By Guest Blogger Drew, 2013 Student Assistant
Pop quiz, GIS students: do you recall Waldo Tobler’s first rule of geography? It goes something like “All things are related, but those that are closer together are more related.” Today’s geographers are used to being near one another via emails and online user groups, a far cry from the nearness that Tobler described. However, the annual Esri International User Conference brings 13,000 GIS users together under one roof for a week. The experience is a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks that digital interfacing is even remotely similar to geographic nearness. This is what the Esri UC does best—it whips up a GIS user “cocktail,” consisting of planners, tech- nicians, developers, engineers, and many others. Esri serves up this grand event year after year, making sure the exper- ience is a collaborative one between employees and users.
My experience at the UC was as a student assistant. I helped with conference set up and tear down, aided the UC attendees in a variety of ways, and provided general help to those directing the UC. Working was only half of the week though. Like other students, I was able to use my down time to explore today’s GIS field via the people who are building it. I spoke firsthand to like-minded professionals about the direction GIS is heading, visited educational seminars, and tried to put my finger on the pulse of this lively event in any way that I could. A majority of my time was spent with other students, which helped give me some perspective on where I fit into this field (I’m a new graduate), and they showed me where I can steer my career as I continue to work and learn. Excluding the time I spent sleeping, I felt like I was averaging at least two to three introductions every hour. I met so many people by simply being there.
This brings me to my advice to future attendees, particularly the student assistants: bring something to the conference to share. The UC (and even GIS) is a potluck, and while you aren’t obligated to bring anything to it, you’re going to feel more like a member of the community if you do. You will find people you’ve already met through emails and user groups, or even those who studied at the same school as you, and with the digital barriers wiped away you’ll find that you can speak to those people as if you’ve known them for years. The GIS community is very sociable, so bring questions, ideas, projects, and whatever else you can think of with you. The people you meet will want to hear about those things, and the connection you make with them in person will be stronger than any bond formed over email.
GIS lets you choose your own adventure. You can apply geographic science to almost any field, even if no one else has done so yet. That’s where the magic of the UC begins: at the point where innovation and application start to mix. The best way to get involved is to take Tobler’s rule and apply it to everything you do, including attending the UC. I highly recommend that all students and new graduates apply to be a student assistant. You will make new friends, form new professional acquaintances, and generate new ideas, just by submerging yourself in the thick of it. The assistantship is an unequivocally unique opportunity to represent the future of GIS and to start adding your own flavor. Then, in a few more years, you can come back with a tastier dish to share with everyone as a new generation of GIS users look to you for guidance.
Drew graduated from the University at Buffalo with a B.A. in geography and a minor in computer science. He currently works for Global Mapping Strategies Inc., a subcontractor for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.