Department of Geography wins award for master's program

2019 American Association of Geographers M.S./M.A. Program Excellence Award
Western Michigan University Department of Geography

The Department of Geography at Western Michigan University initiated its master’s degree in 1962 and has since awarded almost 400 thesis-based master's degrees. Typically completed in two years, students take a shared core of courses in their M.S. prior to specializing in one of three concentrations: geographic information science, environmental and resource analysis, and community development and planning. The department consists of twelve tenured faculty and one full-time term faculty member.

The AAG committee was impressed by the department’s clearly outlined commitment to shared governance and its robust engagement with the East Lakes Division of the AAG. An annual curricular retreat regularly sets departmental goals, and graduate students have a voice through formal regular meetings with the chair and graduate director and informal monthly lunches with departmental faculty. As a committed participant in the East Lakes AAG Division, WMU hosted the joint East Lakes/West Lakes division conference in 2014, and its students make presentations at this and other regional conferences, regularly receiving awards and recognition for their scholarship.

The committee was also impressed by WMU’s use of internal departmental funding to prioritize graduate student participation in conferences, having a merit-based travel scholarship to enable attendance at the AAG’s national annual meetings. Leveraging departmental endowment resources to generate additional funds from its home college, the Department of Geography has, on average over the last five years, annually funded around 16 masters students, approximately half of its incoming masters cohort. Not only are these graduate students well-resourced, they become successful. The department offers a teaching assistantship training program for its graduate students and has seen recognition of this with on-campus awards for Graduate Teaching Excellence. Its graduate students move on to Ph.D. programs, successfully pursue internships, or move into careers with employers in the public sector, such as The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and various state and federal agencies, and the private sector in companies such as AccuWeather and US Cellular. Indeed, data presented in the candidate dossier demonstrated that over the past five years, the department has successfully recruited a growing number of international students to its master’s degree program, and some these students have returned to their home countries to take public sector positions. Outside the classroom, Western Michigan University offers students the opportunity to take field research camping trips, attend biweekly research colloquia with invited speakers, and interact with alumni through annual dinners. An “outstanding alumni” is honored annually with an award and campus visit.

In terms of curriculum, the AAG committee noted that, like many geography programs, WMU is adding a robust unoccupied aerial vehicles (UAV) component, recently inaugurating a graduate certificate in geospatial applications of UAVs, and on-campus collaboration with programs like health science, marketing, civil engineering and anthropology (among others). Its faculty have taken a leadership role in planning for and assessing Western Michigan University’s transition to a “responsibility centered” budget model, and its associated interdisciplinary “public health cluster” initiative.

One of the most impressive initiatives undertaken by Western Michigan University’s Department of Geography has been systematic outreach to K-12 and area community colleges. In a letter, Diana Casey of Muskegon Community College, an institution around 100 miles away from WMU, stated, “The faculty at WMU have always maintained an open door for my undergraduate students to learn about opportunities so they can further their collegiate studies,” and notes that not only will the geographers at WMU host her and her students, but these faculty also regularly travel to Muskegon Community College to meet faculty and students.

Finally, the department offers a robust research profile, generating around $1.8 million in external grants over the last five years, its faculty publishing 133 peer-reviewed articles, seven books, and 20 book chapters over the same period, in addition to presenting 165 papers at academic conferences and a further 97 invited lectures. Such research activity is not only recognized within the discipline, but has resulted in WMU offering its institutional awards for research excellence to two geographers in the last two years.