Grad Talk

Alex Ringling

Grad students Alex Ringling and Steve Cardinal each talk about life at Mizzou, discuss their thesis defense projects, describe their hopes of what’s next, and chat about their favorite geography memories in this issue of Grad Talk.


Why did you choose geography as a grad degree? And what is your emphasis?

Ringling: It's hard to say why I chose geography. Like many other people drawn to the field, it relates to everything. You can't study the subject without bleeding into political science, history, meteorology, economics, geology, public policy, to name a few. Geographers study pretty much everything because we live in a spatial world. The commonality is that place, space, and scale are at the center of analysis. It's fascinating, and I love the different ideas I come into contact with in the department. My emphasis in the MA program is cultural geography, and my thesis is titled, “African Muslim Refugees in Columbia, Missouri: Negotiating Identity & Belonging.”  

Cardinal: My emphasis is in biogeography, which concerns the distribution of plant and animal species. And I just chose it as a master’s degree because I did my undergrad in geography as well.


Where did you come to Columbia/Mizzou from, and is your university experience what you expected? Why? Why not?

Ringling: I grew up in North County Saint Louis. Technically my house is in unincorporated Saint Louis County, but I put Florissant as my address. People from my high school used to say we were from NoCoFloMo, which I think has a fun zing to it. I suppose my university experience is what I expected, though I didn't have too many expectations of what it should be. I've really enjoyed the communal feeling in the geography department. My assistantship is across campus in the Office of Service-Learning, but I still feel very connected to what's happening over in The Stew.  

Cardinal: Well I came here from Southern Connecticut University for my undergrad degree in New Haven, Connecticut, and I’m originally from Trumbull, Connecticut. I’d say it’s what I expected coming from a small school to a big university.


What are you working on for your master’s thesis? (Please expand as needed.)

Ringling: For my thesis I did an ethnographic case study exploring the experiences of 10 African Muslim refugees from the countries of Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan in the small Midwestern city of Columbia. With my background in women's and gender studies and my previous experience working in refugee resettlement, I wanted to do a study that focused on one of Columbia's smallest and most marginalized communities. Diverse migrant populations settling in small cities and rural areas is a growing trend nationwide, however, there is still a limited amount of information across the board about these experiences. There is also virtually no literature focused on the intersection of being African/black, Muslim, and refugee status, let alone black Muslim refugee experiences in small cities. My research will attempt to make a shift toward filling this gap with a place-focused case study in the Midwest.  

Cardinal: For my master’s thesis I’m doing repeat photography within the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. So, I’m looking at five particular field sites that were taken in 2002 and just re-photographing them in 2019 in order to see the environmental change that took place.

Steve Cardinal

What do you expect to find or have found as a result of your research?

Ringling: Ha! This is a hard interview! I am still in the weeds of writing my results (understatement), but one 'finding' I am interested in exploring is the process of 'becoming black' in Columbia. In general, people coming to the U.S. from African countries migrate from non-racialized societies and therefore do not interpret the world through a racial paradigm or self-identify as black prior to living in the US. There's a growing body of research that supports the idea that its common for black Africans to distance themselves from a black identity and have bias against African Americans. Most of this research is based in large urban areas, but the same is true in Columbia. I will be making the argument that the internalized racism exhibited by some of my informants echoes Columbia's longstanding history of erasing Indigenous Native Americans and enslaved Africans from the landscape. From this perspective, Columbia is place of normalized white dominance, structured to push black and brown bodies to the margins. This is especially true for my informants, who are also low-income, Muslim, refugees, and therefore have limited social, economic, and political capital. So yeah, I'm gonna try to write more about that.

Cardinal: Well in terms of environmental change we saw tree densification, spruce beetle infestations and sapling establishment — and all that is attributed to the drought-like conditions that Colorado has seen in the last few years.


What do you hope to do once you get out of the program?

Ringling: So currently the main thing on my mind is finishing my thesis and graduating! My immediate plans are to stay on at my assistantship with the Office of Service-Learning as a program coordinator. I will continue to work with MU faculty and nonprofit organizations to develop and support programs that allow MU students to understand community issues in the context of their course material (Hello geography department!! Let's collaborate ?). My long game is still undecided. I'm flirting with the idea of pursuing a PhD (in geography, ethnic studies, gender studies, or another interdisciplinary program). I also like the idea of working for a while and getting some real-world experience under my belt and some ‘Real Money’ in my pocket.  We'll see what happens!  Stay tuned ....

Cardinal: I’d like to find employment in some capacity with conservation groups or the Park Service.


What is your favorite part of geography at MU?

Ringling: I love the Urban Coyotes (AKA the Suburban Dads, one Wild Coyote, and Fran).

Cardinal: I like how warm and welcoming the department is as a whole.


Would you recommend the geography department to others? Why or why not?

Ringling: I would definitely recommend the program!  I don't think an MA in geography is for everyone, so I don't want to make the essentializing statement that I'd recommend it to everyone. But for me, whatever I do with my life, I intend for my efforts to be focused on addressing social and environmental issues. And I think that will probably be a lot of different things. Geography has provided me with the intellectual tools needed to think about and address large-scale issues from multiple angles, on multiple scales. The process of pursing a master's degree has given me the discipline needed to envision, carry out, and execute a project. Overall I've had a good experience in the program!

Cardinal: I highly would due to the broad interest across the department. Anyone can find their niche here. My experience here has definitely been one I will never forget due to the experiences and relationships I have developed within the time in the program.