- Arden Benner
Student's path of discovery leads to geography
Graduation Year: 2020
Arden Benner was a first-year student at Rutgers with definite ideas about which subjects she wanted to study. She just wasn’t sure there was a major that could encompass them all.
Benner, now a School of Arts and Sciences senior in the Class of 2020, grew up on a family farm in rural Juniata County, Pennsylvania. Her father is a butcher and her mother is a registered nurse and a population health specialist.
By the time she arrived at Rutgers, Benner knew her calling would combine a deep reverence for the environment, an emphasis on public health, and a strong commitment to social justice.
After checking out a few options, she attended the Major and Minor Fair and met faculty from the Department of Geography. She took a few courses and realized the geography major offered the ideal foundation for her calling.
As a geographer, I am uniquely qualified to find those problems
“Geography covers everything I am passionate about,” says Benner, who also earned a minor in public health, and a certificate in geospatial information science, or GIS. “I can take it in so many directions.”
Indeed, in her final semester, Benner is learning how geographers are helping in the fight against COVID-19. She is serving as an intern for the American Geographical Society, where she gets briefed each day on maps documenting the pandemic and tracking everything from ventilator availability to testing sites to unemployment rates.
“A lot of GIS analysts are taking part in the crisis response,” she says, citing the contributions of New York State’s Technology SWAT Team. “I am learning a great deal from watching the response and how it continues to adapt.”
Yet even before the pandemic struck, Benner was studying how diseases move through populations—a specialty she describes as medical and health geography. Last summer, for example, she did research at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she tracked sources of air pollution in Philadelphia, developing a map that pinpointed city neighborhoods where lung cancer and asthma were most prevalent.
She also participated in the Mapathon for Humanitarian Relief, a program involving the geography department and Rutgers University Libraries that develops geospatial data to help communities in crisis. One such project centered on the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola outbreak. At the time, there were few reliable maps showing where indigenous and rural populations lived, Benner said.
KD19 Geography 4849 silo web“Using satellite data, we found huts, neighborhoods, and villages and sent that information to the organizations on the ground,” Benner said. “And they used the data to send assistance to those regions.”
When she was not helping to address international crises, Benner enjoyed hanging out with other student geographers, a close-knit community.
“I had them all over for a geography holiday celebration,” she says. “During the semester, we’d have big group chats, hold study halls together, and meet up in certain libraries.”
She also treasures the close connections she has had with faculty, citing professors Asa Rennermalm and Paul O’Keefe and cartographer Michael Siegel as mentors.
“I know all my professors, and they all know me by name,” she said. “Even professors I haven’t had for class, know who I am and make a point to talk to me when we see each other.”
After graduation, Benner hopes to work for a nonprofit such as the Red Cross, Global Health Corps, or Doctors Without Borders.
“The first step in solving any problem is finding out where that problem is,” she says. “As a geographer, I am uniquely qualified to find those problems.”
- Qianyi Liu
Graduation Year: 2017
Interview with Qianyi Liu, 3/24/17 by Carrie Mott
Qianyi was an international student from China and is one of Rutgers Geography’s 2017 graduates, he was interviewed near the end of the final semester of his senior year. Here he talks with Dr. Carrie Mott about his experiences as an international student in the Rutgers Geography program, and how he feels geography will help him in the future.
First question, why did you choose a major in Geography?
At first I was a math major, but then I took some Geography courses just for credit and I felt like Geography courses were pretty interesting for me. I’m interested in how people fit into space, like, how people interact with the environment. And also, my father was a landscape designer and he gives me a lot of inspiration for how to observe the environment and how to observe people’s behavior, how they interact with the environmental space.
How has your experience majoring in Rutgers’ Geography program been?
I would say it’s a pretty interesting program for me because there are courses from Remote Sensing for Geographic Techniques, and then to Gender Geographies and Political Geography- so it’s a pretty diverse program. You gain a lot of knowledge about different fields- like sociology or environmental studies- those kind of combinations. It’s pretty awesome!
So you like the diversity of the things you can do?
Yeah, you can talk to people, you can share ideas with people. That is the thing you can not do in the math department, people always talk about the test, the exam. But right here, people are talking about the topic of international issues, or environmental and social issues.
What track have you focused on?
I’m focused on human geography, on the social track [Global Culture, Economics, and Society].
Why did you pick that one?
Like I said, I’m pretty interested in how people fit into space. Right now the trend of the world is going to be more globalized, in the connections between people, between countries, between people and space- it’s growing faster. I’m from China, and China is a country with a lot of environmental issues because the development of the Chinese economy is so fast, but people don’t care about the environment. So there’s a lot of pollution over there and right now you can see that America is a pretty developed country, but the environment of America is much better than China. I would say that the relationship between people and the environment is very important- it’s everyday, it’s everything around you. Geography is subject that can solve this kind of problem. I’m pretty interested in how people think of space, think of the environment. But I also took some courses in the Geographic Techniques track- that’s interesting as well.
Did you feel like those courses were very complicated? Were you able to learn some techniques?
Yeah, I’m pretty bad at coding and computer stuff, but I did an interesting project in Remote Sensing on coastal sediment in the Yellow River in China. At the end of the river the sediment becomes a delta and then the size of the delta becomes much bigger because it’s growing. People realized that the sediment comes from the upper part of the river and so people modified the riverbed and added more trees next to the river to protect the soil- and then after 20 years you can see that the delta size becomes much smaller because people were able to influence it. Humans can really influence the environment for the long term, for several decades.
What is one way that you think the Geography program at Rutgers has been valuable for you as a student?
Geography makes me think more, to do more thinking stuff. Like to think about the current popular issues of society, of the environment. As students we are encouraged to do research on the projects and topics that we are interested in. There is a lot of focus on popular issues, like on the urban landscape and pollution in New York, or demographic issues. We can use resources from online or from the department to conclude some theories of our own. We can compose knowledge by ourselves, to discover by ourselves.
Do you feel like you’ve had good support from the department as you’ve been a student here?
Yeah, people share ideas with each other. Between students, we help each other out. Also the faculty, the teachers in the department- every time I’m in trouble with the schedule of classes Professor Rennermalm always helps me out.
How do you feel that your experiences with the faculty have been?
People really love to help each other. In Geography everybody is so nice- people are willing to share their ideas with you and you can share yours with them. It’s always good to share ideas with people, like if I give you my thought and you give me your thought- we have both. It’s a win-win situation.
Do you know many other geography majors?
I know a lot of American students that are in geography but I don’t know any Chinese students!
Do you feel like for the students that are here, the majors in general- have you had good opportunities to get to know them and to interact with the other students in the program?
Yeah because Geography classes are always like a workshop, people are working together in a small scale class. It’s pretty good to communicate with people.
Do you find that you have the same people in some of our classes? Have you had multiple classes with the same people sometimes?
Yeah, I think a lot of the Geography majors have similar schedules. I’m majoring in human geography [the Global Culture, Economics, and Society track] and some of the human geography students always have the same classes as me.
What would you say to other international students about your experiences with the Geography department?
I would say that right here in the Geography department you will have a better chance to learn more about American culture. You have more chances to talk to people. When I was in the math department, I barely talked to people. I didn’t talk to people about how the culture works. But in the Geography department you can really push yourself to think about how you will learn from American culture. And, that’s why I’m here in America!
What about specifically for Chinese students? Do you think this is a major that would be interesting for other students coming from China?
I think Geography is a tool to solve a lot of problems. You can put different titles on it, like Social Geography, Gender Geography, Political Geography. In China, those kind of issues- these might be useful tools for your career, for the society. And, for your college life, I think geography is very open minded so it gives you a lot of flexibility for how you think about and deal with the issues in society and the environment. Especially for Chinese students, I would say that at the beginning I didn’t expect that I could learn so much from geography. But then after I tried Remote Sensing, after I tried Political Geography and Gender Geography, I know things that I had never seen or heard of before. My horizon has been broadened, that’s the best part of Geography I think.
What are your plans for your future after graduation?
I will go back to China and get an internship first and I will prepare for my graduate school applications during the next year, and I will come back to America for graduate school.
Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with people?
I hope there will be more Chinese students in this department!
- Jessica Bagtas
Graduation Year: 2015
We caught up with Jessica at the 2017 annual conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Boston. A Rutgers Geography major, Jessica graduated in 2015. A cultural geography class at her community college and some of the introductory courses at Rutgers led her to major in Geography. Earlier in the day before this interview, Jessica was offered a position with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Here, she talked with Dr. Carrie Mott (CM) about the job search, what she gained from majoring in Geography at Rutgers, and her advice for Rutgers students who are considering a Geography major.
How did you decide to become a Geography major?
When I went to Rutgers, I took Geography 101-103 and I loved it, I was like, “this is going to be my major!” I went for a Geospatial Information Science (GIS) Certificate because I did the Human Geography track [Global Culture, Economics, and Society] and then I realized I could take the last four requirements of the GIS certificate in the final semester so I just did four Geographic Techniques courses in one semester and ended up with a certificate.
How has that certificate worked out in terms of job options?
Well, employers don’t really understand the concept of “GIS Certificate” but it has really helped me when I talk about the things I actually did in the class- like cartography and the GIS final project that I did, which was part of Civic Engagement and Service Education Partnerships (CESEP). CESEP takes someone from the GIS class and matches them up with a nonprofit in the New Brunswick area who needs GIS services. You do that kind of as volunteer work, kind of as a mini internship, so I cite that on my resume as an internship.
What was the work that you did with CESEP?
There are a lot of community gardens in New Brunswick and they’re trying to get people to grow their own food because New Brunswick was determined to be a food desert by a previous GIS student. So they wanted to find habitats for bee pollinators so had to find locations where they could build a habitat for bees, that way they could pollinate all of the community gardens. So I helped do a site suitability analysis for that. So, stuff like that I get to talk about in job interviews. I also did undergraduate research with Professor St. Martin so I talk about that. All the stuff that I did in Cartography, that’s in my portfolio so the maps that I make- people are pretty impressed with them. Even the spatial data analysis class, which is kind of like geography statistics- I use that a lot on the job, just understanding how to manipulate data in Excel and stuff like that.
The job you have now is what you got after you finished at Rutgers, right?
Yeah. I do business analytics for pharmaceutical companies. My company isn’t a pharmaceutical company itself but it does all these services for different pharmaceutical companies. So the pharma companies are our “customers”- for every customer I might make them an expense report to understand how they are doing their budgets, I help them report information to the government. And, of course I do mapping. Whenever they’re promoting a drug or a medical device, they need sales representative to go out to doctors’ offices promote their new product. So I have to make a territory, each territory belongs to a sales representative and decides what part of the US that representative is responsible for covering. So, all the doctors in a certain territory are perceived to be really open to writing scripts for this drug, so that’s how mapping fits in.
So, more recently, what happened here at AAG [American Association of Geographers conference]? There’s possibly a job change for you?
Yeah, so because my job is in the pharmaceutical industry, I’m the only geographer on the team. In a way that’s good because I get to be in a leadership position and I’m constantly able to share my geographic knowledge, but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t getting enough mentorship. I just graduated and I feel like there’s so much more to learn. To combat that idea- like maybe my geography background is slipping- I signed up for a Master’s program and I’m looking for a new job.
You’re currently in a Master’s program? Where?
I take classes online with John’s Hopkins. That’s part time and then I still work full time. So I go to work in the morning and school at night but it’s online so it’s not too bad, I don’t have to commute anywhere. So when I came to AAG, I came with all my resumes to see if there was any job postings and the NGA [National Geospatial Intelligence Agency] had a position open, I gave them my resume, did the interview and they offered me a job!
What about while you were actually at Rutgers? Thinking about students who might be considering majoring in geography- what was your experience like in the program?
Like I said before, I’ve been worried that I haven’t been getting enough mentorship in my job. I think the reason why I missed it is because I had so much mentorship while I was at the department. People like Professor Rennermalm, Professor Leichenko, and Professor St. Martin- they were really great mentors to me. Not just to me individually, but in the classroom, they were always concerned with giving us ideas of like, “what would a geographer do when they left Rutgers?” I feel like they are so close to their students because it is a small department so by the time you graduate you’ve probably had classes with the same professors at least twice so they get to know you and I think that’s really good. They’re just cool people! They’re cool and they’re open and you always feel like you can talk to them about career advice or academics or whatever. The department itself, the professors, I just feel like they’re so knowledgeable. It’s always good to be surrounded by people who are good at their job and more so when they are willing to help you succeed as well.
How about interactions with other students? Did you feel like you were able to get to know a lot of other geography majors?
Yeah- actually I was a commuter, so at first I was just concerned with graduating! I was just so concentrated on school, but after awhile I saw, “hey, I know you, I know you, I’ve had classes with you”- having that small department it’s not just that you get to know the teachers well, but you also get to know the students well. And, being part of RUGS [Rutgers Undergraduate Geography Society], I didn’t go to that many meetings, but going to the AAG [American Association of Geographers annual conference] with them, I really got to know them and I still talk to them today. It’s cool to get to know people who know what you are going through because it’s not everyday that you meet a geographer!
Would you have any advice to students who are considering a major in Geography?
One thing I wish I knew ahead of time was to look at job postings to see what kind of jobs a geographer can get. I was looking a lot at internships, which is what you should be doing- so some advice would just be to look for internships. But also, look at full-time positions, not because you’re going to apply to them but just to see what kind of skills they require and where they jobs are- are they mostly in Washington DC, or California, or New Jersey? I’ve found that a lot of them are in DC, or California, some in the Mid-West and stuff like that. I didn’t necessarily realize that until it was the end of my senior year when I was actually looking for jobs for real. I think it’s good to look ahead and see what kind of skills you should get. I wish I took a programming class, because that seems to be in a lot of job postings, a lot of database management kind of stuff- which you do get to do when you’re learning GIS. Just try to prepare yourself, look at what kind of jobs there are. I had the examples of the professors, the kind of research they do- but they don’t work in the private sector or in the government, which is where a lot of geographers end up finding jobs. So yeah, just exploring what’s out there.
I don’t really have any other questions, is there anything else you want to say?
I really liked the Geography department, I’m so thankful for all the skills that they gave me. I feel like every single class that I went through I’m referencing in job interviews. Sometimes when you are a recent graduate, you don’t have all the skills that they’re looking for because you just graduated, you don’t have work experience. But you can cite things that you do in the classes. Whether you worked with stats for the Research Methods class, or you did a land change analysis for Remote Sensing, stuff like that, I don’t think students realize how legitimate those projects are. You can’t just go into an interview and say, “well, I’ve never done anything before”, because you have! You’ve done so many things in your classes, even if it’s not a techniques course, if it’s a discussion based class, like when I took Geography of Development, even that I feel like it stretched my critical analysis skills and things like that. I think every class has something to offer. You’re constantly building up your knowledge base, so definitely try to get in as many classes as you can. Especially with Rutgers Geography, I feel like I had so many practical experiences. So, I have a poster that I did for Remote Sensing and I have that in my portfolio. I did a PowerPoint for GIS as well and that’s in my portfolio- there’s so much that you can put in your portfolio to show off to employers. When I graduated from Rutgers, I felt like I knew what kind of things I could do, even just with assignments that proposed a theoretical situation- I feel like I understand what a geographer might do. What I liked about the Department of Geography is that it’s not just theory, you learn things that could be used in the future.
Meet our Geography Majors and Alumni
Majoring in Geography can take you where you want to go!
Geography is about understanding Planet Earth and the relationships humans have with the environment. Investigating and mapping the world of today requires specialized skills. The geography curriculum at Rutgers provides the technical training and theoretical grounding to meet today’s environmental challenges while encouraging students to envision the world of the future in which they will be important decision-makers. With around 60 to 80 majors, the program is big enough to equip students with a full portfolio of essential techniques, but small enough to accommodate individual needs. Teaching formats vary from large lectures to seminar-type meetings.
The major in geography and the certificate programs (in cartography and international geographic perspectives) reflect the key areas in which geographers are now in demand, from map design to environmental planning, and help prepare students for opportunities in growth areas such as geospatial techniques where jobs are projected to expand rapidly in both the public and private sector in the years ahead. The instructional lab offers full support for work in geographic information science (GISci), spatial data management and cartographic design and production.
As a supplement to class and lab, the well-established internship program provides valuable real-world experience for students while they earn up to six credits towards the degree. The department also has a good record for majors going on to graduate work at the masters and doctoral levels.
Why study geography at Rutgers?
Arts and Sciences in Action: Geography Style
"As a geographer, I am uniquely qualified to find those problems"
Class of 2020
Deepen your knowledge about the spatial dimensions of life on Earth.
Explore how physical and social systems shape the human experience.
Learn state-of-the-art technical skills.
To change the world you first have to know it.
The Department of Geography is part of the School of Arts and Sciences
As a Geography major in the School of Arts and Sciences, you’ll have full access to a liberal arts education that spans 47 programs for undergraduates. You will acquire both the specialized knowledge of the field you choose to study in depth, and broad knowledge of the world from the renowned scholar-teachers at Rutgers. You’ll graduate ready to meet contemporary challenges in your workplace, in your hometown, and in the global community.Visit Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Website
- Jamie Donatiello
Mapping it out: Senior Puts Skills to Good Use in Public & Private Sectors
In her final semester at Rutgers, Jamie Donatiello (Class of 2014) is taking geography beyond the university as an intern with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In her second internship in as many years, Jamie is refining her skills in geographic techniques, applying her knowledge in significant real world situations, and creating new sources of public information.
In her work with the DEP and with Vertices (a New Brunswick-based company specializing in geographic information systems, where she served as an intern in the summer and fall of 2013), Jamie has worked on creating and refining data sets and conducting analyses using software and techniques she learned through coursework in Geography as well as at Rutgers’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy (where she is studying for a minor in public health).
For Vertices, Jamie was able to work on a project mapping the incidence and clean-up of graffiti in New York City, probing especially for differences in municipal responses based on socio-economic disparities across neighborhoods.
A current project at the DEP has her mapping public access points to ocean waters along the New Jersey coastline, producing what may prove an especially significant set of public data for years to come.
“I love the geography department because it’s kind of intimate, it’s smaller, and you really get to know the professors.”
Jamie is completing her degree in geography by following the ‘geographical techniques’ track, which includes courses in geographic information systems and cartography. She has also taken coursework focusing on world cultures, political economy, and the environment. A native of New Jersey interested in travel, Jamie chose to major in geography because it offered her training in practical skills and the opportunity to explore the broader world. “The professors are really nice and helpful”, she reports, “and it’s a very welcoming community”.
As she prepares to graduate, Jamie shares the following advice with fellow Rutgers students:
- “Do something you like; if you’re happy in your major and you’re happy in your career, you’ll be happy in your life overall”
- “You’re here for four years, so take advantage of every opportunity, learn as much as you can, and do everything you can to make yourself marketable”