Program Profile: California State University Long Beach

Group photo of CSULB MSGISci students
Group photo taken by a drone of MSGISci students at the River Ridge Ranch field site (with Scott Winslow, UAV and GIS Lab Manger front left and Dr. Wechsler front 2nd from left).

AAG staff recently sat down for a virtual interview with California State University Long Beach (CSULB) faculty members Dr. Suzanne Wechsler, professor and department chair; Dr. Lily House-Peters, associate professor and undergraduate advisor; and Dr. Paul Laris, professor and former department chair. When asked how their department demonstrated the value and relevancy of geography, a theme quickly emerged — actions speak louder than words.  Everything the department does is exemplary of demonstrating the importance of geography.

The department is keen on community engagement that provides research and learning opportunities for both students and faculty, adapts their program to ever-evolving geospatial technology and industry standards, and emphasizes the importance of field experience in the coursework across the program’s various concentrations. It’s obvious that CSULB’s Department of Geography is demonstrating the value and relevancy of geography daily, not only to their students, but to their university colleagues and local community members as well.

“One of the things that’s kept us going and relevant is that we’re always trying something…we’re constantly trying out and innovating,” says Laris. His response reflects the overall spirit of a department where innovation is the norm. As Wechsler puts it, being nimble and responsive is what has fostered the program’s success.

Professor and student perform field work with coastal sage scrub.
Professor Laris gives student Alexandra Trujillo a few tips on how to use a quadrat to sample coastal sage scrub vegetation at the PVP Land Conservancy.


Student and professor perform fieldwork together.
Student Cannon Hanson and Professor Laris prep a site for line transect sampling of coastal sage scrub habitat.


Creating stand-out programs to foster student success

Suzanne Wechsler has carried on this tradition in her current role as department chair where her responsibilities include directing the M.S. in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) program. The M.S. was created 12 years ago when it was discovered that M.A. students were dropping out because they’d found work in the geospatial industry before they graduated. The problem was, that while students were obtaining excellent geotechnical skills within the M.A. program, they were taking internships that turned into the jobs they wanted, leaving them with little time or motivation, to complete their thesis. Wechsler and her colleagues realized there was a need to provide an analytical and application-based training for these students to fully prepare them for a career in the highly competitive geospatial industry, rather than the more theory-based approach of the M.A. program.

It’s about being agile and responding to the moment as best as possible, and you can’t do that without a core faculty that are dedicated and get along well…[and]…work together to…figure out how to address the moment.

—Suzanne Wechsler

The result is a vibrant graduate program which includes both a traditional Master of Arts (M.A.) and a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) that received an Honorable Mention for the AAG’s Program Excellence Award in 2019, among other ranked achievements. Students can expect a small, yet strongly networked cohort environment, research and publishing opportunities with faculty that focus on local and global issues, and lectures from community leaders, activists and industry professionals to inform on current best practices and skills.  Research partnerships are built into seminars and culminating activities provide students with opportunities to gain specialized skills and competencies, and, for example, to investigate how issues such as social and environmental justice play out in community settings.

Wechsler adds that equally important to the research experiences we facilitate is the network and community we strive to develop while students are in our program, and after they graduate. With over 200 MSGISci graduates 96% of whom are working in the geospatial field, these networking opportunities are an especially important component of our program. We hope that by building a sense of community while students are here encourages them to stay connected and serve as a network and resource for future graduates.

CSULB students performing GPS data collection
MSGISci students prepare GPS units for data collection at the River Ridge Ranch study site in Springville, CA.


How campus visibility maintains relevancy

The value of geography is enhanced by interdepartmental relationships within the university, according to Laris. Geography faculty often collaborate on cross-listed courses with other departments or stay on the university radar through the reception of grants including an NSF REU. Additionally, some programs such as the M.S. in Geographic Information Science generate income, attract students to the university, ultimately highlight the discipline’s relevancy.

“…we’re [the geography department] a good team player,” says Paul Laris. But it’s Suzanne Wechsler  who places the credit for this success. “That’s largely due to leadership,” she says. “Paul was instrumental in fighting for geography’s place within the college.”

Building this highly felt presence within the university is something that has taken time, but it has become a win-win for the department. At the end of the day, the department leadership’s dedication has benefitted the students, faculty, and long-lasting relevancy of geography.

Put me in, Coach!

The department’s overall success reflects its outstanding faculty. To be successful, both Laris and Wechsler emphasize the importance of creating an environment where faculty are enriched and able to succeed. Drawing on their experiences, the department chair is tasked with the difficult balancing act of distributing teaching loads at a University with a heavy teaching load (12 units per semester) combined with research and service expectations.

“I’m a sports guy,” Laris confesses with a smile. But with the confession comes an important analogy: “If your team’s going [to] do well, you’re only going to do as well as each of your players. If you put them in a position where they can do the best they can do, then maybe you’ll succeed in a place like Cal State Long Beach.”


Strengthening the Bridge Across the Digital Divide 

AAG Reflects on Impacts of the Initiative, Announces New Recipients

For a small tribal college in northern Michigan, lacking basic resources for students was a regular issue, even under normal circumstances. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it was only exacerbated.

“When the pandemic began and we had to transition to online curriculum, the only way for our students to succeed was to provide them with laptop computers that they could take home,” says Andrew Kozich, Environmental Science Department Chair at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC).

This problem, however, was not limited to the students at KBOCC. Many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) geography students across the country were left without access to the computers, internet, or software they needed to complete their coursework remotely, as distance learning became the new normal. In response, AAG’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force created the Bridging the Digital Divide (BDD) program in mid-2020. Its purpose was to provide BIPOC geography students at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) with technology for virtual learning due to COVID’s disruption.

BDD distributed $238,000, with an additional $50,000 contribution from Esri and $10,280 from AAG members, to 23 MSIs in its first year. The funding provided quick relief to geography educators to put tools such as laptops and software directly into their students’ hands.

In Michigan, KBOCC students now had the resources that their small community, high in unemployment and low in income, had previously lacked. Andrew Kozich continues, “…thanks to the AAG funding, we were able to ensure that every Environmental Science major had a new computer and could continue their coursework from home.” These resources were significant in not only retaining students in geography-related programs, but in engaging them in coursework and in recruitment for the following academic year. KBOCC saw an increase in Environmental Studies enrollment thanks to the now-available digital resources.

This success is mirrored elsewhere. Quinette Otter, a student at United Tribes Technical College who received a laptop through BDD, said, “I will be forever grateful for this gift.  This semester my children and I were 100% virtual and sharing one computer.  It was a struggle. There were many days that I was unable to attend classes because it overlapped with their classes. This is a lifesaver and will ensure I can be in class every day.”

Other geography instructors used BDD funding to maintain communication and classroom experiences with their students when in-person office hours and in-person teaching were no longer offered. One instructor invested in a screen and projector to channel a traditional classroom setting and alleviate the virtual nature of the new virtual reality. A common thread in BDD’s first year was how substantial the impact of the funding was, contributing essential elements in MSI geography programs’ work to retain, engage, and recruit both current and future students.


Geography students at North Carolina Central University use tablets and virtual headsets funded by the AGG Bridging the Digital Divide program to interact with augmented reality models of the Earth system and go on virtual reality field trips. Photo credit: Gordana Vlahovic
Geography students at North Carolina Central University use tablets and virtual headsets funded by the AGG Bridging the Digital Divide program to interact with augmented reality models of the Earth system and go on virtual reality field trips. Photo credit: Gordana Vlahovic


Recipients and Expanded Scope in 2022

In 2022, AAG provided a second round of funding of $238,000 toward the future of the next generation of BIPOC geographers. Year One of the program highlighted other areas in which BDD’s funds could be allocated, in addition to digital resources.

We’re excited to announce that in 2022, 22 MSIs and related faculty have been approved to apply funds towards not just digital resources but non-digital expenditure as well such as student scholarships, fieldwork transportation fees, stipends for external guest lecturers, and other uses that educators see fit to help strengthen their programs and support their students.

AAG seeks to bridge the distance between BIPOC geography students and success through equitable access to equipment, tools, and other educational resources. By refining BDD into a program that is reflective of each individual institution’s specific needs, we hope to better serve this group of students that have faced long-standing systemic inequities. We know that the results will last far longer than COVID’s temporary, distance-induced environment.

In addition to Bridging the Digital Divide, several of AAG’s projects and initiatives are designed to have a positive impact on attracting and attaining students of color to the discipline of geography. Here is a sampling of programs and approaches AAG is undertaking right now:

  • The new online Guide to Geography Programs Map contains an MSI filter, which allows users to see all MSIs in the United States that offer geography courses, programs, and degrees.
  • Community colleges are essential for the growth of geography programs and retention of geography students. Through Healthy Departments, the AAG is working with community college instructors to facilitate change in community college perception, provide resources for community college students and instructors, and highlight the contributions of community college geographers to the broader discipline.

Learn more about AAG’s new framework and plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion.