Samantha Zuhlke: “What Do You Do With That?”

Samantha Zuhlke is currently an intern with National Geographic Education Programs. She graduated from Colgate University this past May with a degree in Geography and a minor in Political Science. She loves to travel and explore new places, some of her favorites being the southwestern portion of the United States, Rome, and Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Sam_Zuhlke_Pic2.jpgAny Geography major will tell you “What do you do with that?” is the first question you are asked after telling someone that you are, in fact, a Geography major and explaining that “Yes, Geography is something you can major in.”

Geography is a misunderstood discipline in the United States. Our neighbors to the north in Canada and across the pond in Great Britain have a much better understanding of Geography and as it would follow, a much higher level of respect for it as a study area than we do. There is a far lesser chance that British students will have to face assaults from random passersby about how they will ever be able to make a career out of “making maps.” Newsflash: that’s Cartography, NOT Geography.

The United States seems to be under the misconception that Geography is nothing more than archives of maps and lists of figures and facts. Any trivia night I go to is marred by the assumption that I am a walking encyclopedia of country capitals. People become strangely angry to find out that I do not know the capital of every country in the world and therefore will not be the team’s savior in the “Geography” category.

I concede that facts, maps and figures are many of the raw materials that make up Geography. But assuming that is all that Geography IS is like saying that lasagna is nothing more than a tomato, a cow, a grain, and festered milk. Lasagna is about the chemistry between ingredients, not the ingredients themselves. Likewise, facts, maps, and figures may be the heart of Geography, but not the soul. Its how these geographical “ingredients” relate to each other and to us, rather than what they are independently, that defines Geography. It’s about relationships and how these relationships function across space in both a physical and social sense.  

Consider the Gulf- between the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana has gotten a raw deal lately. Physical Geography can explain the intensity of the hurricane and the scientific effects of oil in water. Human Geography asks what factors combined to create emergency response shortcomings for different groups of people in the aftermath of Katrina. Both physical and human geography are equally important in understanding the full extent of these disasters. Without these human geography considerations, our knowledge is incomplete. With incomplete knowledge, there are incomplete solutions.

Geographic themes have real world application. For example, consider the implications of living in a globalized world recognized by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat. People without an understanding of world relationships or different cultures will be left behind. Or Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums— unprecedented world population growth is resulting in unofficial slums and overcrowded cities, making urban planning and development strategy a necessity. Or, think about it from a business standpoint–the economic worth of geographic themes like sustainability is increasing through carbon emissions offset programs and other popular “green” initiatives.

Geography provides a means of exploring and interpreting the world we live in. Like all academic disciplines, Geography attempts to explain why the world is the way it is and tries to fix the problems the world faces in its own way. Geography is history, social studies, politics, mathematics, and science. It is unique though, in the way it considers these subjects areas and relates them to each other across space and time. Geography is learning how to analyze, think, and explore. It’s knowing the world on a more intimate level and knowing how to apply this knowledge as a global citizen.

So my response when people ask me “What I’ll do” with Geography?

Put simply: “Anything.”


Friedman, T. 2007. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Davis, M. 2006. Planet of Slums. New York, NY: Verso.

3 thoughts on “Samantha Zuhlke: “What Do You Do With That?”

  1. Wish every child , the Geo – teachers & the rest of the world gets to read this amazing blog written so very vividly. Brilliant work .

  2. This essay was the finest description of and defense of geography that I have ever read. Reminding us of the distinction between geography and cartography is an important point, and the lasagna metaphor was not only apt but it also made me hungry.

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