I AM UAA: Dorn Van Dommelen, Ph.D.

July 25, 2012

Department Chair and Professor, Geography and Environmental Studies
Director of International Studies
Hometown: State College, Pa.
Fun Fact: Lives off the grid in Bird Creek with his family
Van Dommelen in Senegal

Mention general education requirements or “GERs” to some college students and you’ll get anywhere from an “ugh” to a “can’t wait to check those off my list so I can get on with my real classes.” But what if you get lucky and find a class where the professor has put in some real mileage trying to bring a little of the world to you and your peers? What if you get so interested you form a club, declare a major you hadn’t previously considered and start mentoring other students? That’s just what’s happened with Professor Dorn Van Dommelen’s Introduction to Geography class in the last five years.

When the veteran professor decided to take over the Introduction to Geography course, he knew what he was up against.

“Geography 101 is a hard course to teach—it’s geography of the world and you’re essentially supposed to be an expert on everything. Of course, no one is, so you feel uncomfortable,” Dorn says. “The course is a bit of a bummer, too. You go from region to region in the world talking about bad things: tropical deforestation in Latin America and neo economic liberal policy destroying the economy, HIV/AIDS in Africa, genocide in Rwanda. By the end of the course, the professor is bummed and students are bummed.” So, he thought, why not rewrite the book on 101 and infuse it with a little hope?

Dorn looked around for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were working for change and found a partner in Heifer International, an NGO helping to alleviate hunger and poverty around the world. “They were super welcoming and willing to invest in this,” he says, referring to his curriculum revamp plan to add hope alongside fact.

With support from Heifer’s educational outreach team, Dorn was able to develop some real-world case studies around which he could base the course. The rewritten textbook is actually a website to which students purchase a subscription. The subscription gives them access to regional maps, photos and course content built around case studies. “The idea is, since I’m not an expert on the whole world, to let those other parts of the world teach about it for us,” he says.

Van Dommelen in ChinaWorking backward from the Course Content Guide—the curriculum checklist that lays out what each GER course must contain—Dorn matched regions with concepts and illustrated those concepts with case studies showing NGO projects that are addressing problems. “In Africa, for example, Zimbabwe is HIV/AIDS, Tanzania is deforestation and desertification, Cameroon is gender equity and Rwanda is genocide and travel politics,” he says.

The partnership with Heifer International has provided Dorn and some of his students and colleagues the opportunity to travel to places like China and Senegal to see some projects firsthand. Several students have gone on to attend Heifer conferences and volunteer at their headquarters in Arkansas. Students moved by what they learned in class and from peers have also formed the UAA Heifer International Club to help raise awareness and support for the NGO and its work in communities across the globe. (Interested in changing the fate of a family somewhere in the world? Consider gifting a heifer on behalf of a loved one at Christmas.)

With his eye and ear for all things global, Dorn was tapped to take over the reins as the director of UAA’s International Studies program this year in addition to his administrative duties as chair of UAA’s six-year-old Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, his teaching duties, club sponsorships and community engagement projects. His schedule stays pretty full. “Someday I need to write all this up, but I’m so busy doing it,” he says.

You’d think with such a full plate at work, he’d like to head home and put his feet up, right? Wrong. Depending on the season, there are gardens and chickens to tend, water to haul or firewood to chop. No relying on good old Fred Meyer for everything in the Van Dommelen family. They have been committed to living what he terms the “hippie homestead” lifestyle at their cabin in Bird Creek for the past 13 years. In fact, he and his wife have been actively involved in the alternative food movement for almost 30 years.

“We were interested in local foods before it was trendy,” he says with a smile, though he’s pleased to see that more and more people have become involved in food security issues in the last few years. (And by food security issues, he means the availability and economic access to good food in a community, not keeping your fridge under lock and key.)

The Van Dommelens not only cultivate and catch things locally, they also educate locally. His wife of 26 years, Diane, whom he’s known since high school, is a Waldorf school teacher here in Anchorage. Son Lang is a UAA alum who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2011 and now works for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Daughter Eve is currently a senior at UAA who will graduate with her degree in French this spring. Also an avid cook, she’s one of the talented people behind the tasty food at Spenard Roadhouse. His youngest son, Puck, age 13, plays violin and cello and is already a gifted naturalist.

“He can take you out in the woods and identify plants that you’ve lived around for your whole life that you didn’t even know were out there and tell you what they are, what their food uses are and sometimes their Latin names. He’s a really cool guy,” says the proud dad.

What does the next chapter hold for the Van Dommelen family? There’s been a little talk about maybe making a move into Anchorage for the winters. In the pro column for the professor is the easy walk to campus and no firewood hauling after office hours, but the con column lists “no goats,” an idea that’s been on the back burner for a while. The chickens could be happy in an Anchorage backyard, but the neighbors might not love four-legged neighbors that don’t fetch. If they do make the move, he may have to content himself with gifting some goats through Heifer International to an enterprising family in a community more suited to backyard bleating.

One thing is certain, Dorn is committed to his new and growing department and looking forward to another school year with students who continue to remind him why he fell in love with geography.

“What drove me toward geography was realizing how hard it would be to get some other degree,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek. His own Introduction to Geography class, taken at the urging of a friend in college, was a light bulb moment that eventually led him to a Ph.D. in the subject. Students take heed: you never know where those GERs might lead you.

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