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Fernando Casal, Geography Senior

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CELEBRATING OUR SPRING 2020 GRADS-featuring Fernando Casal

image of student Name: Fernando Casal
Major: Geography

Programs and activities: McNair Scholars; President, Geography Society; Environmental Justice Collective; Native American and Indigenous Collective, Multicultural Engagement Center

A first-generation college student from the Rio Grande Valley, Fernando Casal came to the Forty Acres with one goal in mind.

“I started at UT wanting to be a geologist,” Casal says. “I had a fantasy about being one of those people with rock picks who go around collecting geologic samples.”

After taking a human geography class, his passion for the subjected intensified when he discovered there was so much more to learn about human-environment relations. We caught up with Casal to learn more about his experiences on campus, his internship with the National Park Service and how he prepared for graduate school while participating in the McNair Scholars program.


What excites you about embarking on a career in geography?

I am most excited about the potential for geography to be something truly interdisciplinary, something that sees beyond surficial understandings of the earth and reveals how race, place and time inform the genealogy of the human and its “imperial bend,” to cite Wynter. Dr. Caroline Faria and Dr. Pavithra Vasudevan, who have been incredible mentors throughout my undergraduate study and have been foundational to my development as a scholar of critical geography. Thank you, Dr. Faria, for introducing me to this world.

Side-note: The opinions in this interview are my own and shouldn’t be ascribed to particular faculty I name.

What was it like interning with the National Park Service?

I interned with the National Park Service at Katahdin Woods and as part of the Future Park Leaders program. I was on a project unique from the others in the program because mine was principally about indigeneity and resource management. I’m grateful to have learned from Wabanaki scholars and about the National Park Service’s Tribal and Cultural Affairs and the complexity of projects they undertake.

Also, I was arguably the most remotely-located intern, learning to live alone in rural Maine was interesting, and I saw a moose and bald eagle for the first time! I miss canoeing and sharing stories on the water.

How have you benefitted from your experience in the McNair Scholars program?

Navigating the graduate school application process is a nightmare if you don’t know what it entails. It is especially difficult as a first-generation student, since succeeding in academia often relies on connections and knowing who’s who. On top of that, applying to graduate school is just plain expensive. Being part of the McNair program has been awesome – it’s enabled me to attend multiple academic conferences, join academic associations and it has broken down so many barriers in the graduate school application process. Thank you, Dr. Dieter, for always being so accommodating and willing to offer your advice.

What are some of the best tips you’ve learned about getting into graduate school?

Read about the faculty within the program you’re applying to, identify potential advisors and email them. This can be someone whose research interests align with yours, whether thematically or geographically. You can ask to talk to their current graduate students about what it’s like being advised by said faculty, ask faculty about their research, or if they’re taking graduate students. For students of color, it may be useful asking if you can specifically reach out to a graduate student of color. Your goal is to discern whether this is someone you can work with for the next portion of a decade, at least if you’re applying to a Ph.D. program.

When you’re offered a position, know you can negotiate funding. graduate students should be paid a living wage, and this might be central to figuring out if a program is for you or not.

What would be your advice for students who are on the fence about going to grad school?

Know exactly what you want out of a graduate education before deciding, as vague as that is. Think about who your graduate education is for. I’ve been given the advice that I should not go to graduate school until I am mentally and financially at a place where I know I can be in that sort of environment.

What other programs enriched your experience at UT? 

I was the president of the Geography Society for a few years, facilitating mapping events and organizing a trip to Big Bend National Park (thanks Dr. Doolittle!) were highlights. I was a founding member of the Environmental Justice Collective (@utejcollective), an emergent organization focused on integrating environmental justice education into environmental curricula and creating a space for students of color in environmental studies – I’m excited to see what they do in the coming years! Also, shout out to Native American and Indigenous Collective!

What has it been like navigating life and school online during this pandemic?

The shift to the second half of the semester amid this pandemic has been a lot. I’ve found it extremely difficult attempting to continue my academic engagements when my focus has shifted by necessity toward community and family. In some ways, I’m grateful to be home. I didn’t expect to see my family for more than a few weekends this year, being with them supersedes everything right now.

Have you gained any new insights while navigating this remote learning experience?

During times like these, attending to community and care is paramount. It’s okay to not be as productive academically as you’re expected to be. Also, learning does not only happen within academic institutions.

What will you miss most about UT when you graduate?

Ethnic studies for sure; the environments fostered in those classes were some of the most generative and exciting spaces I’ve been in at UT Austin. I’m so incredibly grateful for Black Studies and Indigenous Studies at UT Austin, I honestly wish I had added the new Race, Indigeneity and Migration major.

I’ll also miss my land politics course with Dr. Luis Cárcamo-Huechante— thank you for your insight, conversations and tea. You’ve given me the ability to ask the right questions. I’ll miss working in the Soils and Geoarchaeology Lab under Dr. Timothy Beach and learning from and chatting with Sam, Colin, Leila, Sara, Anais, Byron, Jed, Lara and Cheyenne. Dr. Beach, thank you for your constant questioning and affirmations. You give me the energy to continue studying geography.

I won’t miss picking ticks off my legs after field work, but I don’t think that’ll end when I graduate.I miss the sense of awe and excitement I first felt moving into a student housing cooperative, and the quiet joy of taking the 7 bus to campus in the morning

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

I planned to move out of state before COVID-19. Now, I’m excited to be in Texas and the South for a bit longer – in many ways, being a student obscures a lot of things from you.