April 2010 Student Spotlight on Arielle Hesse

It's hard to picture someone who in just four years will graduate with more than 180 credits and with three majors: Geography, French, and Jewish Studies. Along the way she has accumulated 18 prestigious awards including being named the student marshal for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. She also received the Dean Edward Steidle Memorial Scholar Award, which recognizes outstanding student achievement. But then again, there's a lot more to Arielle Hesse than her accomplishments as a scholar.

First of all, most people wouldn't guess she was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She doesn't speak with a southern accent, and as she pointed out, "I don't say y'all or call adults ma'am or sir." In her freshman year in high school she moved to State College. Her interest in tackling projects that involve personal commitment and working to help those who do not have power comes from the injustices she perceived while growing up in the South. As one of the only Jews in her neighborhood and school, she felt an affinity for others who were "different." She often felt uncomfortable with how minorities were treated. At times she didn't understand, but she always had loving and supportive parents who helped her realize she could have a voice for those she perceived to be "marginalized." In her first year at Penn State she enrolled in Elements of Cultural Geography, and she knew she had found a theoretical framework to put theory into action.

"I felt an immediate affinity, attracted to geography because of what I perceived to be a very interdisciplinary field: one that combined social theory, social science, physical science, and an expanding suite of technical methods in a way that encouraged me to imagine myself tackling significant human issues," she said. She credits the Geography Department with encouraging her to take the initiative to create assignments in line with her own interests and to help make connections among her many educational objectives.

"The idea of scale, for example, has changed my approach to projects in my other classes. My professors have linked the threads of human-environment relationships, liberal justice theory, city design, GIS, modernism, post-Fordism, ecology and fire, to name a few, to help show how each sub-discipline can inform and contribute to others. Her research on the Philadelphia Field Project led to poster presentations, including one in Hawaii in January 2010, and a winning entry in the Grundy Haven paper competition. She credits Melissa Wright with "expanding my ideas about what it means to do research and strengthened my understanding of the power of words and ideas." She has also taken her "geographer's outlook" outside the classroom.

"Geography has informed and shaped the projects I have undertaken as a member and leader of Amnesty International's PSU Chapter, Penn State's Student Labor Action Project, and even as a debating member of the University Park Allocation Committee," she said. Volunteering for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and the League of Women Voters are additional ways she puts theory into action.

Her desire to reach out beyond her local community took her to France in 2007 to study the Holocaust. But one of her most memorable learning experiences was in 2008. She examined the rise of the hypermarket in post-communist Bulgaria to better understand international food security issues. Most of her research took place in grocery stores where she walked the aisles and cataloged from which country the dairy goods came. Despite a robust history of making cheese, Bulgaria was moving away from locally produced cheese and had begun importing more French cheese. She said she was struck by the "politics of food distribution and the infusion of western European food values."

For the future, she would like to strengthen her theoretical foundation. She has applied to programs in the United Kingdom and the United States that focus on social theory and philosophy. Ultimately she'd like to pursue a Ph.D. in human geography. After a successful and enlightening experience at Penn State she said, "I am left with a strong desire to study, act, and teach." She hopes to apply the theories to solve problems in other parts of the world, namely Africa. "I don't think any of the tools in geography are so theoretical that they can't be applied to real situations," she said.