On Finding Cartography

By Katie Kowalsky | November 13, 2014

Let’s jump right in

I went to the best public high school in the state of Wisconsin, a place where I was an ethnic minority, where I was in all IB (the steroid version of AP) classes, and yet we couldn’t afford new textbooks. It’s a bizarre asterisk in our failing public school system. Going to high school during the Great Recession meant that I was more or less encouraged to go into a field that’s “safe”. Despite loving my IB Latin class, I focused a lot more of my energy in IB Economics and tried my hardest to become someone I wasn’t (I think Sloane Sabbith from The Newsroom would have been my idol). I went to college at UW-Madison, after realizing I wanted to actually have fun after two years of IB hell and to attempt a major in economics.

I struggled through college economics, despite coming in with IB credits and the basic theory already completed. I kept pushing myself along because I was terrified of being undeclared and not knowing what I wanted to do or who I was. While I kept suppressing my existential crisis, I tried so hard to appear normal and hide how scared I was. During this time, I met Tanya Buckingham, the Assistant Director of the UW Cartography Lab, who I hired via my job at the School of Education’s Dean’s Office to make a map for us. During my brief conversations with her, she recommended taking the introduction to cartography class next semester.

I spent the summer after my freshman year in Madison, working at a job I wasn’t thrilled about in a life I wasn’t too thrilled about living. It would be months later that I realized I was depressed. My life wasn’t sad, I have great friends and family, and the privilege of being upper middle class in the USA. However, I felt listless, bored, and thought I was becoming a sad miserable person who would live in a grey cubicle world for the rest of my life. I watched a lot of television and surfed the web a lot. It felt like I was in elementary school again, looking out the window at the playground where other classes were playing and I was not.

School was getting ready to start again and I had to put on a happy-looking face again. I started the introduction to cartography class and also the ‘hardest class in the major’ economics course. The pressure from that economics course made me manic, tired, and feel hopelessly trapped. My depression was manifesting itself in frequent anxiety attacks. I dropped a computer science class instead of the economics class, trying to staple together that last vision of who I thought I was. Needing an extra class to remain full time, I turned to Robert Roth, my Cartography professor. I took an independent study with him, in which I started a project on ‘Chocolatography’ with Tanya at the Cart Lab.

I also declared Cartography/GIS as a major. I had barely told my friends or family about this major and everyone was immensely confused (No, i’m not studying cars. MAPS.). It took months of explaining it to people and why I suddenly made this choice (I think convincing them helped convince myself). My answer got muddled into this: I had always wanted something that was an amalgam of history, art, computer science, geography, and design. It’s been the best mistake I ever made.

While I made this enormously rash decision, I also had to continue with that econ class. My despair had to continue as I learned my first real-life lesson of having to finish what you started. By the second midterm, I realized that I didn’t even like economics and fully believe in capitalism as a “religion”. The depression was picking up again and I stopped going to that class and barely studied for that final (as my transcript will show. ouch.). I made it through to the next semester which marked my transition to what some may call ‘Salvation’. I just call it the UW Cartography Lab.

It was in that semester, primarily at the end, that I started to feel more comfortable in my position there (I continued my independent study with Tanya and was working with another undergrad on the project). Cartographers are a warm, accommodating, weird bunch of nerds and I love them all. I think back to how awkward I felt being a non-graduate student there now and chuckle. I met some of my closest friends (and fell in love with one of them), learned incredible new, very non-academic cartography skills, and had the amazing pleasure of sitting next to Daniel Huffman (who I consider the smartest person I know who helped me muster up the courage to tell this story).

I spent the summer working there on and off (thanks to a disastrous bout of mono and lots of last minute travel plans) and starting a myriad of new roles. I became a Cart Lab regular, where I have my own coffee cup and Adobe Illustrator workspace saved as a template. I also got a couple of jobs, one as a production cartographer for the lab, and the other as the Social Media Director for NACIS, a professional cartography society that Daniel and Tanya help run. It’s incredible what being passionate about what you do and who you are feels like. When your life for the past couple of years has felt like scraping by, it’s amazing what doing something you like will do. The cartographers of UW helped me become whole again.

I started school this Fall finally self-aware of who I was and what I wanted to be. Going to the annual NACIS convention in Pittsburgh to see my mapping idols talk about cartography and actually get to know them was an insane dream. It was during the conference that Maptime became known to me. Maptime is a dream of mine, a collaborative group of all types of map nerds learning and working together. I jumped on when Robin Tolochko (an incredible person and a grad student friend in cartography at UW) decided to make a Maptime Madison, and co-organizing with her and Rashauna Mead is a way for all of us to channel our mapping passions into a tremendous idea. Being a co-organizer for Maptime or running the Twitter for NACIS are my ways to be a semi-professional cartography cheerleader. I want anyone who might be lost like I was to be found through cartography, if that’s what they want. It’s through the Cartography Lab, NACIS, and Maptime Madison that I’ve found who I am and what I want to do.

This story isn’t meant to say that ‘Economics sucks, Cartography rules!’ or any reason besides this: I love maps. I love maps to the deep underbelly of my soul and no one will ever stop that. You can get me hot and bothered over a good discussion on any type of map. I chose this field because of the incredible sense of community that can envelop you and make you feel like you’re a part of something. To me now, there is no other alternative. Many people have joked that choosing a college major isn’t a life or death decision, but for me it was. I don’t dwell on what my other life would have been without meeting Tanya Buckingham. I was meant to find cartography like all of us mapmakers were. As Daniel Huffman has said “It has given me a renaissance and a calling.” The lesson I have learned is to no longer do anything because of society’s expectations, certainly not because a news site published another garbage piece on millennials and what we’re like.

I am a cartographer, hear me roar.
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