I'm always thinking about why something is happening where it happens.

Vanessa A. Massaro

For Professor Vanessa Massaro, geography isn't just about maps and borders and mountains. It's about people.

Massaro studies what's broadly categorized as "human geography," which explores the relationship between people and the places they inhabit. It's a topic that first captivated her during her first year as an undergraduate student.

"I never thought about how where you come from shapes who you are," she explains. "But once you see that, you can't un-see it."

Massaro, a cultural geographer, says her research is tied closely to issues of social justice. "I've always cared about life in the cities, with a social justice bent," she says. "That's where my heart is."

One of her goals, as an instructor, is to encourage students to consider how their own birth locations impact their outlooks and opportunities, as well as the ways in which they are connected to people around the world.

"None of us make our own clothes, so on the first day of class, I might ask students, 'Where do your clothes come from?' " Simply reading the tags on their shirts can open students' eyes to their places in a global network, she says.

Massaro is also committed to giving students opportunities to conduct fieldwork. In a recent project, students teamed up with residents of the economically struggling, central Pennsylvania community of Mount Carmel to create a geographic information system (GIS) to help the borough map blighted properties.

Students are also helping her to conduct survey research in Philadelphia. The research should ultimately help to shed light on the economic impact of repeat incarcerations, a problem within parts of the city.

Massaro stresses that fieldwork is a collaborative process, in which students bring their knowledge to the communities they study, and learn from local residents, too. In Mount Carmel, students shared their understanding of technology, while the town's residents provided expertise on the location and history of blighted properties. In Philadelphia, students are teamed with a resident who can help them navigate unfamiliar urban neighborhoods.

Whether touring blighted properties or helping with surveys, Massaro's students are encouraged to leave their comfort zones behind, physically and intellectually.

"I want students to be uncomfortable," Massaro says. "I tell my students, 'You should never feel unsafe. But you may feel uncomfortable.' "

Posted Oct. 6, 2017