Burlington to Ecuador, UVM geographers' work ranges worldwide

Maps and globes, likely the first images that pop in your head when you think of “geography.” Walk in the offices of UVM’s Geography Department, first floor Old Mill, and reality meets expectation. A stately globe tilting on its axis, colorful wall maps of the world, frayed around the edges. In this context, though, these old standards aren’t really teaching tools, but heirlooms of a UVM academic department that celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

Today’s geography students and faculty are more likely to be out in the world rather than poring over a scale model. Case in point, this semester’s GEOG 196 travel-study course focused on the grass páramo, a high-elevation Andean savanna. The semester-long class, led by instructor Stuart White, included a spring break trip for an immersive week in the dramatic landscape in southern Ecuador.

Like the experiential component of that class, internships are another key element in UVM geography majors’ education. Conversations with several current students finds them doing internships with National Geographic, Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, and Burlington’s Peace and Justice Center, among others.

Senior Natalie May’s internship last summer focused on Vermont’s lakes and ponds, where she joined a team of field scientists to do plant and animal habitat surveys and sample sediment and water. “I gained scientific skills, learned how to collaborate efficiently in the field,” she says, and adds, “plus I had the pleasure of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the middle of a lake each day.”

Down the hill from campus, junior Alice Urbiel has spent the past year interning at the Peace and Justice Center on Lake Street. Focused as a racial justice intern, the work has meshed with her geography major and critical race and ethnic studies minor. “The more I learn and experience, the more I see the spatial dynamics of race and racism in the United States and how much of an issue those dynamics create for minority groups and disadvantaged populations,” Urbiel says. The internship has deepened her interest in social justice work post-UVM.

Professor Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, department chair who has been on hand for nearly 20 of UVM Geography’s 50 years, notes that while her fellow faculty have global research interests, there’s also a strong local component to their research, teaching and service. Dupigny-Giroux, for one, adds Vermont State Climatologist to her professor title. Associate Professor Pablo Bose is a conduit to Burlington’s large and diverse refugee community, often getting students involved through his service-learning courses and research. Assistant Professor Cheryl Morse focuses her scholarship on rural contexts and agricultural landscapes, work relevant to Vermont’s place as a national leader in reimagining and retooling food systems.

Dupigny-Giroux has led the charge as the Geography Department has marked its 50th year with an evening of celebration last September and more events planned for the afternoon and evening of Friday, April 21, in the Davis Center. She’s had critical help in the process from UVM geography alumnus Matt Glass ’90, partner and chief creative officer of Eventage, a NYC-based events planning agency. Long an advocate for his alma mater, Glass funds an internship for geography undergrads.

Golden anniversaries, of course, are times for reflection. Dupigny-Giroux has looked back over her department’s history with gratitude for the founding faculty members — first department chair Ted Miles, Hal Meeks, Gardiner Barnum and Aulis Lind. And she has the affection and pride of family for current colleagues and the generations of graduates, 755 bachelor’s degrees, 96 master’s, to be precise. Alumni have gone on to careers at Google Earth, in state government, on Wall Street, and in academia, among many other paths.

The fascination and strength of geography as an academic discipline with multiple applications is in its diversity of perspectives, Dupigny-Giroux says, drawing from political science, environmental science, history, sociology, and other fields. “It’s integrative,” she says. “We take all of these aspects and bring them together.”