Catherine Sweitzer: double major in geography and nutrition

Everyone can relate to food, says geography undergrad Catherine Sweitzer.

The necessity of food, its distribution, and how the world consumes it are among the food-related issues that fascinate Sweitzer, and that’s why she paired her geography major with a double major in nutrition. What may seem like an unlikely match has reaffirmed Sweitzer’s decision to major in geography, and it’s been instrumental in enhancing her academic and social experiences at Penn State.

“Geography is inherently interdisciplinary, and I felt as though combining geography and nutrition would customize my academic experience,” says Sweitzer, who graduated in the fall with a Bachelor of Arts in geography and a Bachelor of Science in nutrition. “It was catered to exactly what I wanted to do.”

In geography, Sweitzer is interested in studying people’s nutrition and behavior with geography ideas. At the forefront of those ideas are social theory and poverty alleviation, which she says she’s “in love with.”

Those ideas came together in what she researched for the Philadelphia Field Project in 2009, community nutrition. She was interested in how food and interaction with food could change people’s health status, and consequently, how it might improve their quality of life in other areas, such as learning a new skill set or enjoying a beautiful neighborhood.

“Being on-site on a research project challenged my idealism,” Sweitzer says. “All of us realized the complexities of the situation of poverty remediation, and there is no one simple solution to what is a simple problem.

“There more I learned, the less I realized I knew.”

Sweitzer presented her research from the Philadelphia Frield Project at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Washington, D.C., in 2009. That was her first time attending the meeting, and through the sessions she attended, she was impressed with how far-reaching the scope of geography is.

“It’s not something that can be contained in four years,” she says. “I realize I’ll always be learning as a geographer.”
Before she had participated in the Philadelphia Field Project, she was involved in another co-curricular activity – a student organization called the Community Food Security Club. This year, Sweitzer was the vice president.

Sweitzer was one of the organizers of the group, which she says supports community-level work in nutrition, like food banks, local agriculture, and even the food students are fed on campus. It started from students in a nutrition class who wanted an alternative to clinical nutrition.

“The wanted community involvement in good, healthy nutrition practices,” she says.

One of the hallmark outreach activities that Sweitzer has participated was starting an after-school nutrition education program at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School. She developed a curriculum working with the after-school program coordinator.

Sweitzer already sees the effects of the program, which was put into effect

“The students are so knowledgeable – I feel like I didn’t learn things about food until college,” she says.

In addition, Sweitzer has met new friends through the club.

“They try to eat together and enjoy good company in the midst of good food,” she says.

Sweitzer says she has a DUS adviser to thank for steering her to geography.

She came to Penn State in her first year without a major but always had been interested in people. The adviser recommended she look at the human side of geography.

Sweitzer had a common misperception about the field.

“I always thought geography was about maps and state capitals,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Sweitzer to be sold. She soon fell in love with, as she says, social theory while taking GEOG 123.

Sweitzer graduated in fall 2010 will intern with National Geographic in fall 2011.

Long term, she hopes to work in as an educator or counselor in the fields of sustainable development or agriculture of nutrition.

“I’ve always seen being a teacher as something I will do,” says Swetizer, who hoped to build a strong knowledge of geography and nutrition for the path. “I wanted to have something to say when I arrive.”