Midwest geography students, faculty gather to share research at UW-Eau Claire

| Andee Erickson

While the October trees were still wearing their autumn colors, students and professors of geography from 23 institutions across the upper Midwest met on UW-Eau Claire grounds.

Both students and professors said they were pleased with their location for the weekend, agreeing they came at the right time as they pointed to the trees.

“It’s beautiful; it’s charming. It’s exactly what you think of as a college town with the changing leaves,” President of the Association of American Geographers Dr. Sarah W. Bednarz said of the campus.

The annual meeting for the West Lakes Division of the Association of American Geographers brought 114 students and 46 faculty to Eau Claire for the second time in three years.

From a Thursday evening to Saturday morning, students were given an opportunity to present and view research in the Davies Center and a chance to gain professional experience by networking with others in their discipline. 

When considering her obligations as president of AAG, Bednarz said her favorite part is traveling to the regional meetings and talking to students.

Not only was Bednarz interested in getting to know the students, but the faculty members who attended with their students were as well. Dr. Paul Kaldjian, the department chair for the geography and anthropology department at UW-Eau Claire, said they all care how each other's students and departments are doing.

“It allows them to present their research in a very nurturing and collegial context,” Kaldjian said. “It’s a low-stakes, high benefit opportunity.”

Dr. Bingqing Liang of Northern Iowa University said she brought five master’s students to the conference to improve their research presenting skills not only when presenting, but by talking to others about their projects.

“When you’re talking to people you’re learning how to ask questions, you’re learning how to respond,” Liang said.

Since geography doesn’t provide an obvious career path after graduation and students don’t always know what they can do with their degree, Liang said her students can benefit from attending the conference and broadening their view of the discipline.

“You come here to talk to people. They will give the information that will help you to make decisions,” Liang said. “People here may be able to give you some opportunities.”

However, students viewed the conference as more than just an opportunity to present their research and practice their professionalism.

Students had the opportunity to participate in one of two field trips Friday afternoon. They could follow Eau Claire professor of geography Dr. Doug Faulkner on a bicycle tour of Eau Claire or visit Banbury Place to see how a rubber factory was repurposed into a multi-use space.

Natasha Lukacs, a junior from Bemidji State University, said she benefited from the Banbury Place tour as a geography major with an emphasis in city planning.

“It was a real-world example of how you can repurpose space so it doesn’t go to waste,” Lukacs said.

Jesse Meisenhelter, a senior geography student from Macalester University, participated in the poster competition, but said she was especially interested to learn what other geographers were doing with their research.

“That was more important to me than presenting,” Meisenhelter said.

Her classmate Joseph Klein, also a senior geography student, agrees seeing other projects has been a highlight.

“I didn’t come up here with the expectation of being super motivated and inspired, but I’m definitely leaving with it,” Klein said. “It’s been a phenomenal experience and Eau Claire has done an awesome job of hosting us.”

Both students and professors shared their research at the conference. After a paper presentation, listeners offered feedback and asked questions. Following the presentation of a professor from Drake University, a student approached him to express an interest in the topic. Their conversation concluded with the exchange of email addresses.

These exchanges didn’t always involve a professional. Emily Francis, a Northern Iowa University masters student, gave advice on finding the right graduate school to senior Syler Behrens of UW-Eau Claire.

Behrens said the conference was the ultimate networking experience and it was helpful hearing from Francis. The following week she said she received an email from a graduate school coordinator who sat in on her research paper presentation. Behrens research paper won third place in the undergraduate category.

Senior Emily Moothart from Eau Claire said everyone was willing to offer whatever help they could. She was surprised by how interested other students were in the poster she was presenting with her group. Students were asking questions and offering suggestions as well as compliments.

“I’ve never gone to a place where people were so eager to learn about each other’s projects,” Moothart said.

Liv Verklan, a senior from DePaul, said getting to know other students was just as important as meeting faculty when networking. Verklan said if she goes to graduate school the students she meets at the conference could be the same students in her graduate school classes.

Verklan attended with her senior capstone class that required them to create a paper or project to present at a regional conference.

“I think this meeting and getting ready for this meeting has completely reshaped our class,” Verklan said. “We are all so involved in each other’s work now.”

When geographers weren’t extending themselves to new people during the social reception at Volume One, they were sharing conversation among their own departments between bites of hors d’oeuvres and Dilly Bars.

About the author: Andee Erickson is a journalism and geography major at UW-Eau Claire. She also is a writer for The Spectator, the student newspaper.