be improved?
To learn more about Houston’s public transportation system, Velyjha sought out the assistance of Dr. Carol Lewis, a professor of transportation studies and the director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at Texas Southern University. During their first meeting, Lewis introduced Velyjha to the transportation planning and management program at Texas Southern. Immediately, Velyjha was hooked. Today, she is in her first year of graduate school, earning her degree in transportation planning and management. Her focus is on studying the public transportation system and the issues that surround it. For example, she is taking classes to learn about the policies and funding that allow the transportation system to function.
“Just seeing how transportation policies are made, and the groups of people who have to come together to make a simple policy, it’s just interesting to me,” she said.
For her master’s research, Velyjha is studying the bus system in Houston. Her goal is to determine how well it’s meeting the needs of the city’s citizens, and how it could potentially be made better. Last year, she was rewarded for her work. She received the distinguished Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship to conduct research on the bus system in Houston. She attributes this in part to her skills as a writer, but also to her passion for the subject she studies.
“Whatever it is I’m doing, I want it to involve the public, and transportation, and my journalism skills. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but that’s what I plan on doing,” she said.
When asked for her advice to other young people who might share her interest in transportation, she said, “In order to be successful in public transportation or as a student, I think you would have to be somewhat curious. Very inquisitive, wanting to know more. Because it involves a lot of research. So if you’re not interested in it, you’re not going to want to go the extra step…and I feel that is very important in being successful.”
When asked what keeps her interested in her field, Velyjha responded, “I think it’s one of those things that people take for granted. … For some people, [public transportation] is the only option that they have. I think it’s important to know the impact it has on society, period. That’s what interests me. Just how important it is.”