Geography certificates offer customized degrees for undergraduates

Adviser Jodi Vender helps undergraduate student Harman Singh plan which courses to take to fulfill the requirements for the certificate in geography. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students who want to customize their bachelor’s degree in geography, add a specific topic in geography to their major, or enhance their career as a non-degree student can now complete undergraduate certificates in geography.

“Certificates are credentials that recognize mastery of a specific area in the discipline,” said Jodi Vender, undergraduate adviser in the Department of Geography. “Ours are 12 credits — fewer credits than a minor — so they fit more easily into a degree program. They can be used as milestones for accomplishment in a specific domain or can stand alone.”

The department is offering eight certificates:

  • Landscapes: Societies, Cultures, and Political Economies
  • Justice, Ethics, Diversity in Space
  • Environment and Society Geography
  • Landscape Ecology
  • Global Environmental Systems
  • Climate and Environmental Change
  • Geographic Information Science
  • Geospatial Big Data Analytics

For details on all the certificates, visit:

Vender said the department created the certificates to recognize student accomplishments in more specific domains, offer greater flexibility, offer more customized degrees and provide a way for students in other majors to add a specialization in geography.

"Certificates can attract undergraduate students to a discipline,” she said. “Offering certificates is a way of being responsive to students’ needs among both degree-seeking and nondegree-seeking students at the undergraduate level. That is something we have been offering online at the post-baccalaureate and graduate level for years now through our online geospatial education programs.”

Another benefit to students is that certificates are awarded at the end of the semester in which they are earned. A student can complete a certificate without being in the major, so certificates are more accessible to undergraduates in other majors and colleges as well as returning adult students.

Nicole Rivera and Samantha Mathews, who both graduated in May 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in geography, are among the first class of students to earn certificates. Rivera graduated with certificates in Environment and Society Geography and Human Geography (recently renamed Landscapes: Societies, Cultures, and Political Economies).

“These certificates allow employers and graduate schools to see my focus within my major without necessarily needing to add a lot more credits,” Rivera said.

Mathews completed the Justice, Ethics, Diversity in Space certificate.

“My biggest takeaway is that geography is really broad, but having some issues or topics to focus on can make you more appealing to future employers, as well as giving you a specialization that you can use in the future,” she said.

Certificates do not replace the department’s existing minors.

“They are different animals,” Vender said. “In geography, we have discontinued the options within the majors, allowing more flexibility for the students. For example, students can more easily combine a human geography emphasis with geographic information science. And minors are still available. A student can complete a minor that has a certificate within it.”

So far, Vender says, the student response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Students like the idea of being able to customize their degree, and they also like that the certificates are awarded in the semester they are completed,” she said.

Last Updated October 03, 2019