Baptism by fire: real world experiences inspire student to find real world applications of geography

Friday, December 2, 2011 - 11:07am

December Undergraduate Student Spotlight

by Colleen Hart Sampson


When Joe Bowser lost two fingers to a table-sized slab of concrete, he made up his mind.

“It was a defining moment,” said Bowser, who crushed his hand doing wage work for his friend’s construction company. “I knew I would never do manual labor for work again.”

Hard Work and Hard Lessons

A decade before, Bowser graduated from high school in York, Pa. and forwent college, taking a job at a golf course instead.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do out of high school, and I would have to pay for school myself,” he explained. “I wasn’t about to sign on to thousands of dollars in loans just to experiment.”

What he saw as an opportunity to sustain his passion for golf progressed into a “mini career.” He moved up in the golf course industry, eventually transitioning into property management for large apartment communities.

One excruciating winter, in order to make ends meet, Bowser ran a snow-tubing hill on a driving range. He endured, “12-hour shifts, six days a week, sometimes 10 days in a row if the weather permitted.” But after seven years of physically demanding work, he grew weary.

The construction accident, which cut off his fingertips, solidified his need for change. Bowser, with support from family members, applied and was accepted at Penn State York. After just three semesters, he pushed an early change of assignment to University Park. Bowser, a physical geography major, is currently closing in on his final semester. He is 29 years old. 

Financial Pressures: The New Norm

“There are increasing financial pressures,” admits geography undergraduate advisor Jodi Vendor . “Nontraditional students, most of the time, have their ducks in a row, so they’re better prepared… and in many cases more dedicated, perhaps, because they’ve done other things. They know what they want, and they’re out to get the best value for their dollar.”


• For more background on the financial realities college students face see:


NPR: Hard-financial-lessons-learned-in-college

NPR: College-students-navigate-financial-life 



This was certainly the case for Bowser, whose conviction for school now, he says, holds no resemblance to what it was in high school. “I am paying for every credit I take,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I saw how hard it was to make it without a degree, so I didn’t want to come back and scrape by. I really wanted to excel and try to open as many doors as possible.” And he did.

New Relationships and Opportunities

Last summer, he interned at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He used high spectral resolution satellite imagery to assess seasonal dynamics in vegetation phenology and spectral properties associated with CO2 uptake. He also had the unique opportunity to do field work for the USDA, where he validated the EO-1 Hyperion satellite sensor and collected ancillary data to monitor corn crop efficiency at varying nitrogen application levels.

“I learn a lot in classes, but nothing compares to getting first hand experience,” said Bowser, who thrived in an environment where, “there was a constant exchange of information and learning.”

His desire for real world applications of geography was sparked by an internship he had the previous summer with his professor, and now advisor, Dr. Alan Taylor . Bowser spent eight weeks compiling biogeographical data in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Ca. to develop statistical models which illustrated wildfire dynamics. This experience and classes with Dr. Taylor supported his focus on physical geography.

“There were times when I felt like he was directing lectures to me and a couple other people while everybody else didn’t pay attention,” he recalled. “There is a lot of value in developing personal relationships with professors.”

Another rapport developed with his first geography professor, Dr. Donald Gogniat, who not only influenced his decision to enter the field, but also became a friend.

“I think he was just a dedicated student who worked hard and really changed his life around,” Dr. Gogniat said with pride. “It was a pleasure to see him go into geography, and I think he is going to be really good for this field.”

As graduation approaches, Bowser faces another transition: to go to graduate school or enter the work force. However intimidating the decision, Bowser is confident he has the necessary tools to move forward.

“It used to be rewarding to finish mowing a golf course at the end of the day,” Bowser remembers. “Now, I look forward to a meaningful career with global implications that could potentially be valuable to future generations.”