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Letters from the Field

Megan Nellis

Imagine Scholar in South Africa

Megan Nellis working with students in South Africa
Megan Nellis working with students in South Africa


My university experience was humbling and fascinating, ceaselessly reminding me I knew nothing of the world. I was lucky enough to study abroad with Cal Poly and work to save money to travel to West Africa and Latin America independently. My travels and studies stripped away all I thought I knew about anything. Yet there was joy in not knowing.

Unfortunately, that joy turned to anxiety when I graduated and had to figure out what I would do in the “real” world. I defaulted to moving to a big city (San Francisco) in hopes of getting my first professional job. I landed one from a cultural exchange company. In theory, it aligned with my hopes to do something that made the world a little better. But after two years, I knew my younger idealistic university self wouldn’t be proud of my comfortable trajectory.

After many sent resumes, I heard from Imagine Scholar, a youth education program in rural South Africa. It was a two-year-old organization looking for a program manager. The day I received the offer email, the dissonance I had been feeling dissipated. Moving to South Africa in a new position I never went into the work thinking I had any expertise, but instead went with humility to learn and be of service in any way possible. In my first year, I was asked to learn and manage our nonprofit’s legal governance, facilitate classes, conduct fundraisers, and even take on accounting. This opportunity catalyzed me to throw myself into personal research about pedagogy, adolescent psychology, and neuroscience. Over the last eight years, I’ve come to specialize in curriculum planning and facilitation in my role at Imagine Scholar.

Working with teens, the most common worry is, “Megan, I don’t know what I want to do with my life!” I always like to tell them the story of when I shared the same worry with my Cal Poly professor Meg Strieff. Her reply set me at ease. She went on to help me realize there is value in not knowing as long as you continue to stay inspired, humbled, and excited to learn. Not knowing is a path in itself. I hope my journey empowers my students (and you!) to embrace not knowing. Thank you to all the Cal Poly staff who helped open my mind to the world of possibilities.

Here are two links to Imagine Scholar in South Africa for your interest:

Kaitlyn Johnke

International Development Work in Public Health

Kaitlyn Johnke working in Ecuador
Kaitlyn Johnke working in Ecuador

After graduating from Cal Poly I spent 6 months living in a small Kichwa community in the amazon of Ecuador through a program called Amazon Learning. There I participated in development projects in the community to improve local people’s livelihoods and coordinated my own cultural conservation project - creating a field trip and internship opportunities for the high school students from my host community to participate and learn from the Midwifery and Natural Medicine Association, as well as conserving the indigenous knowledge of the natural environment. There are few community members that still have this same depth of knowledge around ancestral traditions and healing, but it is rapidly being lost in the current younger generation.

I then spent six months in Sierra Leone volunteering with Project Peanut Butter, an NGO doing malnutrition research. I did a lot of work with data collection, which I am grateful for as it was a good experience for my current career path towards Global Health. I have decided that getting a masters degree in this field will be a good way to apply my passion and skills for working/researching in the field with local people while helping them. I definitely was inspired to continue working in development from the GEOG 408 Geography of Development course, as well my study abroad experience in Thailand! Without the Social Sciences Department’s help with a Learn By Doing Grant I would not have been able to complete my senior project to its fullest extent - doing multi-site field research in Senegal and Spain about migrant experiences.

Allissia Isolani

National Park Service Work in the Virgin Islands

Allissia Isolani and Jackie Grealish, both alumni working in the Virgin Islands
      Allissia Isolani and Jackie Grealish,
     alumni working in the Virgin Islands


Since August of 2019 I have been working for the National Park Service at the Virgin Islands National Park (VIIS) on the island of St. John. I was hired through an AmeriCorps contract and work in the Cultural Resources Department, and specifically focus on Archaeology that takes place both on land and underwater. Originally home to the Taino indigenous people until ~1450, St. John was occupied by a few different European powers before being claimed by Denmark in 1721 who used an intensive slavery-based economy to run extensive cash-crop plantations. The history of this island continues through emancipation in 1848 and the eventual purchase by the United States in 1917. Today, underwater resources such as prehistoric fish pens, submerged Taino sites, and shipwrecks help tell the story of the native people, pirates, colonial settlers that called St. John home. The bulk of my work at VIIS was conducted in the field, and included monitoring projects for new construction, and archaeological investigations in at-risk areas that are threatened by storm surges or erosion, and survey of different areas for cultural resource assessments. We are also tasked with finding structures or sites within the park boundaries which consists of some preparatory GIS work followed by trekking into the jungle and navigating to potential sites for a surface survey. Office work was (unfortunately) a crucial component as every project needs to have its own report and map, and we often need to achieve compliance and collaborate with our State Historic Preservation Office. Our main excavation that I worked on this year was of a Taino ceremonial site located on Cinnamon Bay Beach with an occupation range from 1000-1450 AD. The site contained many zemis (carved stone and clay figurines), pottery fragments, beads, ceremonial axe heads, and much more. I have also been working on analysing and cataloging backlogged artifacts from previous excavations, and maintaining the preservation of the park’s collection facility. My education at Cal Poly really prepared me for the different types of work that this job requires. My GIS courses were a huge asset to me here as maps need to be created for all of the projects that we complete, and GIS skills are needed to find and navigate to sites. All of the field and lab work I did under the instruction of Dr. Jones allowed me to excel in my new position.

Paige Liss

Bureau of Land Management Archaeological Technician

I’ve been working since late June as an archaeological Technician through American Conservation Experience, a Non-Profit Conservation Corps, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the Barstow Field Office. I work on archaeological surveys of areas within the BLM Barstow Field Office jurisdictions, including those supporting the West Mojave (WEMO) Plan and Travel Management Plan. These include over 17,000 miles of routes of travel on 3.2 million acres of public lands in the West Mojave Desert, in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern and Inyo Counties, California. We work towards satisfying the requirements of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Specifically, we are developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) model to identify areas with cultural resource sensitivity. The results of the model will direct the BLM’s efforts in historic property identification and evaluation, the location of prehistoric sites, and ultimately, in creating and designating an appropriate and sustainable network of travel that supports the BLM’s multiple use mandate. I assist with data collection, site recordation, monitoring, and reporting documentation for Section 106 of NHPA compliance. The job is 80% outdoors, doing transecting, conducting culturally resource inventories, site identification, and evaluation of resources. The remaining 20% is spent in the office, processing field data, synthesizing reports and presenting results to BLM staff. We also get the chance to assist with field schools that may be working in the area and public outreach on the importance of archaeology.

Nina Farentinos

Global Business at ESRI

I started this past Tuesday under the official title of Account Manager in the Global Business Department. I'm really new so I still don’t have a complete grasp on my duties here, but I am basically a consultant for existing accounts in the midrange commercial sector (companies grossing 1.4 million - 4 billion annually). My job is to make sure they have the software they need to successfully use spatial data, and that they know how to use it. I work in conjunction with solution engineers who are experts in GIS, so I do more of the "translation" from GIS lingo into language that business representatives can understand and use. So far, I’ve been amazed at the efficiency and comradery here at ESRI and I am so excited to jump into my responsibilities and gain more experience in the field!

Aliza Herzberg

Outdoor Educator and Social Change Fellowship in Israel

My year as an Outdoor Educator got cut short in March 2020 due to the global pandemic, and we finished the year doing digital learning via live streaming to our students. It was a weird time to be an educator! I'm actually about to embark on a 9-month social change fellowship in Israel. I'm planning to keep a blog to keep in touch with folks at home. In a post I am currently writing and editing, I referenced some of the things learned in the Geography of International Development course and study abroad experiences. I wanted to share it with everyone - I thought everyone would appreciate it and enjoy following along.

Check out my blog to follow along!

Torie Robinson

Conservation and GIS

A 2011 alumni in Anthropology-Geography. Upon graduation, I did not have a job secured nor did I have a clear path forward for myself. I regarded my freshly earned degree as an opportunity and made it my mission to explore every option that opportunity might present.

So, I used my degree to try on every potential career path I thought plausible. I've been an intern more times than I care to share, from City Planning to Cultural and Natural Resource Management. I assisted on remote archaeological research projects. I spent several months with a Kauai-based botanical garden. I was an Americorp member with the National Park Service in Arizona.

Ultimately, it was my passion for Anthropology and experience in Hawaii that led me to a full-time job with the University of Hawaii performing archaeological monitoring and survey projects for the State. Translation: I spent 3 years crawling through Hawaiian rainforests and watching excavators dig trenches. At a certain point though I came to a crossroads with that job, that career, and my life in general that required an assessment for the long term road ahead.

In this pause, I found a common thread weaving through all these experiences: Geographic Information Systems or GIS. GIS had been a significant component of every place I had been and a skill I had enjoyed putting to use. Not only did I enjoy it, but I sought it out, asking for any work or projects related to its use. With that realization I undertook a GIS certification program with a community college that resulted in an Associates Degree in Geospatial Science.

This program and degree directly led me to connections and work with both the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. I then spent a couple years in GIS with a private environmental consultant before I found my current home with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) - a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting open space in the Bay Area's Peninsula and South Bay regions.

Did I know this is where I'd end up? Nope. Did I have a road map? Only vaguely. Am I happy with the present outcome? Ecstatic. I regret nothing.

Abdul Sesay

Soccer Coach and NGO in Sierra Leone

Abdul Sesay
Abdul Sesay


Abdul Sesay, a refugee form the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, graduating from our department in 2008. His senior project, along with several other of our students, created an NGO Give Back to the Children Project and have been providing educational opportunities to children in his home country. Read the following link for more information about his life and journey and the link to the organizations website.

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