Geography graduate assistantship to help Iowa high school students find their passion

Geography graduate assistantship to help Iowa high school students find their passion

Whitman Cler /

After teaching at the high school level for 13 years and receiving numerous teaching awards, Rachel Hansen has found herself back on the other side of the classroom. Not only is she a geography master’s student at the University of Northern Iowa, but she is about to be the geography department’s first recipient of an innovative graduate assistantship. 

Hansen begins the assistantship in spring 2022. Half of Hansen’s assistantship will consist of teaching undergraduate students at UNI, while the other half will promote UNI’s Geography program in the following four Iowa school districts: Waterloo, Muscatine, and two southeast Iowa districts. 

Hansen said the graduate assistantship is intended “to spread some awareness about geography, as a field of study, get students interested in it as a potential career path as an area that they might like to expand or look into in college, and kind of talk about our own work and what you can do with geography.”

K-12 schools have devalued geography in recent years because social studies subjects like geography are not featured on standardized tests. As a K-12 educator, Hansen understands geography’s precarious position and the impact of this assistantship. Hansen says, “[Geography is] just one of those things that is being marginalized in so many ways, so this was a really great idea to bring it front and center again.”

This assistantship will help bring geography back to K-12 schools, as well as develop techniques to promote the entire university. Dr. Alex Oberle of UNI’s Geography department conceived the dual graduate assistantship requiring both classroom teaching and community promotion. Oberle thinks graduate students will find this type of assistantship useful for future work. “Working on a short, succinct sort of elevator speech that works and is compelling and interesting for a high school senior versus an educator is good practice, and that sort of thing is really transferable to the rest of the university.”

Though Hansen is now passionate about geography, she did not realize her love of the field until the end of her undergraduate career at the University of Iowa. “I majored in history, and I kind of thought I would just become a history teacher. I ended up tacking on a minor in geography, because I just loved geography. By the end, I had a professor who was like, ‘you know you're a geographer, right?’ I just didn't know. I had no idea that [geography] was so applicable,” said Hansen. Instead of history, she is getting her MA in geography at UNI.

Oberle says that it is important to promote UNI’s geography program because of all it has to offer and this promotion can help lead other students, like Hansen, to find their passion. “We have a great sort of traditional residential graduate program here, where there's a whole lot of opportunities for graduate students to have funded opportunities beyond [an assistantship], to go to conferences to work on real world projects to contribute to grant funded work over the summer. We have an awesome placement rate in terms of where our master students end up, whether it's in nonprofit or industry or students who want to continue on to earn their PhD and eventually become a professor.”

For more information about UNI's Geography graduate program, visit the website. To find other graduate assistantship opportunities at UNI, visit the Graduate College website.