Graham School News

Making Communities Safe: Erika Amaya’s Path to Emergency Management

Philip Baker

Emergency Management Student Erika A.

Erika Amaya’s work has always focused on improving her community. It’s what brought her from Florida five years ago, where she worked in the nonprofit sector managing youth programs, to New York, where she now manages volunteer operations for the New York Road Runners (NYRR) Association, a community running organization that manages, among other events, the world’s largest marathon.

“Wherever I’ve lived, whether it’s growing up in Florida or now in New York, a central concern of mine has been making the community a happy and healthy place,” she says. “And my experiences in New York working with NYRR have shown me ways to develop this passion further. My goal now is to focus on working for the safety and well-being of communities.” 

Though Erika’s job at NYRR centers around recruiting, managing, and preparing the 10,000 volunteers who make the marathon possible each year, the scale of the event and the breadth of collaboration it requires mean she becomes involved in a much broader set of preparations. This exposure opened her eyes to a field she hardly even knew existed.

“I was in meetings with various city agencies, with emergency management folks, and I even had an opportunity to take part in table top exercises,” she says. “Basically, I learned about the behind-the-scenes planning that takes place before major events whose goals are to minimize potential threats while ensuring that responses are as clear and resilient as possible. I didn’t even know that a job like that existed, but the moment I learned about it I became very interested to learn more.”

Erika’s first step to learning more about preparing and planning for emergencies came when she enrolled in a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program, a training that educates volunteers about disaster preparedness while teaching them basic response skills. Quickly, her passion for making communities happy and healthy places drilled down into a focus on making them safe and prepared.

“While I always knew I wanted to be a positive force in communities, I never knew exactly how that would play itself out in my career,” she says. “Growing up in Florida and being aware of the need for hurricane preparedness, I already had a basic emergency management perspective operating inside me. I’d had a ‘go bag’ since college, for instance. So, really, discovering the field through the CERT program sparked something that was already there inside me and immediately made me want to pursue it further.”

After completing the CERT program, Erika began looking for degree programs that could further her education in emergency management. When it came to what she was looking for, she had a definite set of parameters, which included that the program be at a well-known university and that it have a proven faculty. In particular, as someone looking to use the knowledge she would acquire to switch careers, she looked for a program with a strong career services department as well as an excellent job placement record.

“From my research, the UChicago Threat and Response Management program offered everything I wanted,” she says. “And my hunch was completely confirmed when I arrived for classes that first weekend. It was great to connect with my classmates and feel part of a community passionate about the challenge of working to problem solve for the future. I knew I’d found my people.”

“It’s definitely set me on course for my dream job,” Erika adds. “That would involve working and collaborating at the local or state level to heighten awareness and prepare for potential threats and emergencies.”