Our whole hall went to dinner together every night. We had that kind of group.

Jennifer Smolko Vey '93; photo by Jennifer Bishop
Jennifer Smolko Vey '93 surveys the Baltimore scene from Federal Hill.

For Jennifer Smolko Vey '93, a first year spent at one of Bucknell's first residential colleges was an initiation into the world.

Today, Vey is a geographer, urban policy expert and a fellow at The Brookings Institution, where she co-directs the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking.

In fall 1989, she was a young achiever from the suburbs of York, Pa. She knew of Bucknell through her brother, Jim Smolko '81. But she had no real direction, only a desire to take in all that life on campus offered. "People call it the ‘Bucknell bubble' and, as an 18-year-old, that really appealed to me," she says.

She landed by accident in Renaissance College, a residential arts and humanities college, housed in Smith Hall. She had enrolled in a survey course, Looking at Art. Unknown to her it was a core requirement for Renaissance College, and the campus housing gods apparently decided the residential experience might suit her.

It did. "It wound up being a really good experience," Vey says. Her roommate, Kristin Longnecker Mollerus '93, became a lifelong friend. Their coed floor and the Renaissance life — gathering to watch and dissect a film, for example — brought her into a close clan. "Our whole hall went to dinner together every night," she says. "We had that kind of group."

She recalls a moment in October: Campus was resplendent with autumn. Her arts professor invited the small class to his home for cider and cinnamon donuts, and there she felt a tiny shift, her first sense of belonging in a larger world.

Vey and her friends became sophomores and, fortified, they dispersed. She found her field, inspired by Professor Paul Susman's economic geography courses and guided by Professor Ben Marsh, geography and environmental studies. She was fascinated with places — buildings, patterns, economies, cultures and disparities. Her attachment to York made her especially curious about how older urban economies and environments thrive or fail. Geography, the intersection between people and place, embraced it all.

She earned a B.A. in geography with an environmental studies minor. After a master's degree in urban planning at the University of Virginia she had a paid internship in the Fairfax County, Va., planning department and then spent three years as a Presidential Management fellow. The program selects young leaders for management-track jobs in the federal government.

She requested assignments at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in HUD's budget office, its community development area and the Empowerment Zone programs. There, she saw how federal programs best support community revitalization and how they might be improved.

Her move to Brookings, in 2001, gave her the means to ask the questions that had been puzzling her and to contribute her findings to the greater world. Her calm voice grows passionate as she describes them: What makes innovative industries congregate here more than there? How do troubled communities mend? How do their economic and physical wounds heal? And, always, how to support the recovering industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest — places like York, where she began.