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Rachel Anderson’s path to and through Geography!

Rachel at National Geographic Headquarters in DC

I have always been internationally-minded, plagued with wanderlust, adventurous- whatever you want to call it. But coming to University of Oregon and finding the Carnegie Global Oregon (CGO), one of the best cohorts of influential and inspiring students at UO, showed me that I was also connected. Shaul Cohen, CGO leader and Geography Professor, and so many famous and influential guest speakers showed me that my actions, my thoughts, my choices and my life path, mattered. Not just is a feel-good sort of way, but in a way that opened my eyes to my own citizenship in an increasingly global community.

Geography examines this connectivity. It is one of the most interdisciplinary, complicated, wholistic fields that exists. Once I realized that Geography was not “Geology” and that it certainly was not just about maps, quite literally, the entire world seemed to open up to me.

By studying Geography, I knew I wouldn’t have to decide on one topic of study for 4 years. I could be inspired by and passionate about EVERY class I took and I could embrace technology, culture, history, and politics simultaneously. It turned out that Geography also challenged me the most of any discipline; I’ve never had to so carefully examine so many different historical, spacial, and cultural factors of a single issue before.

Once you begin looking at the world that way, you wonder how you ever formed opinions without examining all those factors…

One of my most memorable Geography classed at the University of Oregon was “Geography of Inequality” with Professor Cohen. I was only a freshman and the youngest of twelve UO students in the class. Each week, we drove to the Maximum Security Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon to learn alongside twelve OSP inmates.  I’m convinced, this “Inside-Out” class is one of the flagship classes we offer at the University of Oregon. I can say wholeheartedly this class changed my life. I walked out of OSP on that last day understanding our Criminal Justice System and the human spirit in a way that would have otherwise taken me a lifetime. I declared Geography as a major a month later.

Since then, I’ve backpacked Western and Central Europe, taught English in Slovakia and here at home in Oregon, studied in South Africa (Mozambique and Swaziland too), conducted my own research on Islamic Feminism, and interned with the Digital Team at National Geographic for 15 weeks in the summer of 2016.

Skyline of Durban, South Africa

Personal relationships have even further illuminated my understanding of identity and interconnectivity. Tutoring a Saudi Arabian mother over dinners of kabsah has given me a counter-narrative to Western media’s portrayal of Islamic women. Hessah taught me that identity is not defined by other’s misunderstanding. Living with a Zulu-speaking Mama and family in a township outside of Durban, South Africa has given me one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. Mourning with Mama the death of her son to police brutality has taught me that identity can sometimes be used against us.

Rachel’s Zulu host family

Living for 4 months in a township just outside of Durban, identity was strikingly at the forefront of my everyday experience. I learned from South African political leaders who encouraged me in my own research surrounding feminine identity and Islamic feminism in South Africa. Interviewing such influential women in the Muslim community here provided me with new insight into the power of place, culture and identity.

In Dokodweni , South Africa

It still amazes me that all of these experiences led me to interning with National Geographic. Working on the Digital Team at National Geographic gave me the opportunity to live out my passions, to surround myself with talent, to obtain geographic mentoring, and to live my childhood dream. In short, I was be honored and ecstatic to receive that position. It still feels surreal that I was able to live out one of my biggest dreams at only 21 years old.

Official NatGeo Interns!

I will never forget my time at National Geographic, the people I was able to meet and the inspiration that I obtained that profoundly changed my research and personal aspirations. If my time at University of Oregon has taught me anything, it’s that dreams are not just for extraordinary people, we all have within us an ability to contribute to the global community. As Ducks, we are lucky to be in of one of the most inspiring and influential communities I’ve ever experienced- a model we will certainly carry with us into the real world and beyond.

The field of Geography is for the student who is okay with the complicated answers. If you are willing to listen, to understand opinions different than your own, to take into account language barriers and historical context than this is the major for you. Being a geographer has made me a global citizen, not a savior, just an observer and an ally who feels comfortable with people from all walks of life. Because of Geography, I feel at home all around the world.

Read some more of her reflections here!