by Joseph Master

A box of baking soda, a flat surface and a fleet of Hot Wheels cars.

These are the tools of the child geographer.

As a boy, Darion Porter ’17 remembers creating baking soda snowstorms for his model cars and tracing intricate sodium bicarbonate tracks on countertops. The baking soda was the perfect vessel to stencil what would become Porter’s first rudimentary maps. The tracks weren’t arbitrary. They were mirror images of the main roads and thoroughfares of his neighborhood. He was a cartographer. A planner. A maker. When he first saw Google Earth, he was hooked. So, baking soda and plastic tires gave way to coordinates on real maps, governed by geocoding. The passion grew.

Darion Porter became a geographer long before he became a Temple Owl; long before he knew what geography was, or if he’d even like it. So, it’s safe to say he didn’t find his environmental studies major.

No, environmental studies found him.

We sat down with Darion to discuss his journey from baking soda cartographer to soon-to-be college graduate with a world of open opportunity.

You came to Temple from a small town in the Poconos, surrounded by nature. Was the environment something you always wanted to study?

I grew up around so much nature. I wasn’t even that aware of nature in terms of sustainability. I mean, I recycled, but that was it. When I came to Temple, I came as a biology major. But it wasn’t really until I joined the Sustainability Living-Learning Community [an interdisciplinary community of students who live together as freshmen] that I thought: “Wow. Maybe I could do something with this here.” So I switched from biology to environmental studies as a freshman. And it’s really because of the influence of the LLC and the 1-credit seminar, which helped us learn about all the sustainable initiatives on campus and in the city.

To this day, some of my best friends are from that community.

What is your definition of sustainability?

That’s the big question. It gets asked in almost every class I take and I really don’t have an answer yet. It has changed from when I came here as a freshman. It has to do with community. But it also has to do with responsibility. If you care about a place where you live, and the people who live there, that all comes together. And you think: I will buy better things, and help people out in little ways, or be more informed about what I consume, or start a little garden. And if everybody did that, it would bring about change. It doesn’t have to be from the top down. Or from a big corporation.

It’s the little things. All of those little things together can make a very big impact.

It’s hard to say: 'if you come study the liberal arts, you’ll learn to make your own opportunities.' But you will.

Have you looked into the business side of sustainability? Addressed it from the top? What about Benefit Corporations?

Certainly. “Ground up” works. Businesses hold a lot of responsibility in sustainability. But a lot of that comes form individual people pushing for it. Maybe companies wouldn’t be so green if people weren’t making those changes themselves.

What is the number one misconception people have about your major, environmental studies?

It’s almost a running joke that we’re all a bunch of hipsters, or hippies. And maybe there is some truth to living close to the earth. But I don’t view myself as either. I always say: “I’m just a regular guy. I like the technical stuff.  The geographic mapping. I like statistics. I like numbers.”

The thing is, that’s all part of environmental studies. Yeah, we do need people who can go out and code applications and look at income distribution. And we also need people to start community gardens. It’s both. Here at Temple, they expand it in both directions. You learn the economics and the green stuff. The urban planning and opportunities to do some really great work.

Have you taken business classes?

When I first started in environmental studies, I had to take more economics classes than my business major roommate. He was a finance major. Maybe now, he’s had more. But I had to learn the economics first. That’s really important.

So, you have added the technical skills to the theory behind sustainability. You are earning a certificate in geographic information systems. This is a really hot field right now — a field in which our government projects 35 percent job growth. Keeping this in mind, what do you want to do after graduation?

Really, I know it is a cliché. But I want to make the world a better place. I can do that with GIS by looking at certain inequalities and planning. And that’s cool. I might even go into statistics or epidemiology. And that’s cool. I could work at a non-profit that helps provide education. And that would be cool. It all comes full circle. If I can help people, that’s what matters.

You just named four industries. You must feel pretty hopeful about your future.

[laughs]. I do. Yeah. Definitely.

What do you think about the liberal arts, and where they fit in our society?

There is such a misconception about the liberal arts, and it comes to opportunity. Making your own opportunities. And I think this is something that a lot of people maybe can’t articulate. I mean, it’s hard to say: “if you come study the liberal arts, you’ll learn to make your own opportunities.” But you will.

Everyone has the ability to make a positive impact on the world. If we all just take the initiative to do so, a lot of good can be done in a short amount of time.

What advice would you give to high school students who might want to study the liberal arts?

I think there is so much pressure put on you in high school to do well on your SATs, get good grades, and get ready for your trade, to make sure you’re perfect for the work force. But when you get to college and you’re giving your time and money, you are getting so much more than that in return. You’re getting a community. a network. And so many opportunities you would never have otherwise.

Lots of the classes are open-ended. They create so much dialogue and opportunity. For example, some of my friends started an app called Milk Crate. They made it from nothing. And it came from these discussions.

What is it about the College of Liberal Arts that makes it a crucible to make your own opportunities?

This place gives you a chance to explore yourself. To ask yourself what you really want to do. To get introspective. When I graduate, I will have a million opportunities. There is no such career as an “environmental studier.”  It’s open-ended. But it’s not the professors, it’s you who has to fill in that blank about what you’ll do. It’s not cut and dried. You figure it our for yourself. And studying the liberal arts helps you figure out who you are, who other people are, and about the world in general. And once you come out, you’ll have a leg up. You can make your own path, whether it’s in this community in Philadelphia, or anywhere.

Will you stay in Philadelphia, or go back home to the Poconos?

As of now, I think I’ll stay in Philly, and it’s because of the network that I have grown. It started with the professors, and then people they know, and then the wider community. It’s great to have that kind of network coming out of college.

What’s the single most important thing that you learned at Temple so far?

Don’t give up!

Have you ever felt like giving up?

Sure. I switched from biology to environmental studies. My dad is a chemist. It was hard. But what I’d say is to always work for what you want to do. Don’t give up.

How do you plan to change the world?

One step at a time. Everyone has the ability to make a positive impact on the world. If we all just take the initiative to do so, a lot of good can be done in a short amount of time.

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