GeoInspirations: Susan DeMar - Positive Role Model, Department Champion

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Editor’s Note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Susan DeMar from the Department of Geography at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

I met Susan DeMar in 2016 when I visited New Mexico State University to give presentations there for GIS Day. As Susan is the administrative assistant in the Department of Geography there, she was one of the first people I met as I got my bearings. Through our conversations, it quickly became apparent that she is a real leader on campus and in the community. It is my great pleasure to introduce Susan to Directions Magazine readers and, through her story, inspire you to make a positive difference in our world.

Susan has received the following awards from NMSU: The University Regents Above and Beyond Award, the Community Engagement Award, the College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Staff Award, the “I Love My Job” Award, the Stephen W. & Robert E. Roberts Memorial Staff Award, and the Ralph B. Crouch Award. Her community service includes serving as president of the NMSU Women’s Club, which enabled her to create a scholarship in honor of her late mother, The Ruth Mary Webber Scholarship. Susan also supports organizations such as The Jardin de los Ninos, helping the club to raise money and donations for homeless and near-homeless children. Susan’s most recent accomplishment is bringing the American Association of University Women to NMSU and starting a student organization. AAUW is focused on promoting equity for women in all fields of life by building on skills of leadership and self-confidence to help women take action on issues they are passionate about within their community and world. AAUW also offers scholarship and grant opportunities for women to continue building their education and improving their lives.Susan also sings Soprano II in the Mesilla Valley Chorale. In 2014, Susan received the Mayor’s Citation for Community Service, presented to her by Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, for her community service work in bringing Amtrak back to Las Cruces.

I asked Susan to describe the most important thing, whether a class, book, person, event, or something else, that convinced her to enter the field of education. She responded, “Whenever I needed help with my math or science homework, it was my mom who helped me. She was also an artist and the dinosaur that she drew free-handed on the cover of my science report earned me an A+ in 8th grade. She was the most intelligent woman I knew. She could sew anything, including the best Halloween costumes that earned the envy of fellow students and their moms. Despite her many epic talents, my mom worked 40 years in a factory to support our family and never was able to complete her high school education. She came from a family of 13 children, and in her senior year of high school she quit and went to work so her parents didn’t have to go on welfare. I was determined to earn my degree not just for myself but for my mom as well and to be the first woman in our family to receive a college education.” Susan earned her degree from Syracuse University. About 15 years ago, she moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico. 

Regarding receiving the Stephen W. & Robert E. Roberts Memorial Staff Award, Susan said, “For me to receive this award really touches my heart and is an honor I will carry with me throughout my career and life.” She is often regarded as the Geography Mom, and is also the mother of a son who graduated from NMSU with an engineering degree, and two daughters who are also engineers. “All of my students are like my kids to me,” she said. When I met Susan, I told her that my decision to attend the University of Kansas for my master’s degree was based in part on the knowledge and helpfulness of the geography department secretaries (fondly known as Bev & Bev). I believe that administrative assistants in universities are the unsung heroes of higher education!

What are the duties of a department administrator? Susan explained that a department administrator has to be highly organized and detail-oriented; have good computer skills; perform analytical tasks and support the organization; direct and coordinate work plans; review and evaluate work methods and procedures; process grant contracts; assist in financing and monitoring grant budgets during their duration; develop departmental goals, objectives, and procedures; resolve conflict, sensitive inquiries, and complaints in a confidential matter; have strong communication skills; work as a liaison between individuals, groups, and departments, and work well both independently and on a team. That is a tall order, but that is exactly what Susan does day in, day out. And Susan has been dedicated to doing this in the geography department since 2005, with another 11 years at Syracuse University.

Susan went on to say that, “I’ve always loved the outdoors and was blessed growing up in upstate New York. Fall was my favorite season. Winters were beautiful – all white and magical. Summers were spent by the glistening lakes, and spring was the promise of the beautiful flowers and life that started to bloom again and what was yet to come. I am very lucky I grew up in a climate with four seasons. I still miss it to this day. Eleven years ago when I started my career in geography, little did they know how horrible I was at reading maps, navigating with a compass, and using a GPS. Geography wasn’t my strongest field of study, but I was good at remembering physical landmarks and landforms. For instance, I would remember where a building or house was not by street name but by its physical surroundings. Now, eleven years later, I feel more like a ‘geographer.’ I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore my new environment, to see the variety of plants, animals, and other organisms that can survive in such an arid climate. And it amazes me when I think how people have adapted to life in the desert for thousands of years. The desert is home to around 1 billion people – one-seventh of the Earth’s population. I never would have believed it until I moved here.”

“There have been some strange things and some difficult times during my years in the geography department. One of the strange things that comes to mind is the case of the mystery door…. It was during the fall around Halloween when some of the students in our Spatial Applications Research Lab, also known as the SpARC Lab, decided to move some furniture around and give the lab a new look. Upon completing their task, they came across a locked wooden door with no door knob that led into another adjoining room that wasn’t part of geography. My students and I started dreaming up stories about the spooky door and what lay on the other side. We conjured all kinds of things, including the skeleton of an old professor or a student that was punished and locked inside, or a treasure waiting to be discovered. I finally requested NMSU maintenance to come and unlock the door. I and a line of geography students stood behind waiting to see what would be revealed. The mystery was opened at last only to discover a closet that opened up into a small office. An empty closet with no skeleton or treasure!” One of the most difficult times I’ve encountered during my years in geography was losing both my parents back home in upstate New York. First I lost my father during a freak tractor accident and seven years later, my mom passed away the day following her surgery. Being the only daughter and having two older brothers back home in New York, these were very sad and difficult times.”

I asked Susan, “What is the person, class, or topic that most inspired you during your career?” Susan had these reflections: “My three children were my inspiration. I wasn’t able to go to college [immediately] after I graduated from high school. I was the only daughter and my father was very protective and even though I graduated from high school with high honors and was accepted at [several] colleges, I wasn’t allowed to enroll. After I got married and started my family, I got a job at Syracuse University so I could earn my degree by working there and get it paid for too. I had two daughters under the age of 10 and my son was only two years old when I began my college endeavor. I would work a full eight-hour day while taking three classes per semester, two in the evening after work and one on Saturdays. I remember my physics class and lab ending at 9:00 pm at night. I would go home and work on my lab homework while it was fresh in my mind. After I did my homework, I would tackle the dirty dishes in the sink and any other domestic chores that were calling me. Physics ended up being my favorite class of all.”

When I asked Susan to name the projects that she is the proudest of being a part, she said, “The first and far-most project I am proudest of is a scholarship I created in honor of my mother, who recently passed away, through the NMSU Women’s Club, where I serve as the president. The scholarship is called the Ruth Mary Webber Scholarship. The year 2017 was the third year that I awarded the scholarship. The funding comes out of my own personal funds. Another important project I achieved and am very proud of is establishing the American Association of University Women New Mexico State University student affiliate organization. AAUW offers programs that reach thousands of college women each year to build their skills and confidence as the next generation of leaders. I am very excited to help and reach out to NMSU students in making them be successful and reach their educational goal. April 2017 marked the first AAUW NMSU Student Organization Start Smart workshop on campus! The Start Smart workshops are designed to empower women with the skills and confidence to successfully negotiate their salary and benefits packages. By learning strategies and practicing effective language, participants gain valuable skills they can use throughout their lives — well beyond their next negotiation. I completed the facilitator online training and received funding so we could host this important workshop for NMSU students. The Start Smart workshop was held on campus during April 2017, in conjunction with Equal Pay Day!”

I asked Susan to name the most important thing she believes that we need to work on as the geography and education community. She responded, “We need to somehow separate geography from geology. Most students, young and old, know what geology is all about, but when you ask them about geography, they often draw a blank. Geography can be explained by saying: As the world becomes more interrelated and interdependent through technological advances, it is increasingly important to understand the physical and cultural differences of other places. Studying geography also opens a link to understanding the history of one's own culture, as well as that of others. The study of geography allows students to learn how to create mental maps, which makes it easier for them to negotiate and navigate their own environments. Without the knowledge of geography, the collections of groups of people around the planet can seem random; understanding the effect geography has on their groupings helps their spatial organization make sense. An understanding of geography also allows one to make smart choices when dealing with issues regarding the relationship of society to the physical environment.

Susan’s advice to new professionals in the geography, surveying, and GIS fields is: “Provide real life feedback from people you know in the job field who have careers in these fields. Bring in guest speakers who are successfully working using their geography, surveying, and GIS education on their job. Offer GIS organizations and clubs to the students so they can reach out and meet other future geographers. Provide conferences available on relevant topics for students to attend. Help them apply for funding from their college or university. Inform students about organizations such as the American Association of Geographers, so they can apply for funding to attend a conference or search for careers. Make it known to students that geography is everywhere; it’s used in all disciplines of life and they can be a part of an exciting career.”

“There will always be challenges and benefits, but for me, being a department administrative assistant in the geography department at NMSU, I am very blessed because at the end of the day I can go home and know that the people I spent eight hours or more with, from the geography faculty to the students, to the custodians, and other people I meet during the course of the day, have made a difference in my life as I hope I have made in theirs.”

Susan’s favorite quote is: “True strength is when you have a lot to cry about but you choose to smile and take another step forward instead.”  

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