People think geography is all about mapping rivers and mountains, borders and city streets, but today’s geographers use sophisticated technology and data analysis to illustrate social, political, economic, and environmental facts and trends. 

“Geographers use GIS—Geographic Information Systems—to tell complex stories,” says Euan Hague, professor and chair of the geography department. “Our students really get that: Their map making is fantastic.”

In fact, each year DePaul undergraduate map-makers are recognized locally, regionally, and nationally. For example, in 2016 Daniel Mehmel (BA ’16, MBA ’18) took first place in a student symposium, co-sponsored by the Illinois GIS Association (ILGISA), for his mapping of large-scale damage done by a tornado that ripped through Washington, Illinois in 2013 (image above). Emily Flock (‘17) and Aidan Schenkus (‘16) won the ILGISA awards for Undergraduate Excellence, while Brooke Robinson (‘18) received the ILGISA student scholarship. At last year’s mid-west conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), Joseph Arcus (‘17) won second place for his presentation, “New Commerce, New City: Economic Shifts and Urban Change in Budapest, 1990 to Present.”

Geography: The Pursuit of Perspective

Since her first class as a freshman, Robinson was hooked on geography: “I found out what geographers really do and never looked back.” That first quarter, she mapped a history of public housing in Chicago during the ‘70s and ‘80s. “After that, affordable housing became my passion, and I’ve researched various aspects of its history and on-going challenges in many different classes at DePaul,” she recalls. “As a geography student, I’ve gained deep insights about what makes a city work—or not—and what makes a neighborhood a place where people want to live.”

Hannah Eboh (‘15) also found that geography gave her a frame within which to pursue her interest in hazard management. As a senior, she won a Fulbright grant, which she’s now using as a graduate student to do field work in the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Caribbean. “I’m investigating how people in small-island developing states think about the risks associated with a hazard: Do perceptions of risk change based on distance from the threat, gender, age, and other factors? I’ll use participatory mapping to visualize sociological and demographic data to find out.”

Mapping: A Billion Dollar Business

“GIS is an estimated $250 billion industry, and demand is expected to outstrip supply by 2020,” says Hague. “Our students are ready for great, fast-moving careers.”

Flock contends that “a lot of issues in government and industry revolve around space: Where are people from? Where do they live? Where do they work and play? With GIS skills, geographers can make sense of huge amounts of data.” Flock has already interned with ComEd, FEMA, and LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago). “ComEd uses GIS to keep records of its assets—poles, lines, stations—and of the electrical flow in its grid. At FEMA, it’s used to prepare catastrophe readiness assessments at every level—local, state, and federal. And LAF is mapping patterns of who seeks services and where. These projects are typical of the demand for our skills.”

Lucy Stanfield, a GIS specialist with the US Environmental Protection Agency, says she uses mapping extensively in overseeing the management of hazardous waste. “We use maps to tell various stakeholders what we know—about a facility’s situation, its history, and the surrounding demographics—in ways that are very plain and easy-to-understand.” When she meets DePaul geography students at ILGISA events, she’s “always impressed because they’re really prepared, and their presentation skills are beyond what you’d expect. The ILGISA members are really interested in the students’ research because it’s so thorough and professional.”

Jillian Elder, the director of Enterprise Location Intelligence for Walgreens, says that "DePaul students are thinking and creating; they’re really engaged in applying the principles of geography and GIS in real-world situations.” When Walgreens is planning a new store, Elder’s team maps locations, store-by-store sales data, competitors’ performance, and demographics data, such as the age, income levels, property values, and purchasing patterns of local consumers. “The really cool thing about GIS is you can include all different kinds of information, together,” she says.

“Industry is on just the cusp of GIS uses,” says Mehmel, who works for a digital navigation company while earning his Masters in Management from Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. As an undergraduate, he was already attuned to the commercial value of geographers. “For my ILGISIA project, I wanted to find a better, more accurate way to assess the cost of post-disaster damage in a residential area. The faster these calculations, the faster people on the ground get help.”

Outstanding career preparation is one reason the geography department received the inaugural Bachelors Program Excellence award from AAG in 2016. The association praised the department’s “curriculum that advances urban social justice, community service, and geotechnology … [its engagement in] local, national, and international scholarly debates and research … [and its] talented students who later pursue graduate study in geography or geography-related careers.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the skills students need in a career and how best to develop those skills,” says Hague. “Then, we push our students to achieve excellence. And they do.”