Graduate Student Found Fulfillment in Geography
When Alison Horton began contemplating careers, she was drawn to professions that valued social justice.
She thought about becoming a social worker or an urban public school teacher.
But the field that most appealed to her ideals was geography.
“In college I was flipping through the course book and circling classes I wanted to take,” Horton said. “There they all were: world hunger, poverty, migration issues, water resource management, population.
“As it turned out, they were all geography.”
Now working on her Ph.D. in the Geography Department at the School of Arts and Sciences, Horton is not only studying those issues in depth, she’s witnessing them firsthand.
The upstate New York native is spending the year in Bangladesh after winning a prestigious new Fulbright award that allows recipients to serve in foreign countries as special assistants in government ministries.
The Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship, which is in its inaugural year, aims to help scholars gain public-sector experience in an international setting while carrying out a related research project.
Horton, one of only 17 fellows nationwide in the program, is living in Dhaka, the nation’s capital city, and working in the Ministry of Education.
She’s conducting her own research in off hours, focusing on ways to reduce poverty and improve living conditions for the country’s poorest citizens, with an eye toward alternative, community-based solutions. Though smaller in area than the state of Iowa, the country has a population of 150 million.
“I am immersing myself in the culture and humbly observing how the local people are working to improve their own country,” she said. “Bangladesh is extremely densely populated and incredibly impoverished, and the government is willing to take some alternative approaches towards improvement.
“I feel very fortunate to be placed within the Ministry at such at such a fascinating time, and hope that I’ll be able to learn from, and contribute to, the new policies.”
Indeed, her fellowship comes at a time of rapid change for Bangladesh. The country is working toward its Millennium Development Goals, and has made strides reducing poverty, increasing access to education, and improving the environment, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Horton said one reason she chose geography is its ability to examine multiple and complex issues in the developing world.
“I really admire the approach of geographers,” she said. “Many scholars examine and understand poverty through a strictly economic lens; but a geographer also takes into account, for example, culture, politics, religion, climate, post-colonialism, and gender.”
Professor Trevor Birkenholtz, Horton’s advisor, agreed.
“Geographers are very good at asking ‘why’ questions,” Birkenholtz said. “We want to understand why Bangladesh is the way it is, with respect to its historic colonial relationships, where it sits in global political economic relationships.”
Birkenholtz said Horton’s assignment in the education ministry coupled with her own independent research makes for an extraordinary opportunity to understand Bangladesh.
“For many researchers, it’s really difficult to interact with the organizations that set the policy,” he said. “Alison has made the connections that most academics make only after years and years of work.”
The Geography Department at SAS is an interdisciplinary and academically rigorous program that encompasses a range of fields, from environmental protection to international studies to cartography.
“Geography develops students’ technical skills - map making and spatial data analysis - but also provides them with a well-rounded sense of their place in the world,” Chair Richard Schroeder said. “We produce global literacy.”