UnderDoGs president Melissa Peterson is passionate about aiding people in a rapidly changing world

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 2:39pm

Undergraduate Student Spotlight by David Zubenko

Geography students often have unique stories and Melissa Peterson (senior, Physical Geography option, GIS minor) is no different. Peterson began her Penn State career as a meteorology major; however, as her first year progressed she realized her true interest was climatology.  This prompted her to switch into the broad field of geography, which enabled her to combine her passion for climatology with other interests like geoscience and GIS.  Since joining the department she has studied abroad three times in addition to serving as the president of UnderDoGs [Undergraduate Department of Geography Students] for the 2013-2014 school year.  These experiences have molded her into a person she says is, “very passionate about aiding people in overcoming the challenges associated with a rapidly changing world.”


Melissa Peterson, AAG

Peterson presents a poster that compares her study abroad experiences

at the 2013 AAG conference in Los Angeles. Photo by Angela Rogers.

Peterson’s first study abroad experience was Semester at Sea, a seven country, twenty-six day voyage around Central America and the Caribbean.  The highlight of the trip was two-day capstone project on a remote, rural peninsula in Belize where students studied the sustainability of the water, energy, and economic resources of the small community.  This trip was followed by excursions to South Africa and Jamaica that focused on the local culture and sustainability, respectively.  Completing multiple study abroad programs has allowed Peterson to compare and contrast the experiences.

“I have a better understanding of various national mentalities because of the lengths of time I’ve spent in different places.  It’s been a work in progress to communicate across language and cultural boundaries as well as communicating to other Penn State students the benefits of studying abroad,” she says, adding “People make a joke that I’m that girl who is really persistent about people going abroad, but you are earning credit to travel! Open your eyes, seek new perspectives, ask questions, take in the world around you … the opportunities are truly endless.”

In addition to these study abroad experiences, Peterson is currently serving as the president of UnderDoGs. This group of students meets every other Tuesday, “to go over current events in the department, college, and University, engage in geographic discourse (sometimes through guest speakers), and work on professionalism,”  she explains. Other activities include making posters for presentation at conferences, networking skills, and social events.  Much of what UnderDoGs does throughout the year builds towards the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual conference.This weeklong event is a chance for participants to immerse themselves in geography by listening to talks and presentations by both students and professionals.  The 2013 AAG annual meeting was held in Los Angeles, and Peterson called the event the best experience she’s had as a member of UnderDoGs:

“I went into the process really hesitant because I didn’t know anyone that well. But, my hesitation was uncalled for because I came back friends with a ton of new people who I look forward to working with after graduation. I also got to explore new parts of the discipline I didn’t know about and got insight into just how technical geography can be!  In addition to the amazing sessions we attended, there was a whole city to explore and learn about while bonding with other students who will be future colleagues! I’m really looking forward to the conference in Tampa this April.”

Peterson feels that the connections made at the AAG conference are very important, and that this is something that is mirrored in UnderDoGs:

“UnderDoGs is a forum for students to help each other learn and grow in the discipline of geography. I’ve felt lost in the department in the past, simply because I didn’t know how to approach presenting at a conference, making a poster, talking to potential employers, etc. UnderDoGs gave me the tools to do that, while also helping me to branch out and talk to other geography students who may not be in my classes because they are in different options of the major.”

When asked what was the main thing she wanted people to take away from UnderDoGs, Peterson responded:

“I want people to have a sense of geographic self when they are on the back-end of an UnderDoGs experience. I want UnderDoGs to have given each student at least one tool with which to excel in a professional environment that they didn’t have when they came into the experience. I’ve definitely learned more than one technique, and I hope that I succeed in passing that on to others.”

Since stumbling across geography her freshman year, Peterson has taken full advantage of what the department has to offer.  Upon graduate she would like to do GIS work, preferably someplace where she can make a difference.  Regardless of whether or not that happens, she will continue to explore the world and all it has to offer.