Although he grew up in Anaheim, Cali., in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, well-traveled geography professor David Aagesen seems more like someone who grew up Europe. And in a way, he did.
When Aagesen finished high school, he started out at a local community college, and soon transferred to undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. Not knowing what concentration he wanted, Aagesen researched different programs, found himself highly intrigued by geography, and finished the major in two years. "I had so many diverse interests, but geography was clearly the best fit for me," claimed Aagesen. "I was attracted to geography because of its breadth: it connects to social science, natural science; it integrates and synthesizes." His goal then was to see the world he studied.
Aagesen traveled for three months during the summer after graduation, visiting countries as diverse as Iceland and Poland. In the following fall he interned for the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., where he lived for four months in a house with 18 other men. This allowed him to save some money for more travels.
Upon returning to the U.S., he decided to explore the non-European world, and traveled from Los Angeles to Singapore, with stops in French Polynesia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Australia and Indonesia. He then spent five months in China, including three in Tibet, after which he spent time in Pakistan and Nepal as well.
When he came home again, Aagesen took a job as a shipmate during a two-month sailboat trip from Los Angeles down the coast of Baja California and into the Gulf of California. Aagesen established a pattern of making money and then taking it to a part of the world where it would go a long way, then coming back to the states after a while to replenish his funds, only to turn right around and travel more.
His next big adventure was a mountain bike trip through Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Aagesen would occasionally teach English, write articles about his bike trips, or sell his slides to supplement his income, but it was a humble existence. "The bike trip, which took about a year, cost about $100 a month," Aagesen said. "I had no transportation budget; I carried everything I needed on my bike. So, you don't have to be rich to do these kinds of things."
He ended up staying in Argentina, where he got married, but the conditions were economically and politically unstable. So Aagesen and his wife applied to graduate schools in the United States. She looked for a degree in public health and he looked for one in geography. The couple began graduate work at the University of Minnesota in 1991; both finished master's degrees, and both continued on for Ph.D.s. They arrived in upstate New York in 1998, and Aagesen has been teaching at Geneseo since.
Aagesen had trouble saying which country he liked best. "For me the world is such an interesting place that I have a really hard time picking one favorite." Argentina has become a second home for Aagesen. "I'm comfortable there," he said. "I speak the language, I like the food, I get along with the people, you know."
Aagesen settled in Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, where he can "have the amenities of a mid-sized American city and still be able to go cross-country skiing in minutes, without hassle."
Aagesen is also the director of environmental studies, and enjoys teaching at Geneseo because it gives him a chance to share what he has learned about life. Aagesen pointed out that one of the best times to travel is after college because "you're young, things are relatively uncomplicated, health is usually not an issue, and you're maybe not fearless but definitely not as risk-aversive as you would be down the road."
He also emphasized that tremendous pressure is often placed on students to get into the corporate world as soon as possible, to return back to society what they received in college, even though many are unwilling and/or not even interested in taking such steps. "Young adults can spend as long as they want traveling, having these incredible experiences, memories, that no one can ever take away from them, and they can still be very mainstream if and when they are ready: there is plenty of time in one's life to get a real job, a car, a house," he said.
"We're on the planet for a very, very short time, and we really need to make the best of it," said Aagesen. "I can't tell you how many people told me, both during my bike trip and after, 'Oh, I wish I had done something like that.'" Aagesen hopes his travels will be an inspiration. "I just try to encourage students to live the life they'd like to live," he said. "It's yours; don't let anyone take it away from you."