Leslie McLees

Undergraduate Coordinator & Instructor, University of Oregon Department of Geography

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (University of Oregon), M.A. in Geography (University of Hawaii), B.S. in Zoology (Washington State University)

What attracted you to a career in education?
I enjoy connecting students with the larger world, whether through their courses or their path through college. I do not aim to make them think a certain way, but to expose them to the breadth of perspectives and futures available to them. In doing so, I hope to enhance our society, and while it may sound cheesy, make the world a better place. I strive to be an engaging advisor and instructor who help my students’ draw from their own experiences to understand their world and their futures in it.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? My background and education in geography has allowed me to view the world and its seemingly unrelated processes and interactions through different perspectives. Power, processes, and systems are part of our everyday lives, and I try to bring this approach inside the classroom and advising sessions. The places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met throughout my career in geography have given me the skills to reach varied student populations, to reflect upon my own practices, and to bring students together and prepare them for the future.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often in your work?
When I teach, I use spatial thinking to understand the local and global experiences of my students. When I advise my students, I provide career advice and determine what type of work might be best suited to their skillset. My background in cartography helps me in creating media advertisements, and my background in qualitative/survey fieldwork has helped me develop our program. I have found that the level of appreciation of differences in perspectives, whether they are held by my students or colleagues, is something that geographers are particularly well-suited for. I have also found that non-geographers appreciate the relevance of geography without realizing what the field truly is, and effective visual representation of problems is important in gaining support from those outside of academic geography. My ability to represent important issues spatially has gained plenty of visibility for our department and programs; for instance, people understand the importance of human-environment issues, but don’t realize how well-suited geographers are in addressing such issues (until I tell them).

Generally, the two main skills I use daily are critical thinking and effective communication. Critical thinking skills are important in asking questions, whether they be how to recruit more people into our classes and programs, how to best prepare my students for life after college, and so on. Effective communication is valuable in meetings, as an instructor, with my students, and in conveying information in any capacity. Other valuable skills for geographers are the ability to creatively form solutions to problems, to adapt to new environments, to represent data visually, and a good sense of teamwork and ethics on the job.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
Within my role as a career/academic advisor, I needed to learn the bureaucracy of requirements. This type of knowledge and level of detail is something I’ve developed from experience training and working with professional advisors. Since my background is in academia rather than professional advising, I try to bridge the gap between these two worlds, and have found that professional advisors are more than willing to help me learn more about their skillset.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
Yes, I have been involved in hiring office staff and faculty for our department. I look for effective communication skills, and a professional and outgoing demeanor when interacting with others. We look for people who can engage with our students regardless of their background, both inside the classroom and administratively. A promising candidate also possesses critical and creative thinking skills both in the classroom and in the office.

What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work?
I would say the greatest challenge in my work would be dealing with the bureaucracy and details of advising. The most inspiring, and what keeps me paying attention to the details, is knowing the students. I not only go over requirements with them, but help them develop and articulate their goals and progress within their own bigger picture, which helps in finding programs and opportunities best suited to their goals. Perhaps a challenge has been that as an advisor, I haven’t been trained in helping to resolve other types of problems my students might have, such as mental health concerns. Students should feel safe with their advisor, as we are often the first people they come to with problems. I find a deep satisfaction in helping students navigate their challenges and connecting them with the resources our university provides.

What advice would you give someone interested in a job like yours?
To gain professional advising skills, one can either take classes, or assist/shadow someone on the job. I’d suggest conducting informational interviews to see if this is the right fit for you. The key to any career path is to make strategic connections; personally, I have a strong connection with my department having earned my PhD here, and after I left, I was able to draw upon that connection to find the position I’m in now, when I decided a tenure-track job was not what I wanted. I would also say a strong background in the disciplines, meaningful connections, and relationships with students are very important in this type of work.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
Universities recognize that students need more help navigating higher education today, and they are hiring and training more people to advise students. I would encourage anyone interested in advising to seek training in career and academic advising, to better help students articulate their skills outside of the classroom. Though geographers gain valuable skills in getting their degree, many liberal arts programs lacked the help students need to translate these skills outside of the classroom. Employers value the skills that students have—many students just need some help in articulating them.