Geography is a gateway to international issues like human rights, refugee movements and climate change. "Once I started, I loved it."

When most people think about geography, they envision maps, hemispheres, longitude and latitude. For Lee Schwartz ’76, geography is much more: it’s a gateway to international issues like human rights, refugee movements and climate change.

Schwartz became Geographer of the United States in April 2007, after serving in an acting role for over two years. He also is the director of the State Department’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues.

Since the office was established in 1921, the Geographer’s charges have changed dramatically. “It used to be primarily mapping and boundary analysis,” Schwartz says, “but once most of the world’s major boundaries had stabilized and been mapped, we had to branch out and do different work to remain relevant.”

In the past few years, the office has worked with other federal agencies and NGOs to respond to the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the crisis in Darfur.

Schwartz’s office has centered its efforts on emergency responses to humanitarian disasters, which involve digital mapping, imagery analysis and fieldwork operations designed to deliver relief to vulnerable refugees and displaced persons. He recently returned from leading a three-week, 15-person delegation to nine countries in Africa for the State Department.

Schwartz’s interest in studying geography at Bucknell was sparked by Professor Richard Peterec, with whom he traveled to Egypt and Russia. Inspired by Peterec’s passion for geography, Schwartz earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia and taught for several years at American before joining the State Department.

He notes that Peterec “probably still views my decision to leave academe and join the government as a sell-out!” Schwartz spent a year in Moscow as a Fulbright scholar, studying the importance of national homelands in the former Soviet Union.Originally contemplating studying anthropology, he decided on geography and has made his mark.

He has no regrets: “Once I started,” he says, “I loved it.”

Posted Summer 2008

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