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From Blacksburg to Milan: Geography Department’s Field Experience Enriches Undergraduates’ Education


   

Cara Curran started planning a year in advance to spend a semester in Milan, Italy, as a management intern at the U.S. Consulate General. Cara Curran started planning a year in advance to spend a semester in Milan, Italy, as a management intern at the U.S. Consulate General.

Nov. 15, 2013 – Zach Robinson, a May 2013 geography graduate, calls himself “a homegrown Appalachian boy from Hillsville,” so introducing visiting international Humphrey Fellows to his region’s culture by interning with Virginia Tech’s Language and Culture Institute was a perfect fit for him.

Robinson changed focus within his major after an earlier GIS field experience revealed that his true interest was in the human side of geography rather than the technical side. Giving cultural presentations and planning trips to Reynolds Homestead, the Appalachian Trail, and other sites came easily for Robinson, who hopes to pursue graduate work in education. “It was awesome to see the Fellows line dancing and flat footing at the Floyd Country Store,” he said.

“I could never have imagined that The Green Program could have such an impact on my life."

All geography and meteorology majors are required to complete a field experience or internship to extend their education and increase their marketability. The experience also helps students clarify career goals. “A supervised internship, study abroad, service learning — they all help students see what they like, where they shine, and what they aren’t so suited for,” said Maureen Deisinger, the Department of Geography’s academic advisor.

Students are acquiring field experiences across the country and around the world, for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private corporations.

For Cara Curran (’13) one of the best parts of working as a management intern at the U.S. Consulate General in Milan, Italy, was exposure to the staff. “I’ve never met smarter people. My boss was a Jeopardy champion, and the Consulate General spoke eight languages. Foreign Service is the hardest U.S. government sector to enter, so I felt honored to work with these gifted people.” Despite the challenges she faced arranging housing for her time abroad, Curran said it was worth it to put government Foreign Service work on her resume. “I loved the experience,” she affirmed.

Junior Megan Dulamal participated in The Green Program in Costa Rica one summer to learn about renewable energies such as wind, geothermal, solar, hydro, and biomass. “Wind energy was my favorite; the extraction process is so pure,” she said. Dulamal’s group installed water-conserving plumbing fixtures and painted a school. For her capstone project, she researched permaculture, finding cases where it transformed arid landscapes.

“I could never have imagined that The Green Program could have such an impact on my life,” she said. “In 12 days, I learned about renewable energy, Skyped with the managing director of the Permaculture Research Institute, stepped outside of my comfort zone multiple times, and experienced the culture of one of the most fantastic countries on the planet.”

Experiences closer to home can be just as rewarding. Kyle Bailey (’13) worked this past summer at Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology as a GIS analyst, developing processes in ArcGIS software to collect and analyze telecommunications infrastructure. The current graduate student honed valuable GIS skills mapping future fiber optic cable as an intern for Town of Blacksburg GIS Coordinator Katherine Smith, a 1986 Virginia Tech geography alumna.

Like many students in the meteorology program, Dan Goff (’13) got his field experience on the Hokie Storm Chase team, where his firsthand experience confronting storms intensified his passion for weather. “For a weather geek, being able to observe severe thunderstorms in a high-visibility environment like the plains is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Goff, now in graduate school at the University of South Carolina. “There’s no greater satisfaction than knowing your group made a good forecast and got in the right position to watch a storm develop.”

Paul Miller (’12) spent a summer working in the operational forecasting division of WeatherBug, a private forecasting and weather monitoring company, handling many of the same tasks the meteorologists were doing. As an intern predicting short-term weather conditions for 45 major cities, he also detailed potential weather threats for regional utility companies. The second-year graduate student is currently researching lightning patterns for the National Weather Service, and his WeatherBug colleagues have graciously given him two years of lightning observations.

Senior Amanda Leitz has racked up two internships and a storm-chasing field experience. This past spring, Leitz interned at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke under the mentorship of chief meteorologist Robin Reed. There, she learned about new forecasting and communication techniques used by broadcast meteorologists as well as how to make weather graphics for broadcast slides. Over the summer, she worked as a weather and public relations intern at the Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., on the next generation polar orbiting weather satellite, also creating public relations materials on weather satellites in general. “The polar orbiting weather satellite can keep an eye on forest fires, vegetation, melting glaciers — it’s exciting,” Leitz said.

Senior Bonnie Long fantasizes about returning in 20 years to the Santa Monica National Recreation Area in California, where she spent spring break doing revegetation work for the Student Conservation Association and helped turn a former landfill into a lagoon. “I’d be able to say, ‘Look, I helped create this lagoon,’ and ‘I planted this tree,’” she said. “At the end of the week, seeing the newly planted trees and other vegetation in what was once an open field gave me a great sense of accomplishment.”

In short, students are likely to give as much or more than they get from their field experiences.

“When we first talked of this new requirement in 2008, the faculty were all excited about it,” said Bill Cartstensen, head of the geography department. “But to be honest, the range of experiences and places that our students have worked gaining invaluable experience is far beyond our initial expectations. We couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.”


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