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Interview with Juan Cortes, Cartographer at the High Atlas Foundation, Marrakesh, Morocco, Summer 2018 | Siobhan Finnerty

For our fifth installment of Geography "In the Real World"-- where we showcase the accomplishment of GWU's Geography, Environmental Studies, and GIS students as they take their geographic education into real world work/study/research experiences-- we interviewed junior Geography major Juan Cortes, who spent Summer 2018 as a Cartographer in Morocco.


How did you first get involved in the geography department at GW? How are you involved now?

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Honestly, I found out about the Geography department through Intro to Physical Geography. It fulfilled a science requirement for Elliott so I took it, but I ended up really liking it. Through that, I learned about the Humanitarian Mapping Society (HMS, of which I am now Training Coordinator) and GIS. I really love the department, its faculty, and the people I study with.


What positions have you held in the field of geography? And how did you find out about this opportunity?

I worked over the summer in Marrakech, Morocco with the High Atlas Foundation, an NGO involved with mitigating rural poverty all throughout the country. I found out about that opportunity because I had a friend who worked there previously who recommended that I apply.

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What were your responsibilities within that position?

I worked as a cartographer, helping them make maps of their forestry projects at various different scales and general representations of their activities. I also helped them to organize their data collection process and showed some workers how to use GPS units.


What valuable skills did you learn there, and how has the experience shaped your thinking?

The biggest thing I learned is that there are always going to be problems when working with GIS, but there are workarounds, and you have to be persistent and look for them. I also learned that analysis is really dependent on how much data is available, so you have to get creative with how to work with limited resources. I think it all comes down to persistence and thinking outside the box.


How did your previous experience in geographic education at GW prepare you for this opportunity?

Intro to Cartography and GIS with Professor Hinton prepared me really well for this opportunity by teaching me the fundamentals of GIS and cartography. But I think the most important thing I brought with me was that Professor Hurley made it abundantly clear that working with GIS in class and working with GIS in the field are two vastly different things. He really stressed to me that it’s important not to panic when things don’t work, because solutions do exist. I wasn’t so stunned by an actual work environment because I more or less knew what to expect, thanks to him.


Have you completed a geography-oriented internship? Job? Study abroad? Ad-hoc field work? Independent research? Let us know! We are interviewing current (and past) GW Geography students who have taken their geography knowledge into the “real world.” If you are interested in sharing your experience, please send an e-mail to

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