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Social Justice Through Geography

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When King County Metro eliminated its Ride Free Area, discontinuing free bus service in downtown Seattle, the impact was particularly dramatic for homeless people needing to access social services across the downtown core. Sam Nowak (BA, Geography, 2013), recently named 2013 A&S Dean’s Medalist in the Social Sciences, spent the past year studying that impact for his geography senior honors thesis.

Sam Nowak Portrait

Sam Nowak Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

“The subject of inequity in public transportation is fascinating to me,” says Nowak, “Really, it’s too big for an honors thesis. The thesis represents a fraction of what I’ve learned.”

Nowak, whose research included numerous interviews with homeless individuals, was already well aware of the challenges faced by the homeless. Long interested in social justice issues, he had previously volunteered with the homeless advocacy organization Real Change— helping with a mapping project—after writing a paper about the organization for a geography course.

“For Sam, it was not enough to do the research [for class]," recalls graduate teaching assistant Patricia Lopez. "He immediately found a way to be engaged with the organization, to contribute and give back. ...He is precisely the kind of passionate, engaged, and deeply intellectual student (and citizen of the world, more pointedly) that the world needs right now.” 

Nowak began his college career at Western Washington University, transferring to the University of Washington in part because of the Geography Department’s emphasis on human geography. He has never
regretted his decision. “I was fortunate that people in the department really respected my ideas and encouraged me to pursue them in the way I wanted to,” says Nowak, who offers Professors Sarah Elwood and Vicky Lawson as examples. “Professionally they’re at the top of their game, but I never felt that they didn’t have time for me.”

The admiration is mutual. Impressed by Nowak’s work on one of her class projects—he investigated neighbors’ reactions to a housing facility for the homeless and mentally ill—Elwood invited Nowak and his research partner to assist on her ongoing research with Lawson. “Sam’s contributions to our project have been invaluable, intellectually and practically,” says Elwood. “We fully expect to involve him as a co-author in publications developed from this work.”

Through the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, Nowak also spent a summer conducting research with faculty at Georgia State University, studying the impact of a faith-based affordablehousing organization working in an impoverished neighborhood in Atlanta. “During the course of the six-week intensive program, Sam remained the intellectual heart of the top group of REU participants,” comments Katherine Hankins, associate professor of geography at Georgia State, who adds that Nowak was unanimously selected as one of two participants to represent the entire team at an NSF-funded conference several months later.

Sam Nowak Portrait 2

"I've had professors who take students very seriously and give back through their work," says Sam Nowak. "They've been very good role models for the kind of academic I'd like to be." Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Around the time of the conference, Nowak and three UW classmates were preparing to launch Plenum, an online undergraduate geography journal. All Plenum articles are written by UW geography undergraduates.

“We thought it was a shame that you put a ton of work and energy and thought into a project for ten weeks, hand it in, and it goes into a vacuum,” says Nowak. (The term plenum relates to the idea that Nature abhors a vacuum.) “It’s only at the end of that ten weeks that you start to understand what you’re seeing. This journal gives students the opportunity to refine their argument. It brings together undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in a setting that encourages academic exploration and growth. The quality of papers we’ve published is just amazing.”

To date, two issues of the journal have been published online. Nowak served as editor on two articles, working closely with the authors. He was well suited to the role, having worked as a writing tutor in the Odegaard Writing and Research Center (OWRC). Nowak describes his time at OWRC as the best training he could have received. “I just loved that job,” he says, adding that other Plenum founders served as OWRC tutors as well. “It’s an incredible resource on campus. I worked with freshmen who had never written a paper in their life and writers working on their dissertation. I can’t imagine how we would have made the journal happen without that training.”

Looking ahead, Nowak envisions a career in academia, inspired by his UW professors. “I’ve had professors who take students very seriously and give back through their work,” he says. “They’ve been very good role models for the kind of academic I’d like to be.”