Aaron Pacheco, 2021 USGIF Scholarship Winner

After fleeing a wildfire, Aaron Pacheco earned a USGIF Scholarship and is rebuilding his career.

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Aaron Pacheco, an undergraduate student at Minnesota State University, has always had a passion for geography, but he started out as an electrician. Now armed with a USGIF Scholarship, Pacheco has embarked on something entirely new. We spoke with him about his interest in human migration, how he discovered GIS, and how fleeing a wildfire gave him a new perspective on life.

What is your current field of study and how did you become interested in it?

I am a geography major now, but I used to be an industrial electrician in Northern California. I went into the electronics program at my local junior college there and planned to work in automation and do small to large electronics and electrical systems. But in October 2017, the Tubbs Fire ripped through the area and took out my business and many of my customers. Rather than rebuild the business, I decided to try something new, so I went back to school. When I started at junior college, I fell in love with the earth sciences and cultural geography, and I began to learn German as well. I became fascinated with the science side of things, and how where we live affects how we live. The next step was a university, so I moved to Minnesota, where I found a really good GIS program and have hit the ground running doing research.

Pacheco in the lab while working with NASA E/PO at Sonoma State University in California.

My family came from El Salvador, they were migrants, so when I came here, I wanted to do migration research. But with COVID-19, things kind of fell apart. So I found other research projects, which led me to get a job through the School of Business here in Minnesota State with the local regional development commission, which involves looking at migration patterns in the U.S. My goal is to take this internationally one day.

What does winning the USGIF Scholarship mean to you? And how will the scholarship support your education?

The USGIF scholarship allowed me to think about projects that I can apply toward my Ph.D. Receiving it was an inspirational moment where it’s like, wow, I feel like I’m being recognized, I feel like the ideas I have might not be as unfounded as I thought. Instead, I feel like I’m on the right track. And then, of course, I enjoy all the support that I get through being a member of USGIF and being part of the young professionals group. The funding has already helped me to do work in the lab, and I’m so grateful for that.

So who or what has been your favorite course teacher or subject matter so far in your current program?

When I was choosing where to go to school, I called the chair of the geography department at Minnesota State, Dr. Martin Mitchell, to discuss my options, and he absolutely floored me. We talked for almost an hour. Then he passed me along to a professor, Dr. Sudarshana Bordoloi, who was doing migration work on the Somali refugee crisis. She was so encouraging and really a big part of why I chose to come here. When COVID-19 put a damper on my migration work, she’s the one who suggested I look into the GIS department because of my skills and interests—even though she’s not a GIS professor herself. I give her a lot of credit for helping me get where I am today.

What career path do you intend to pursue?

There are many paths ahead of me. You know, I’ve been trying to go with the flow ever since the fire in 2017. When you lose so much, you get a new perspective. And I came into this with no expectations. It was terrifying to sell everything and just hit the road. So when I got here, I decided I’m going to make the best of everything and take advantage of any opportunities, but I’m finding that there are more opportunities than time these days. Whatever professional route I take, I hope to retain the human and cultural parts of my research and not get lost in data and numbers. I’ve even tossed around the idea of going to law school to start applying my work toward policy change. So who knows?

Would you recommend an education in geospatial intelligence to those who aren’t familiar with the field? And what would you tell them?

I would say that I’m an example of why an education in GEOINT is important. I came here without even knowing about GIS, and I learned about it from my professor who doesn’t even teach GIS, but she knew the value of this education. With GIS, I can take my research and apply new dimensions in space and time to cultural geography. It’s an amazing tool to have—I wouldn’t be getting anywhere without it—and it’ll always be a major component of what I do.

Featured image: Aaron Pacheco launching a sounding rocket for NASA E/PO in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
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