Graduate School of Geography

Geography professor Dianne Rocheleau discusses the benefits and opportunities available to undergraduates in the geography department.

What do you see as the strengths of the undergraduate geography program?

We give students a wide array of skills at the same time that we also offer them very strong components of theory and opportunities for practice. That's something you don't find everywhere, in whatever field.

We have faculty that are known in their fields for making theoretical advances in issues around urban form, human geography, the politics of development, post-colonial studies, and feminist studies. We have people that are looking at nature-society theory, and people working in geographic information science (GISci) that practice and develop software, as well as examine how GIS can be used to do analysis. (That's way beyond programming: it's about how you think spatially with GIS and how you can use it to take on new problems.) So we have a lot of intellectual excitement and a lot of innovation at a same time that we have a range of skills classes.

What we're really trying to do is prepare students to be critical, thinking, and innovative people when they leave here. All of us in our own ways in the department try to do that. We're not trying to create just one kind of person, or some kind of student product with a little Clark stamp. We are much more interested in helping people to be who they want to become, and trying to give them the tools for that--not just nuts-and-bolts tools, but critical thinking tools.

A lot of us work very closely with students on internships. I almost always have two or three students a year who are placed in internships. And many times they end up working for those places, or they end choosing a career path based in large part on the relationships formed and the knowledge gained in the internship.

For example, I had one student who, based on the topics of the first-year seminar she took with me, asked for internship suggestions. We found her an organization; she talked to the people there and came back with an internship proposal. She is now one of the directors of that organization doing community-based environmental work.

Can you talk more about opportunities for undergraduates who want to practice being geographers?

The geography department has faculty engaged in research who are known in their fields, nationally and internationally. Once students are working with us, it's very exciting for them to participate in field work. For example, students who work with Professor Karen Frey do cutting-edge global change research on wetlands in Siberia, examining indicators of climate change at the interface between terrestrial and marine systems. The same students who went to Siberia last year want to do it again, and some are heading to grad school because of that experience. It's exciting to learn from faculty who are practicing researchers, and to be part of a project that's being written up in Science and featured on the National Science Foundation Web site and on PBS.

We also give students a lot of hands-on experience in the classroom setting via field classes. My urban ecology class is one example. I take students on half-day field trips in Worcester every week, and on one four-day trip to New York City. In Worcester we learn about the nuts and bolts, the blood and the guts of the city. How does it process material? How do living beings live in this space? We see everything from the water and wastewater treatment plants, to the incinerator and the landfills. It's very experiential. The trip to New York City has a very strong environmental justice focus.

I've had quite a few students from that class write me later and say, 'I got this job because--,' or 'I went to grad school on this topic because--, and now I'm doing this because of issues that came up in class.'

Is there a good way for first-year students to learn what geography is all about?

Yes. Geography seminars designed especially for first-year students introduce them to what geography is, and how geographers conduct research. Professors give first-year seminars on topics that are really important to them, and they're committed to presenting material it in a way that's accessible and that will introduce students to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

In addition to the geography major, the department also offers a second major called global environment studies. What's that about?

We found a lot of students wanted to mix the humanities, or critical social theory and activism, one or both, with environmental studies. So we developed the global environmental studies program. It gives students a grounding in the global problems in the environment that we are facing. It has a mix of environmental politics, but a very strong treatment also of culture and the environment, arts and environment, communications and environment. Many students also look at social movements or local organizations and the environment. It's become a popular major fairly quickly and was about us responding to the students over time.

Faculty are listening to students. We're trying to work with students and give them things that fulfills the needs and objectives they have.