KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Some students go to college looking for direction; Quinn Heiser decided to major in it. He will graduate from Western Michigan University with honors on Saturday, April 29, with bachelor's degrees in geography, with an emphasis in geographic information systems (GIS), and philosophy.
"A lot of people think that's a weird combination, but they both provide direction in a lot of ways. Geography is physical direction, while philosophy is more about metaphysical direction. And I think they also both require a lot of global thinking," says Heiser, who was named the Presidential Scholar for the Department of Geography, Environment and Tourism, which is the highest academic honor the University bestows on undergraduates.
He's also halfway to a master's degree in geography through the department's accelerated program and recently learned his ultimate dream of becoming a geospatial analyst for the Department of Defense (DOD) is on the fast-track to reality. Heiser received the DOD's prestigious Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship, which awards full tuition, mentorship, summer internships, a stipend and full-time employment with the department at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Virginia, after he finishes his master's.
Geography has been a passion of Heiser's since he was in elementary school, studying maps on long road trips with family. While he could have followed that passion down the road from his house to Ann Arbor or East Lansing, the Ypsilanti native chose Western for the stellar reputation of the Department of Geography, Environment and Tourism and the holistic experience the University offers.
"It has all the resources and tools that a larger university would have, but it has the intimacy and closeness that you would expect from a small college. And I think that's why Western is so great: Because it has the perfect combination and the perfect balance between those two really essential things."
From the start, Heiser cultivated meaningful connections with professors in his chosen field.
"Dr. Lisa DeChano-Cook was my professor for my first geography class: physical geography. (Our mentorship) could have ended there, but I think she really saw something in me. We started collaborating through my involvement in Geography Club, since she's the faculty sponsor," says Heiser. He credits DeChano-Cook with encouraging him to pursue a leadership position in the organization. "Since then, she's been really involved in seeing how I'm doing with school work and how my future is looking."
In his experience, DeChano-Cook's efforts to empower and encourage him tended to be the rule rather than the exception.
"At Western, the professors care about you as a person," says Heiser. "The interest that they take in what you're interested in, what you want to do with your life, what you want to do with your career—I think that's really where Western inspires and motivates people to find the strength within themselves to push on and get back up (when challenges arise)."
Heiser's passion for geographic information sciences grew as he took more classes and completed undergraduate research alongside graduate students and professors. One project he was involved with through the Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change included geocoding low-income areas in southeastern Michigan, essentially converting physical addresses into geographic coordinates to use in mapping applications.
"It really tested me because it required me to formulate a system for doing things really efficiently but also have the patience to deal with the really painstaking detail work it entailed."
His success on projects like that caught the attention of faculty mentors who encouraged him to apply for the prestigious NASA DEVELOP program, which pairs the next generation of geospatial professionals with current NASA scientists to address real-world environmental problems through Earth observation.
"A few professors emailed me about the program and said, 'It's really competitive, but I think you have a good shot," he remembers. Within a few weeks of submitting his application, Heiser was granted an interview which earned him a spot in the program. "It was a definitive moment where I felt like, 'I've made it.’"
He traveled to Virginia to spend time with his cohort at the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base. Heiser's team worked in collaboration with the National Park Service to assess vegetation health in the Delaware Basin—where oil extraction has increased nitrogen dioxide levels in the air—through remote sensing data.
"I got to work with a really great team and use a lot of the skills I've learned at Western as well as build other skills," says Heiser.
The teams traveled to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to present their findings to a series of scientists and other agency staff working on related projects. While some students may have been intimidated exchanging ideas with the top minds in their field, Heiser felt right at home.
"Some people have this preconceived notion that … Western isn't going to prepare you for the big leagues, but it absolutely did. I was, in fact, exceedingly capable of what I had to do. Western went above and beyond for me. I felt like the underdog who got to prove everyone wrong."
A HOLISTIC EDUCATION
As a scholar of geography, Heiser understands there are many ways to reach a destination. Broadening his academic journey at Western by adding a philosophy major, he says, will make him a more well-rounded employee and individual in the long run.
"What I think is so unique and beautiful about philosophy is that it is the only field in college where you focus on gaining wisdom and not knowledge," he says. "Wisdom is a quality that you take with you. Rather than a set of facts or skills, it's something that makes you more whole as a student, as a future position-holder in whatever career you choose."
He's already seeing the dividends. A critical-thinking course required for philosophy prompted him to start looking at his GIS coursework with a more critical and objective lens.
"It really helped me with GIS, because I had to reevaluate my own biases when it comes to map creation or data visualization. It's helped me to take a step back and ask, 'Okay, what's really going on here?'"
While philosophy courses inside the classroom helped Heiser think more globally and intentionally, he also expanded his interpersonal skills outside the classroom through active involvement in a variety of registered student organizations, including Geography Club, Phi Sigma Pi Honors Fraternity and Kalamazoo Catholic as well as volunteer service.
"College is really the gateway to interactions in life (outside of school). You have to navigate your way through not only the academic side but also your relationships with people. … I think that's what makes the college experience so important, because you can't really get that anywhere else," says Heiser. "There are so many opportunities for you to grow at Western, you just have to look around you and seize them when they arise."
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