When you hear the word geography, what typically comes to mind? Maps, atlases, world globes — but what about politics?
Combined, geography and politics impact our lives more often than we think, says Dr. Ryan Weichelt, associate professor of geography and director of the First Year Experience program at UW-Eau Claire.
“They shape the physical and spatial landscapes of our world and impact political processes, like redrawing of district maps and gerrymandering, which can trickle down to how we live our lives.”
Weichelt has long studied elections, teaching a course in political geography and conducting research on urban and electoral geography in Wisconsin.
“Gerrymandering and general redistricting processes can be difficult topics to talk about, but they’re equally important," Weichelt says. "A lot of people throw their hands in the air and say, ‘You know what — I’m not going to deal with it. That’s for other people to make the decision.’ However, it has an impact. If your vote isn’t felt or heard, you can’t enact change.”
While it’s important to make your voice heard, Weichelt says most people find it difficult to even start talking about politics.
“We’ve become polarized as a country," Weichelt says. "When politics come up in conversation, immediately our blinders are thrown up. This trickles down to my classes, including my human geography class. We talk about culture and politics, which can be difficult for young people because they’re still trying to figure out their political identities.”
Though he’s been teaching at UW-Eau Claire since 2009, the Marshfield native joined the Blugold family long before that. Initially wanting to follow his brother’s footsteps to Madison for college, Weichelt attended UW-Eau Claire and stayed to finish his undergraduate degree.
Being a first-generation college student wasn’t easy at first, Weichelt says. Through his involvement on campus, he formed connections and friendships through student organizations, like TV-10, the Geography Club, Model United Nations and faculty-student research opportunities with his faculty mentor, Dr. Rodger Theide, professor emeritus of geography.
“I still have a lot of good friends to this day because of my TV-10 and research experiences," Weichelt says. "In talking with my friends who attended other universities and colleges, they just didn’t have those opportunities like I did, and I’m grateful to have been a part of that.”
Weichelt credits his undergraduate research opportunities with propelling him to pursue his master's and doctoral degrees. His passion for teaching and contributing to the body of knowledge through research landed him a faculty position in the geography department at UW-Eau Claire.
“Like my colleague Dr. Garry Running likes to say, ‘We don’t just create graduates. We create colleagues.’ I think that’s a testament to what we try to do with our students. When they graduate, they’re not just a number in the geography program. They come back in various ways, as an employee, guest speaker or just a visitor to reconnect,” Weichelt says.
In 2019, Weichelt was named director of UW-Eau Claire's First Year Experience program, which is aimed at helping not only first-generation students, but all UW-Eau Claire first-year students acclimate to college through classroom experiences, online learning modules and campus events. Having been a first-generation student himself, Weichelt feels he has a better understanding of what they’re facing because of his experiences.
Scheduling classes and understanding academic terminology are important but also intimidating topics that first-generation college students may need extra help with. He suggests Blugolds take advantage of the free resources available to them as students to get them where they need to be.
“New students or current students — come talk to your professors about your passions," Weichelt says. "Connecting with them could lead to valuable opportunities down the road that will prepare you for your profession after graduation."