October 2005 Student Spotlight on Susan Kaleita

October 20, 2005

Welcome to the Department of Geography's "Students in the Spotlight Series." Each month we spotlight a new undergraduate student whose work, research, or activities in geography stand out as exceptional. Find out more about what geographers do and how our students are pushing those standards with their work and ideas. Susan Kaleita is this month's featured student.

Susan Kaleita

The National Council for Geography Education published the National Geography Standards in 1994 - eighteen benchmarks against which to measure the content of geography courses and establish a standard for geographic literacy nationwide. Around the same time, Susan Kaleita was on a road trip with her family to visit her grandmother in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was eagerly flipping through the pages of a AAA travel guide, comparing the populations of cities and towns and noting the differences in place of the urban and rural landscapes that passed by her window. Without even knowing it, she was waking the dormant geographer inside of her. She had started down the path of meeting those geography standards.

Susan, current president of the undergraduate geography organization, UnderDOGs, joined the Department of Geography as a freshman - a rare occurrence for undergraduate geographers as most students generally discover geography only in their second or third years at the University. She wasted no time in diving into the rich variety of coursework offered through the department, and quickly immersed herself in the Penn State geography community.


"I joined UnderDOGs as a sophomore as a way to meet other geography students and take advantage of the events and speakers that the organization sponsored," Susan says. "When you initially start out in geography the class sizes are pretty big, and it's sometimes difficult to meet people. UnderDOGs allows geography students the chance to get to know one another in a smaller, more informal setting."

UnderDOGs is a student-run organization that meets weekly on Tuesday evenings. It hosts geography-related speakers, sponsors academic, outreach, and social events, and promotes undergraduate participation in academic conferences and exhibitions. Last year, students toured the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. and visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania. This year's schedule is even more ambitious with two full semesters of trips, social events, and speakers.

"We've been getting high turnouts for meetings; there were thirty people at our first meeting, and Dr. Rose's presentation on internships at the end of September drew nearly that many," Susan says. "I want to ensure that UnderDOGs stays well organized, with a full schedule of events and speakers to show that it's a real organization. I'd also like to host more social events throughout the year to strengthen the role of the organization in bringing together geography students outside of the classroom."

The Emerald Isle

Last spring semester, Susan left the United States to study at the National University of Ireland at Galway. Galway, a youthful, rapidly growing city of 65,000 people in western Ireland, is home to the University which is situated on the banks of the River Corrib near the city center. As part of a Penn State-sponsored study abroad program, Susan enrolled in two geography courses at NUI Galway: rural geography and population geography. Both courses focused attention on the specific geographies of Ireland in their analyses.

"In my rural geography course, we read lots of articles and reviewed a great deal of data on rural geography in the United Kingdom and Ireland in particular," Susan recalls. "We were also required to complete a field project in a rural village outside Galway. I spent hours speaking with local residents about the draw of life in their rural town and exploring the area."

"In the population geography course, we examined stereotypes of the developing world in academia. The course was similar to Dr. Yapa's "Geography of the Developing World" course in its approach to how people think and talk about development. Another large component of the class focused on the recent spike in immigration to Ireland."

In the ten year period from 1987 to 1997, Ireland saw a doubling of its immigrant population. In the following five years from 1997 to 2003, the rate nearly doubled again with a corresponding decline in emigration (Immigrant Council of Ireland, June 2005). Workers in faltering eastern European economies seeking employment elsewhere, and returning Irish migrants have fueled the emergence of the Celtic Tiger, an analogy to the nickname "Asian Tigers" referring to Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan whose economies experienced high growth rates and rapid industrialization in the second half of the 20th century. The "Tiger" of the past ten years has been Ireland - its economy is booming.

"Immigration to Ireland is a relatively new phenomenon," Susan says. "The Irish way is to be born and raised in Ireland, then grow up and leave. Now that trend is reversing as the economy has improved and the rise in immigration rates is becoming an international policy challenge."

The Penn State Name

Though she was on a small island across an ocean from Penn State, Susan was surprised to find how far the repute of the Penn State geography program carried.

"Penn State's geography program has such a great reputation both throughout the U.S. and overseas. The head of the Department of Geography at NUI Galway, Ulf Strohmayer, received his Ph.D. from our department. When he found out I was from Penn State, the professor for my population geography course immediately recognized Peter Gould (former professor in the department) with whom he corresponded in earlier years. And my rural geography professor spent her sabbatical leave at Penn State. It was good to know the department's reputation carries that far."

An International Perspective

Susan returned to the United States in May after traveling to England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and France. Her time overseas sparked an interest in Dr. Chris Benner's Geography 420W course, "Race, Class, and the Digital Economy." The course examines race and class dynamics in urban development, and how patterns of urban inequality are influenced by the digital economy through a comparison of Durban, South Africa and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"In Dr. Benner's 420W class, we're holding weekly teleconferences with students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. The students we're conversing with come from diverse backgrounds: some are South African, others are from Germany and Singapore, and there's even an American student. We discuss the different experience of race and class in each city, the history of the cities and their industrial pasts, strategies of economic development, and regional politics and governance. We also take field trips to Pittsburgh and we're working on a project for an interfaith regional development organization.

"My international experience has given me the ability to see how the students in Durban view our American perspectives through the lens of culture. And that's been very helpful in this course. I'd like to have the chance to work or study overseas again - not only is it a great learning experience, but it forces you to face your fears."

Honors Academics

You don't have to travel across the ocean to face fears, though. One of the most daunting tasks for an undergraduate honors student at Penn State is the undergraduate thesis required by the Schreyer Honors College. Susan is taking her thesis research in stride, but that doesn't mean the process isn't overwhelming at times.

"My thesis topic is 'Globalization of the Health Care Industry," Susan says. "I first became interested in the topic when I took Geography 100, "Economic Geography", with Dr. Amy Glasmeier. As part of the requirement for the honors option I completed in the class, I did a literature review on this topic and decided to expand upon that initial research for my thesis. It's an interesting topic, but there are a lot of possible avenues to explore."

Globalization has had a tremendous impact on the dynamics of the health care industry throughout the world. Advances in communications, transportation, and technology have made it possible to market health care services internationally. An upper middle class Londoner with a heart condition, for example, could fly to India for heart surgery and arrive home cheaper and faster than if he remained in the U.K. and waited his turn for medical treatment.

"India is now marketing health care for tourism purposes. A patient's medical history or radiology results can be zapped to doctors there in no time and patients can receive professional treatment and health care services without the wait," Susan remarks. "I saw an advertisement recently for a vacation package to Argentina. The ad promised a beach-side hotel with a view, a visit to ancient ruins, and a face lift."

Susan is also looking into the global commodification of health care services, i.e. the global trade in organs, as a possible direction for her research. Wealthy individuals in western countries now have the opportunity to travel overseas for a new organ and in doing so, skirt the inconvenience of waiting to reach the top of a long transplant list in their own country. Human rights watch groups and news organizations have filed increasing reports, however, of rural, illiterate villagers in countries such as India and China being exploited, kidnapped, or killed for their organs. Neither the trade's legitimacy nor morality has been validated and controversies continue over this new global phenomenon.

Susan's honor advisor and former professor, Dr. Amy Glasmeier, will be helping Susan in the direction and research of her thesis topic. Susan continued her connection with Amy in the spring 2004 semester taking Geography 497A, "Regional Analysis of Race, Class, and Poverty in Central Pennsylvania." The class turned out to be her favorite to date, and Susan and Amy developed not only a great working relationship, but became friends as well.

"Susan came to economic geography with a broad interest in people and places," Amy says. "She has since focused her research on a fascinating topic: the commodification of health in an era of globalization. She is looking at a range of topics including the market for body parts and how telecommunications capability is shaping the spatial distribution of medical services like radiology. In a year's time she has noticed very rapid developments in the field."

Outreach Efforts

Susan's enthusiasm for geography spills over into other aspects of her life as well. During spring break 2004, Susan and other members of the Penn State Catholic Campus Ministry traveled to Tijuana, Mexico to help with the construction of a retaining wall for a local church, and to spend time with orphaned children in the community. The students fundraised prior to the trip and delivered food and clothing to residents upon their arrival.

Susan also participates in a Schreyer Honors College-sponsored organization called International Journeys Story Hour. The organization meets three times a semester at the Schlow Centre Region Library to read translated children's stories from different countries to children ages 3-8. The Story Hour group organizes crafts, games, and food based on themes from the particular country the children read about. The group has already journeyed with children to Spain, South Africa, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Argentina.

Susan's hardworking nature, leadership talents, and dedication to outreach are an inspiration. The Department of Geography is proud to boast Susan as one of its community, and Susan reciprocates the feeling. She claims, that for her, Penn State and its geography program are a perfect fit. Place really does matter!