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The Geography Professor, Part 1

June 19, 2010

Palm Walk on the campus of ASU in Tempe, Arizona

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The place was a whirlwind of over 40,000 students.

It was easy to be a confused college student at Arizona State University in the late 1980s, especially with all the distractions going on around you.  More than most other college campuses, ASU boasted a high number of out-of-state students who were far from the nest (and therefore the “eyes”) for the first time.  Therefore as expected, the first couple of years represented a carnival of newly-found independence, classes, and a social life involving a potpourri of ways to have fun…with time management and prioritization skills lagging behind for most of us, to say the least.

Distractions & Biz School Sucks

Not helping matters either was the fact that I began in ASU’s College of Business, due primarily to not knowing where else to land on my feet to begin the educational element of the college experience.  It ended up boring me to death, to say the least.  In a sea of freshman distractions, in entry level business classes of 400+ students it was easy to feel small, lost, and unappreciated — as if you were simply another number.  No, wait, I WAS another number!  That’s right.  They literally assigned numbers to us in micro and macroeconomics, because there were so many of us, and I suppose it was easier to weed out the weaklings in the herd of cattle that way. Even the professors in those classes came across as overwhelmed and defeated drone-lords, appearing as if trying to herd along the latest hopeless army recruits.  You could see the disconnected gloss across their faces.  They were simply going through the motions.

So it was; I stumbled into my second year of college…and my boredom and lack of interest continued into accounting classes and so forth.  As my interest and dissatisfaction with my studies only grew deeper, I pulled exceptional maneuvers like blowing off class (and the occasional exam — oops, didn’t know, sorry!) to drink cheap warm beer, introduce myself to the musical tastes of college buddies, play volleyball, and make informed last minute decisions like jumping in cars to go to Rolling Stones concerts in L.A.  The grades reflected as such.

Let’s do the math here: Out-of-state student + newly-found independence + boredom with studies + pledging where there was a house rule to have a keg on tap 24/7 + a never-ending sea of parties (oh, and add female attendees too) to drink that beer = not (ahem) so good grades.

I don’t know what to say…it must have been something in the water…err, my drink.

Advisers & a Wake-up Call

One more thing worth mentioning; it didn’t help that my advisers at ASU’s Business school were completely worthless.  Sadly, I’m being nice when I say that.  Rest assured that when a student goes into an adviser’s office seeking advice, and gets a disinterested person on the other end, they can tell that person doesn’t care.  I was no different, and the experience can be utterly deflating to a college student trying to find their way.  Unfortunately I had such an experience on multiple occasions while trying to find a spark to light the fuse, and the event was more about shaming and belittling than trying to find a constructive path to success.  While it wasn’t happening in my first two years, I can’t put that all on the advisers…such a job must be an unrelenting grind with the constant stampede of clueless freshman coming through on their way to dropping out, or seemingly at least.

Fortunately, sooner or later, I woke up.  Unfortunately, the freshman/sophomore lifestyle took no prisoners and good students I know — many of them very capable and intelligent with special talents to offer the world — ended up dropping out of college or going back home…many to never be heard from again.  One could only hope they were able to move onto something more constructive that worked for them.  As time would tell, several of them resurfaced in later years as successful people.

In the background is Gammage Auditorium, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

For me, it was a matter of determination and perseverance.  Prior to my Spring 1990 semester, I took a step back to look at the big picture — and took a long look in the mirror.  I was able to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing?  What — really, in truth — do you want to do?  What is your passion?”

It certainly wasn’t business school; that much was obvious…but there were clues I picked up on from my past, along with classes I had already taken outside of business school.

Figuring Out a Pathway

I knew I had felt passionate about environmental issues since before I was ten years old…seriously, I was asking questions when I was seven and saw exhaust coming out of the back of automobiles to the effect of: “So Dad, what happens when all the exhaust from all the cars goes into the air?  Does that effect the planet in some way?”

Armed with that lifelong creed, I decided to take a look through the transcripts from my first couple of years.  I was venturing into the spring of 1990, and I knew that I was going to be changing majors and more than likely it would be a seismic shift…I just didn’t know precisely where I’d end up.

I spotted a geography course I had taken my freshman year, and really enjoyed.  Hmmm…geography.  The environment.  Those two go together somewhat, don’t they?  I felt like I was onto something, and I returned to ASU from winter break at the beginning of the 1990s (yes, January 1990 to be specific) with a mission in mind.  I needed to seek out the Geography Department to see what was “brewing there” and figure out if it was the right fit for me.

So, finally having felt a spark of purpose to my post-high school life, I entered what was called on the ASU campus map the infamous, modernist, built-like-the-massive-box-it-is, originally-named “classroom office building” to visit the Geography Department and have a chat with someone there, but I wasn’t sure who to talk to.  I just knew I needed to speak with someone to see if this was the place for me.  Not only did I want to find out if the program was a good fit, I wanted to understand — if I made the commitment to switch my major to Geography — how I would make a living with the degree.  I entered the building upstairs, and approached the main office.

To be continued…to read on, go to the “The Geography Professor, Part 2.”

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