Foreign-born geographer values Great Plains
An epiphany in graduate school altered the career of a Minot State professor.
In 1996, Johnny Coomansingh forsook the petroleum industry in his native Trinidad to pursue a master's degree in communications at Fort Hays State in Kansas.
The Caribbean native then moved on to Kansas State University to study tourism and rural economic development. By chance, he took a rural economic geography course, and a new world opened up to him. His geography professor witnessed the intellectual transformation.
"He said, 'You were born to be a geographer,'" Coomansingh recalled.
By the time he earned his doctorate in geography, he had mastered new versions of an old technology.
"The map is the primary tool of the geographer," he said. "Once you can map the thing under discussion, you can make educated guesses about it. Geography doesn't just talk about landforms, lakes, rivers, states and capitals. It goes deeper."
After graduate school, Coomansingh chose to stay in the United States.
"I fell in love with the Great Plains," he said. "This is the true America. Kansas has been very good to me. I have never had any kind of discrimination because of my class, creed, or color."
The geographer has used his expertise to tackle problems unique to America's heartland.
"You have this rural-urban drift in the United States because of corporate agriculture," he said. "Small towns cannot survive. I saw that as a problem. How do we win back these towns?"
Coomansingh also uses technology to study larger issues, such as global warming, sustainable development, resource management and water pollution.
"Geography is serious business," he said.
The geographer came to MSU in 2005 and quickly took to his new surroundings.
"North Dakota has a rich cultural history because people from all over the world came here," he said. "I saw Minot as a powerful little city."
He notes that some locals have an inferiority complex, accepting the conventional wisdom that North Dakota is a flyover state. Parents, educators and political leaders must reverse that mindset and teach pride of place, he said.
"They think that elsewhere is nicer. They think that they need to go to Chicago, New York or somewhere else. That is the problem," he said.
Coomansingh's observation coincides with strategy No. 1 of MSU's new strategic plan - creating a distinctive mission focused on engagement and place.
This spring, the professor joined an MSU fact-finding group on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Its goal was to establish a collaborative agreement with the University of the West Indies.
Coomansingh foresees an MSU steel pan orchestra competing in worldwide music festivals.