How did you decide your college major? Did you change your mind a couple of times?
My eyes were glued to the list of undergraduate majors listed on the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s website for at least a month before I completed my application, but once I picked my major it was there to stay. I chose Geography because I love the social sciences and this offered a well-rounded way to study them; it was environmental science without all the biology, political science without all the politics, and history that focused less on memorizing dates and more on exploring places.
To be honest, I fell in love with geography for all of the stereotypical reasons you’d expect – I’m that kid who learned my states and capitals right along with my ABCs and 123s, asked for gazetteers and atlases for Christmas, and makes sure to geotag all of my social media posts. I quiz myself on everything from counties to countries when I’m bored and can tell you exactly how many of Wisconsin’s counties I’ve water skied in (13 of 72).
Obviously, getting a college degree in anything isn’t as easy, simple, or straightforward as your passion for it is, though. I didn’t get quizzed on the countries of Africa in my classes; instead, I studied everything from the culture of those countries to the way colonialism defined their borders, city layout, and even street patterns. I can tell you the politics behind suburban neighborhoods having cul-de-sacs and the racist practices of banks providing loans for homeownership. I can conduct everything from field surveys to property surveys and have had coursework take me from the middle of the woods to some of Milwaukee’s most impoverished inner city communities.
Though more complex than I had imagined, geography as a field of study was more complex than I could have hoped. It challenged me to take my quiz questions to another level – instead of asking what the capital of a country is, I now ask why it’s the capital; which individuals, political parties, or military forces determined that outcome; what the economic impact was of choosing that location; who was positively and negatively impacted by that decision; and whether disputes about the recognition of the capital still exist. It also challenged me to take my understanding of maps to another level – instead of simply consuming a map’s information, I now consider what motivated the cartographer to create a map, choose its symbols, display X extent using X projection, and what message they were trying to tell. I can even create maps myself using an engineering-based software program!
The real test of a major, though, is how (and whether) it continues to impact you after graduation. Sure, one good mark of that would be securing a job in the field, but there are others, too. Personally, studying the intrinsic connectedness of people around the world makes me feel more of a pull to explore new places and really engage with the people who live there. Knowing how the forests and lakes of Wisconsin have impacted me, for example, makes me want to see how the natural features in other parts of the world leave their residents in awe and wonder. My dream cabin in the woods has always shown northern Wisconsin as the backdrop, but where do other people who share my cozy cabin happy place see as its setting – Alaska? Scandinavia? Siberia?
Finding places that make you happy and feel safe is so important, which is why making maps feels like a humanitarian effort to me; people look to maps to find new adventures, clarity, or even the fastest route back home. That’s why I instantly fell in love with Lake Effect Co.’s Go Lake Topography Tee Shirt (pictured), which shows topographical lines used to determine elevation change, in this case, for a lake. Wearing this shirt is a helpful motivator to pick up the map when I’m feeling lost and look for the fastest route to the places that make me happiest. For me, some of those places include the Milwaukee River and Three Lakes Chain. Where are they for you?!