By: Nick Santangelo

Originally from a big Northeastern city (Baltimore), Pamela Jackson came to an even bigger one (Philadelphia) to attend Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Naturally, she ended up doing perhaps her most impactful studying to date in rural South Dakota, a Midwestern state with a population half that of Philadelphia’s and only a few hundred thousand more than Baltimore’s.

The geography and urban studies major and Africology and African-American studies minor transferred to CLA after her freshman year. But even before starting her college career, she worked with Temple alumni through a high school job she had with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. That showed her how broad her opportunities could be here at Temple. Later, as a student, she would see a Geography and Urban Studies Department email about internships at National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates sites. Jackson knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Of Micropolitans and Malls

There were internships available at sites in other big cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. But while Jackson says cities are her biggest passion, many geographers focus on them. She wanted to try something different. That something would be “micropolitan” research in South Dakota. Defined as an urban area with a population between 10,000 and 50,000, a micropolitan is a new descriptor used by geographers alongside metropolitan, suburban, exurban and rural. Jackson chose to study the micropolitan of Yankton, S.D. The differences from Philadelphia and Baltimore were stark.

“It wasn't as diverse of a community, but they were trying to build it up and add more development and commercial businesses were coming to the area because out there it's very different,” she says. “It was a culture shock for me coming from Baltimore and then especially from Philly.”

One of the biggest shockers was seeing what passed for a mall in Yankton, which also helped Jackson finalize her decision to study the area.

“I went to the mall, and that made me want to do that place because the mall was literally a movie theater and one store. And they're like, ‘This is our mall.’ And I was like, ‘This is not a mall! This is not a mall!’”

Big city outsiders aren’t the only ones who think a mall should be more than a movie theater and a single store. Some locals wanted to further develop the “mall.” But that and other developments around town seemingly clashed with Yankton’s agricultural roots. Jackson wanted to see if the locals could balance staying in touch with those roots despite major commercial developments.

it's really helped me find different things that interest me

This became a major function of Jackson’s research, but she didn’t limit herself to it. In October, she presented her findings on mapping social values throughout the Upper Missouri River Basin at a New Jersey conference for the American Association of Geographers. To gather her research, she and a partner traveled to South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota where they asked locals to fill out surveys on iPads. The first half of the survey asked residents to rank how important crop development, biofuel and wind energy were to how land was used.

“For the second portion of the survey, we pulled up Google Maps and would use [geographic information systems] to show that this is where people relate to these values. So for the value of agriculture, we would ask, ‘OK, where on this space within 50 to 100 miles do you see agriculture?’"

Being Fearless

The experience opened Jackson’s eyes to what life is like outside of Northeastern metropolitan bubbles. It also fed her desire to further expand her worldview. She readily admits it’s “crazy” that she’s never been outside the country despite being a geography major. This summer, she’ll remedy that with a trip to Ghana. It’s a trip she may have never taken had it not been for her internship experience.

“I feel like that was a stepping stone for me to learn about different communities and interact with them and really immerse myself in their culture,” says Jackson, “especially since I ended up there for 11 weeks instead of 10. That opportunity along with my classes along with being an RA and everything else I do, I feel like it's all a package, and it's really helped me find different things that interest me and not be afraid to definitely use my resources to find these opportunities that have helped me.”

The Ghana trip should also build nicely off Jackson’s minor in Africology and African-American studies. Asked if there’s also a connection between that subject matter and that of her geography and urban studies major, Jackson beams with excitement. She notes that despite what people think, making maps is just one part of geography. 

“Geography and urban studies is such a combination of everything in life because it's social, political, environmental—everything can be explained through it,” she says. “Which is why I chose that. And then I decided to partner it with Africology because I felt like Africology, especially the Africology department here, has a lot of really renowned professors and people I felt like I could learn from even though it's a small community.”

Courses like Environmental Ethics, Black Politics in America and Spatial Statistics proved to Jackson to have deep connections. She draws parallels from the differences between fruit sizes to animal rights to American politics and culture. Looking at the big picture, she’s developed a new perspective by seeing how those seemingly disparate elements work together. Now she wants other students to understand that not being scared to go out and find such perspectives for themselves.

“Don't be afraid to try something new because you never know what that can set up for you and how your life could change.”

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