By Jeffrey Cox – Cougar News Contributor
After her three children grew up and went out on their own, Mary Bates found herself with plenty of time on her hands. Having heard stories of the empty nest syndrome, Mary wanted to occupy her time in some manner. She found herself returning to school at College of the Canyons in 1988, a decision that would lead to a change of direction in Mary’s life that she never saw coming.
She had signed up for a geology class, one that was instructed by Professor Wutkee. Over time, Mary’s attraction to geology and geography grew, culminating on a field trip given by Professor Wutkee to the Eastern Sierras. She had never seen anything like it before – amazed that geography and geology could be so beautiful. Professor Wutkee took Mary under his wing and gave her a taste of the educational field as his teacher’s assistant. The more she was around it, the more she knew it was her calling.
In 1999, Mary received a Master’s in Geography with a Minor in Geology from California State University, Northridge. She wasted no time and started as a part time professor at COC the same year, eventually becoming a full time professor in 2002. Mary chose COC because she was a long time resident of the Santa Clarita Valley, and because of her ties as a student to the college, felt a connection to the school and several of its’ instructors. She is currently the Chair of the Geography Department.
You do not need to be in a room with Mary for more than a couple of minutes to pick up how passionate she is about geography and the opportunity she has to teach others about the field she finds so fascinating. She described it as “the basis of everything on the planet”, when asked to define geography. Going into greater detail, Mary clarified the two main categories of geography, physical and cultural. Physical geography relates to the distribution of all things physical on the planet, from mountains to volcanoes, rivers to lakes, and even including weather patterns. Cultural geography pertains to humans; religion, migration, ethnicity, language and population. She continued to explain how cultural and physical geography intertwine, how people live in places because of the environment and the environment is affected by the people. Her enthusiasm while talking about geography could only be capped by the time restraints of the interview.
Like her mentor, Professor Wutkee, Mary enjoys taking her classes on field trips. At the time they are optional, but she would like to incorporate them to be a permanent part of her program. She believes reading, looking at pictures and instruction can only take a student so far, and puts great value on actually seeing, smelling and hearing as part of the overall experience. Trips she has taken classes in the past include Death Valley, the Eastern Sierras, Goleta, San Andreas Fault for the physical geography classes, and a walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles, including stops in Chinatown and Little Tokyo for her cultural geography class.
There is also a new program the geography department is working on to assist students get into the job market faster. It is the restructuring of an existing program, Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Centered in Career Technical Education program on campus, the focus will be on teaching employable skills that can be used almost immediately. Topics such as digital data and making maps are skills that are needed right now, and with certification, it provides a faster road to the workplace. GIS also benefits students with aspirations of continuing their education in geography by giving them a foundation for a Geography Major.
Mary Bates came to school here at College of the Canyons as a re-entry student after her children had grown out of the home, she had no idea the road she just got on would create a love affair with her and the world she lives in. Geography has opened several doors for Mary, doors she never knew existed. There is no better job on the planet than one that pays you do to what you love to do. Mary has found her dream job, you can see it in her eyes, you can hear it in her voice, and you can feel it when you are in the same room as she is. She is geography, and geography is her, she would not have it any other way.