One snowy day, a high school senior from Shelley, Idaho, jumped in his parents’ station wagon and drove to Utah State University to register for a degree in engineering. Around the time this eager student got to Preston, the car’s engine bay was full of snow and it stalled out. This would foreshadow his enthusiasm for engineering, as it stalled out midway through his freshman year and a different love developed – one that eventually brought him marriage and three children. He followed that love to Provo and some accidental opportunities led him to earn a bachelor’s in agronomy at Brigham Young University.
Accidental opportunities seem to be a theme in Keith Christensen’s career, as he recounted decisions leading up to his being promoted to professor in 2020, although the usual events celebrating faculty promotions were canceled due to COVID-19.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” Christensen said. “That had been my plan all along, and when it came down to it, I was passed over for a job opportunity that I really wanted because one of my final evaluations said I was ‘good’ and not ‘great’.”
An opportunity to apply to graduate school arose from this setback, and Christensen moved back to Cache Valley and began working toward his master’s in landscape architecture at Utah State University.
“My wife’s uncle was the head of agronomy at BYU, and his son was going to grad school in landscape architecture,” Christensen recalled. “That’s actually what sparked my interest. After learning a little more about it I decided I wanted to be an environmental planner, so we moved up to USU’s mobile home park and I started grad school.”
During Christensen’s first year of graduate school, his first daughter was born with muscular dystrophy. This “life-changing” event sparked yet another accidental opportunity.
The orthopedic unit at Shriner Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City was searching for an individual with experience in designing playgrounds for children with disabilities and contacted the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning (LAEP) at USU.
“LAEP gave them my name because I had a daughter with a disability, and I guess they assumed I would know what to do,” Christensen chuckled, shaking his head. “I didn’t know what to do, but I was interested in the project, so I agreed to it.”
That project became Christensen’s new thesis, as he recognized a need and a new approach to accessibility design.
“Most projects are heavily focused on physical access of accessibility,” Christensen explained. “That’s important, but so is inclusion and social accessibility. Could all children actually participate in activities in these environments?”
That first project led Christensen to a newfound passion in disability disciplines, and he later earned a doctorate in that specialty. While pursuing his master’s, Christensen worked as a graphic designer for the USU’s Center for Persons with Disabilities.
“I worked with some wonderful people,” Christensen recalled. “I learned a lot while working at CPD. It was an amazing experience and I’m grateful to apply the knowledge learned while working there to my work now.”
All these opportunities came full circle when Christensen joined the LAEP department as a faculty member.
“When I first came to USU, I sat down with Craig Johnson and he basically convinced me to pursue my master’s here,” Christensen said. “When I became a faculty member, Craig retired, and I got his office and started doing what he did for me all those years ago – encouraging students to join the LAEP program. It’s cool to see things come full circle.”
This past summer, Christensen was named head of the LAEP department.
“I’ve known Keith since he was a graduate student,” said LAEP Professor Caroline Lavoie. “I cannot think of a better leader right now for our department during these difficult times. Everything complicated seems suddenly very easy to maneuver when he is around.”
Christensen has recently undertaken a research project studying the logistics of designing cities that are accessible and inclusive for disabled individuals, making it easier for them to participate in community life. The $2.5 million project includes USU collaborators from the CPD and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“Keith combines the common sense of his Idaho upbringing with a strong analytical and research capability to direct LAEP into a prosperous future,” said Todd Johnson, associate professor of practice in the LAEP department.
Christensen is grateful for every accidental opportunity that led him to where he is today.
“Things worked out better than I planned,” he said. “Better than I could ask for.”