Why am I a geographer?
I didn’t set out to be. I was starting my second semester of college, and I was at a crossroads. I knew I didn’t want to pursue a history degree, as I had originally planned, and I remembered hearing good things from people I trusted about geography, so I signed up for a few classes—and was hooked.
A few months later, I saw an ad for a study-abroad program to South Africa, and within a few days I was confirmed to participate. It was incredibly spontaneous and exciting—my life as a geographer had officially begun.
That trip to South Africa ended up being one of the most experiential and introspective experiences of my life. The people I met and places I visited had lasting impressions on me, and I learned so much about what geography can offer. Our classrooms were very diverse. We visited Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held. We also worked in two research sites, one in a forest and another in a grassland that gave us hands-on experience with data collection and field methods.
The nature reserve where we spent most of the trip was an ideal multi-disciplinary case study of social-ecological systems. We were broken up into groups to develop co-management plans for the reserve between the different stakeholders, and we had to present this work to local graduate students and academics.
I also learned how crucial packing for a trip like this is: My only pair of pants tore right down the inseam at the grassland field site—and I was unable to fix or replace them for a week.
Wardrobe malfunctions aside, I really think that the trip situated me in a global context for the first time. I got a first-hand look at how different people in a country very far from my own live their daily lives; I learned how place affects culture, and how people are both constrained and enabled by their surrounding environment.
Even though I came as a foreigner, someone observing and learning about a social-ecological system from an outside vantage point, I left knowing that inevitably, I am in some way connected to the people of South Africa and every other society in the world, and that although distance may lessen these connections, it never completely overrides them.
The classes we took included the social history of South Africa, from pre-colonization through post-apartheid, a biogeography course that had several field components in nearby grasslands and forests, and a theoretical class concerned with global sustainability and citizenship. For only having 10 weeks in the country, the interdisciplinary suite of courses enabled us to get the most out of our time there.
Geography not only accommodates an interdisciplinary education, it requires it.
Evan Gover is a 2014 National Geographic Education summer intern. He is finishing his B.S. in Geography from Penn State this summer, and hopes to continue to travel the world and learn about the many people and places in it.