Xi Cui received her Master’s from the University of Florida at a time when jobs were scarce. It was 2010, and the country was still struggling from the recession. Cui, who’d come from China to study urban planning, couldn’t find a Florida-based company that could afford to sponsor her work visa. Then she learned about a planning and zoning job with the city government of a small town called Haines Borough. “It perfectly matched my skill set,” says Cui. But there was a catch. The job was in Alaska: more than 3000 miles away in the opposite climate zone.
It wasn’t long, however, before Cui was on a plane across the country to America’s northernmost state. The Haines Borough Planning and Zoning Department had been so impressed with Cui during her interview process, that they had offered her the job prior to ever having met her in person. They also agreed to pay the $10,000 necessary to secure her work visa. “It was a miracle,” she says.
And her supervisors have not been disappointed. “Even now, they say, ‘The value and revenue you bring this community is way more than the money we spent on your visa.’”
Cui’s job is extensive. As the only planner on staff, her job is immense. She’s responsible for economic development, land use, and capital budgeting. She serves as an intermediary between business owners and the city assembly. And she works with developers and business owners on budgets and design. In the last four years, she has helped bring 20 new businesses to Haines, including a new hotel and a brewing company. Cui insists that she has accomplished all of this as part of a team effort; but without her, none of this development could have taken place. The previous staff member to hold her job had no educational background in urban planning.
After training, the first thing I did was register to vote.
Cui contributes to her community in other ways. Within a year, she’d fallen in love with Alaska and wanted to fast-track her green card application—which she was told could take up to 10 years to process—so she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves, where she serves as a construction engineer.
“I like the spirit of the Army,” she says. “We all work as a team to accomplish missions on time. I’m trained to be physically and mentally tough.” After basic training, Cui met an Army major who was so impressed by her education, that he put her on a fast track to officer status. But best of all, Cui finally became a U.S. citizen. “After training, the first thing I did was register to vote,” she says. “I was so excited.”