Alumna profile: early travel experiences, college mentors, influenced Karalewich’s career

Monday, August 10, 2015 - 10:58am


Karalewich in Greece


Jennie Karalewich in Folegandros, Greece.


If you ever use a GPS app on your smartphone for driving directions you can thank alumna Jennie Karalewich (B.S. ’05), who until recently spent her days updating The Census Bureau’s TIGER roads that all commercial GPS navigation products rely upon. “Now my job focuses on coordinating geospatial efforts with other federal agencies and the federal geographic data committee. For example, we discuss how dual-carriageway limited access highways like the Florida Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway should be represented on maps compared to interstate highways,” she said.

Karalewich, who also has a minor in GIS, went on to earn a master of science degree in natural resource management from Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands. But originally, she came to Penn State undecided about a major.

“I started in the summer and took Introduction to Human Geography as a part of LEAP. I liked the class, got a good grade, hoped all my classes would be like that and didn’t think much more of it. Flash forward to my sophomore year, I took two more geography courses, World Landforms and Geography of International Affairs, to fulfill my general education requirements. As the semester progressed, I thought that I might be interested in the geography program. I went to the EMS Student Center and talked to Jon Merritt (now retired, Director of Academic Advising from 1995 to 2011) and I was sold. It took me awhile to convince my mom though. Once I told her I was going to major in geography, she told me that I wouldn’t be able to afford a phone and then made me cry. However, she quickly realized that I was making the right choice for me and my future.”

Karalewich notes with some amusement that the reaction was completely different when her younger brother, Michael Karalewich (B.S. ’12) also chose geography as his major. “Our mom worked for an airline, and growing up, we were able to fly standby for free. Mostly on weekends we traveled to more than 200 national parks, monuments, etc. Both Mike and I have been to more than 50 countries. I think this experience also played into why we both ended up choosing geography.”

Another key influencer for Karalewich was geographer Don Gogniat (Chancellor at Penn State York campus from 1993 to 2002). “While on Semester at Sea, he helped guide me (as well as countless others) through the experience of circumnavigating the world, visiting ten different countries, and then digesting the experience. After Semester at Sea we kept in touch over the years, he helped me figure out that I wanted to go to graduate school and live in a different country for two years, and now that I am a professional he has definitely been a mentor of mine on how to live your life as a geographer, as corny as that sounds.”

Gogniat remembers Karalewich well, and used one of her Semester at Sea writing assignments in his 2014 book, “Toothbrush People: American College Students' Personal Experiences with Poverty, Inequalities, Humility, and Kindness,” a compilation of letters and stories depicting one memory each from their adventures abroad. In this exerpt from her “toothbrush person” essay, Karalewich described her visit to India and meeting a friend’s family there:

"A dear friend of mine at Penn State, Raya, was born in India and grew up in Nigeria. I began to bug Raya about what to do during my stay in India. I am not sure who originally suggested meeting his family in Chennai, but idea stuck and plans were made.

"The moment I met Raya’s Aunt Saranya in Chennai I felt like I was a member of her family, a missing niece.  There was no forced formality when we met, there was an instant connection. 

"The next two days I was made a member of the family.  I got to meet several of Saranya’s sisters: Sathya, Varala, Padma, Paddu, and Saraswathi (Paddu’s sister-in-law). Meals incorporated corn on the cob and pumpkin (and less spicy) because I was an American and they would be familiar tastes for me after being away for two months. I got to eat from a bowl of pomegranate seeds that would magically refill despite the labor-intensive peeling process. In the evening, [we went] to see a Bollywood movie drive-in style."

A copy of  “Toothbrush People: American College Students' Personal Experiences with Poverty, Inequalities, Humility, and Kindness,” is available for loan from the department.

Karalewich remembers that cartography was the hardest class she took at Penn State, “but I think I use skills from that class on a daily basis—I don’t mean ArcMap—but more generally design, sharing data, and editing.”

After Penn State, she moved to the Netherlands and completed a master’s degree in natural resource management at Universiteit Utrecht where her research focused on water and water quality. “As a part of grad school,  I spent about two months in Warsaw, Poland, at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (Szkoła Główna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego w Warszawie) working on my thesis research on mapping flood water types in the Biebrza Wetlands,  as well as a month in Ghana doing research on small scale gold mining and fish with AESEDA.

Then Karalewich moved back home to Pittsburgh to find a job. “I liked the idea of being a civil servant, so I accepted a geographer position at the Census Bureau in Washington D.C. Although water quality doesn’t come up at my job at the Census Bureau, the skillset I learned from my bachelor’s and master’s degrees such as problem solving, data visualization, or technical writing come up every day, and you learn how to transition your skills.”

When asked what advice she could offer current geography students, Karalewich replied, “I know only a handful of people who have the exact job related to what they studied in school—I am not even in that category. GIS is everywhere now and opens a lot of doors for geography career options, so it is important to keep an open mind when it comes to applying for jobs. I also think that being able to talk to advisers, professors, and people in the industry is very important to students … you don’t need to figure everything out on your own. Also keep in touch with your classmates after you graduate. You never know what you can help each other out with.” That perspective inspired her to return to serve on the GEMS board and help get the geography APG up and running.