More Than Reading Colorful Maps

UNC student Carissa Aguirre and her internship supervisor

UNC student Carissa Aguirre, left, and Scott Cox, who is supervising Aguirre's internship with the city of Greeley's Community Development Department, discuss the location of a project.

Photo by Steffanie Sperry

For most people, the word "geography" calls up childhood memories of reading colorful maps and reciting state capitals, but in the adult world, geography is a science that holds cities' infrastructures together. UNC and the city of Greeley are working together to get more students involved in this field that affects everything from skyscrapers to tap water.

UNC students majoring in Geography have the opportunity to intern in the city's Community Development Department in one of four divisions: Building Inspection, Engineering, Planning and Natural Resources. Typically, one or two students intern in the Community Development department each year.

"We try to offer things they don't offer in classrooms," said Mike Garrott, a planner in the Community Development Department and internship coordinator for the Planning Division.

Geography students who intern with the Planning or Natural Resources division learn to create spatial database maps of the city, walk areas of the city with a GPS to assist with mapping, engage in various research projects and even visit and photograph construction sites for inspection purposes.

The most popular internship work has been with geographic information science, or GIS, which allows geographers to combine and analyze different types of information about a place and map the information accordingly. It's most commonly recognized as the technology behind software such as Google Earth.

Internships with the Community Development Department give students a chance to take the knowledge they gain in the classroom and apply it to the real world in a way that will affect how citizens in Greeley live their day-to-day lives.

Phil Klein, chair of UNC's Geography Department, described geography as the study of how many different variables interact in a single place, explaining that in their internships, students learn how variables such as traffic, water, electricity, sewage and construction interact in different parts of Greeley.

Klein said geographers are like "administrative managers who bring it all together" and "work in towns and cities to make neighborhoods stronger."

Associate Professor of Geography Katherine Johnson, who coordinates internships for the department, said an internship experience is a good résumé-builder and can help students get jobs with private computer mapping firms, any city development department, resource management agencies, travel agencies, the Peace Corps and many other places. The internship itself could even turn into a future job.

"We've had students working in Greeley's Community Development Department who then worked there after they graduated," Klein said.

The city's Garrott said that there is at least one employee in the Planning Division who began their career as an intern. That employee has worked for the city for about six years.

One student who is hoping her internship will translate into a career after graduation is Carissa Aguirre, a senior Geography major. Aguirre began her internship in the Greeley's Planning Division in September and was recently able to move into the IT department to do more work with GIS software.

She said that she was drawn to the field of geography and this internship in particular because of the diversity of opportunities available.

"I wanted to take the physical and social sciences and combine them," Aguirre said. "And geography is so diverse it allowed me to do that."

As part of her internship, Aguirre has worked on street revisions; reviewed site plans; visited, photographed and reviewed construction sites; and contributed to decisions made at internal and external city planning meetings.

She said that her favorite part of the internship has been applying her knowledge and getting a feel for what her professional life will be like after graduation.

The experience, she said, helped her define and prepare for her career goals, and it can do the same for other students.

Of Note

  • The city of Greeley employs interns in other departments as well; usually taking on eight to 15 interns annually.
  • More information about UNC's Geography program

- Jaidree Braddix, Senior Journalism Major