Geologists Build Community, Empowerment in GUAC

Geologists Underrepresented at Amherst College, or GUAC, is a student group founded in 2016 to address systemic issues in geology at and beyond the college. Amherst geologists value the group for its empowering sense of community.

Geologists Build Community, Empowerment in GUAC
Geology students meet for the first GUAC meeting of the 2022 semester. Photo courtesy of Claire Jensen ’24.

“When people think of geology, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, rocks.’ Period. That’s it. Nothing about the people who study them,” said Isabelle Caban ’23. “But we [as geologists] are shaping the field we are in, which means our identities are important, and they should be heard.”

Among a group of students snacking on Chipotle burritos and bowls in the Ford Event Space, on Oct. 12, Caban, the president of Geologists Underrepresented at Amherst College (GUAC), used the student organization’s first large meeting of the year as a chance to explain its purpose.

“We are here to create a space where students who don’t feel like they are represented within the geosciences [can] talk about what it means to be represented … and also not represented, what it feels like, what those experiences are like, and ways that we can make it so that marginalized identities aren’t so marginalized in the field of geology,” Caban said.

Through GUAC, which was founded in 2016, Amherst geologists from underrepresented backgrounds have found community and empowerment. The group’s conversations encourage new understandings of what justice in the discipline could look like, and show how progress in the geosciences can be made.

Systemic Issues in the Field of Geology

Caban recounted that when she first joined GUAC, she was asked to think critically about the “image that comes up for people” when they imagine a geologist, and then “refram[e] that image, com[e] up with another image that includes … everyone who wants to be part of this discipline.”

Deep-running exclusivity in the field creates the need for this re-imagining.

“Geology is extremely white,” said Rachel Bernard, assistant professor of geology and GUAC’s faculty advisor. When she was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, which has the largest graduate geoscience department in the country, there were over 200 students in the program, but “for almost all of the years I was there, there were no other Black people,” she said.

Systemic socioeconomic and racial inequities create a lack of diversity in all STEM disciplines, but Bernard attributed geology’s specific problems in part to “people hav[ing] a perception of geology that is not entirely accurate.” Because many of the field’s older, more influential figures — who are largely white — first became interested in geology through outdoor activities like rock climbing and camping, she said, dialogue about geology often also centers around these outdoor activities that are most accessible to white, wealthy segments of the population.

In reality, however, these activities are “not really an accurate portrayal of what most geologists do,” Bernard said. Much geoscience work takes place in the lab. “I think we’re doing a disservice when we focus on what people currently in geology — which are overwhelmingly white people — think is fun, and advertise that,” she said. “Because a lot of people think lab work is fun, and computer programming is fun.”

The perception that a geoscience degree is useless in the job market can also present a roadblock to diversity. “When I was an undergrad, I was really focused on doing a major that would get me a job right out of undergrad,” said Bernard. “That’s super important to a lot of people, especially people who come from backgrounds where families don’t go to grad school automatically.”

While there are many jobs in industry, nonprofit sectors, and government that people can do with a bachelor’s in geology, “I don’t think people necessarily think about that,” said Bernard, “because most people haven’t met a geologist, so it’s not a job that’s on your radar.”

These exclusionary pieces of geology contribute to a measurable lack of diversity, Bernard explained. In 2018, she co-wrote a paper in Nature Geoscience that examined trends in the race and ethnicity of people who have earned doctorates in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences in the U.S. over the last 40 years.

Graph courtesy of Rachel Bernard, via her article in Nature Geoscience.

As shown in the graph, the number of geoscience doctorates earned by underrepresented minorities has not significantly risen from 1973 to 2016, while the number of doctorates earned by white people has remained consistently high — and has even started to rise in the past decade.

The study thus determined that “ethnic and racial diversity [in the field] are extremely low” and that “worse, there has been little to no improvement over the past four decades.”

Foundations of GUAC

This broader trend of marginalization in the field makes its impact at Amherst as well. In Fall 2016, geology majors Araceli Aponte ’17 and Pablo Saunders-Shultz ’19 organized GUAC’s first ever meeting.

“Araceli and I got the idea for a formal group out of conversations we were having about some difficulties in the department,” said Saunders-Shultz. Around this time, they had both started reading more on the subject, and started to realize how their experiences were linked to the broader picture of systemic issues.

He also added that coming up with the acronym GUAC, “felt so perfect that we had to make our group a reality after that.”

From there, Aponte and Saunders-Shultz began brainstorming what the group and initial workshop could look like. “We wanted underrepresented students in the department to have a place to express the issues they had, first and second-year students to have a place to build community so they would hopefully continue studying geology, and some students to have some realizations about issues they might not have ever thought about before,” said Saunders-Shultz.

In the end, he continued, “I think we did a good job balancing these [goals].”

The poster for the very first GUAC meeting, designed by Araceli Aponte ’17.

After holding their first meeting, the group leaders sent a reflection about the event and common themes of discussion to the geology department. “In order to better serve underrepresented students, it is important to understand their experiences and needs,” the report read. It recounted how, by facilitating an authentic discussion, GUAC brought to light student insecurity about what they could do with a geology major, the lack of people’s exposure to geology in high school, and how important “special incidents of mentor encouragement” were to getting students to continue forward in geology.

Luz Lim ’20, another geology major, went to that first GUAC meeting in November 2016, after seeing a poster about it and discussing it with some friends. “Seeing [the diversity of the attendees], for me, was really eye-opening,” she said. “I had been living in culture houses like La Casa, and I already knew that paying attention to identity [was important to me] — my background is Korean and Mexican. But I didn’t realize how much I wanted to talk about it within the academic setting.” She looked back on that first meeting as a “moment of awakening.”

Lim was ultimately inspired to lead the group following Aponte’s and Sanders-Shultz’s graduation. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said. “I just knew that I really liked the space … and I wished that there were more of it.”

Creating Community, Contemplating Geology

GUAC continues with community as its central value. Over the years, the group has introduced more formal events in addition to the Chipotle dinner tradition.

Lim described one Spring 2018 event that was particularly impactful, when the group brought Paula Zermeño ’92, who then worked as a scientific associate at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to campus. Students from all departments showed up, packing the space and filling the time with questions.

“It was another example of how people just wanted a space to be able to ask these questions,” she said, “and to see somebody who looks like them actually make it, and be able to comfort them as they expressed their insecurities.”

Fiona Anstey ’24, who first started attending GUAC meetings over Zoom her freshman year, says she feels that GUAC makes change by “lifting everybody up.”

As a woman in the field, Anstey values the community she’s met in the group. She mentioned Sadie Gomez ’22, who has gone on to pursue a career teaching geology, and Caban, who interned with a research program at Stanford over the summer. “If she can do something like that, then it makes me feel like I can do something like that,” Anstey said. “You read about people in science magazines and stuff, and it seems so far removed, but if you’re in a small, tight-knit community, and there’s people who you know personally, [like] you’ve made jokes at Val dinner together … it makes it more human, and attainable.”

Envisioning the club’s future as a space of sharing and empowerment, Caban said she was recently inspired by the American Geophysical Union’s Second National Conference on Justice in Geoscience this summer. Bernard co-organized and launched the conference, which took place over three days and included sessions ranging in topic and style, such as “Burnout Culture,” reading sessions, arts and crafts sessions, and question driven sessions.

“I feel like [the conference] allowed for people who haven’t been heard before to speak, and those who … have their voices heard all the time, because they are in positions of power, to be quiet and listen,” Caban said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of spaces for that. And that’s what I want GUAC to be.”

Caban highlighted the importance of talking about people’s different identities in geology. “We can try and be like oh, ‘we are all geologists,’” she said, “[But] just because we’re all geologists doesn’t mean we experience geology in the same way, and that’s important.”

“Different ways of learning, different ways of communicating … are unique to everyone depending on where they come from, and their background,” Caban added. “When we all come together, sharing those will maybe teach someone else a way of learning that they never even heard about before.”

GUAC has continued since its 2016 founding even through the pandemic, as seen in this meeting held over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Angelina Han ’22.

Lim reflected that the community she found through GUAC was a huge part of her decision to continue forward in geology. One part of her experience in the Amherst geology department was her struggling with simultaneously loving geology and often feeling that the field was “very niche, and very romantic. Like I’m going off and doing a passion project.” The field didn’t immediately provide very satisfying answers to these questions, and marginalized students themselves seemed to be the ones grappling with them the most often.

“How can I justify pursuing a career in something that feels … entirely irrelevant to everything I grew up thinking about, and the realities around me?” Lim found herself asking. She attempted to reconcile her interest in geology with “the core values that I was instilled with growing up as a woman of color, and as somebody who has come from a lower middle income family … values of, ‘take your progress and be able to remember where you came from … apply everything back to the community around you.’”

Leaning on GUAC, she said, is what allowed her to continue moving forward. While the group didn’t provide “concrete” or “plain and clear” answers to her questions at the time, “it helped me feel more at peace at being in geology just because it helped me feel like I had a place there.” The acknowledgements section of Lim’s thesis thanks some of her fellow GUAC members, Carley Malloy ’22, Sadie Gomez ’22, and Petra Zuñiga ’22 because, as she put it, “I truly don’t think, if they hadn’t been there and showed that they cared about the same things … that I would have been able to commit to staying in geology and finishing my thesis there at that time.”

Now, Lim has more thoughts on these questions she faced. “During a GUAC meeting my senior year at Amherst, I told the group that we should be allowed to follow our passions and to study things just because we want to,” she recounted. “Why should the most privileged and comfortable get to be the only ones with choice?”

Now nearing the end of her masters’ program at The University of Nevada, Reno, where she is studying how the Earth’s crust changes during mountain building processes, Lim reflected, “I think a lot of people with historically marginalized identities feel that kind of pressure as well when faced with the privilege of choice, specifically in their careers … But I encourage people to follow what they think is right and invest in themselves. In the past two years, I have developed skills in geologic research and communication, I’ve learned about other career paths in science policy that I might want to follow, and, most importantly, I’ve validated my capabilities to chase after dreams, set goals, and achieve.”

Students spoke on the value of the community they find in GUAC meetings like this. Photo courtesy of Angelina Han ’22.

From GUAC, Forward

The conversations that GUAC begins about students’ personal experiences with geology at Amherst lead to broader questions about the field’s practices, and how they might change.

For example, the traditional centering of field work in geology can isolate some people coming into the field. “There are identities that people hold that make field work very difficult, and sometimes even not possible,” said Caban. “[That means] physical disabilities and things like that, and being able to hike a mountain, but it’s also like, where are you hiking a mountain? In a rural white community that will be racist towards anyone else that enters that space?”

Caban added that this also means “thinking about where people grew up, and people’s experiences growing up. I grew up in a city. I hardly ever went camping or hiking, until I got here to Amherst, where there’s space for me to do so.”

Claire Jensen ’24, another GUAC member, spoke on how geologists can also reimagine how fieldwork itself “impacts the environment and the people who also are in the same environment.”

“There’s those old white men who are like, ‘Oh, I just bang rocks together, and call it a day.’ Okay, you can get away with just doing your work and just looking at your rocks. But realize that the rocks come from somewhere,” Jensen said. “There’s a place that they were associated with, there’s people that they are associated with. Your research has other implications outside of just looking at the minerals in a rock.”

Bernard had similar thoughts. “Geology has had this history of being very extractive. Geologists come in and take, or they come in and drill and then just leave,” she said. She noted the specific impact that certain field practices have on Indigenous communities, and said it is important to better understand the human history of the land and the people who live there. “Indigenous knowledge is science that has value,” she said.

Thinking on the changes that have occurred in the department since GUAC’s founding, “the department actually did a lot in response to the issues raised by GUAC, which is awesome,” said Saunders-Shultz.

Bernard also took note of these changes. “I really like that we are in a department where everyone is excited about [having these conversations] and open to change,” said Bernard. “And I think GUAC is a big part of that, because we also want to best serve our students … hearing the kind of things that GUAC thinks are important is really important to us too.”

In 2020, for example, geology professors participated in the Unlearning Racism in the Geosciences (URGE) training and formed a pod to talk about problems and steps forward, meeting every week for the academic year.

One strength of GUAC is that it allows students to take advantage of the diversity and strong community in the Amherst geology department, and bring it with them as they continue forward in the field, which will likely be far less diverse. “[In GUAC we can] try to make the field better, prepare ourselves, and build community while we’re here, while we have this really cool, diverse network of people that are going to support you no matter where you go,” said Bernard.

Jensen added: “I think the group itself seems to be like a catalyst for launching people out into the world.”

While she still remains skeptical about the field changing, Bernard said there are things that give her hope. One is the Black Women in Geosciences spreadsheet, a project she started which keeps track of all the Black women in the U.S. who have earned Ph.D.s in geosciences since 1942, when Marguerite Williams became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the subfield of geomorphology.

“I put it on Twitter, [and said] ‘I have this list, if you know someone, submit names.’ A lot of them I knew, and then slowly, people started adding things,” she said. “I’m hoping that if people are feeling isolated, or if they have a question about [for example] what it’s like to work at the USGS [United States Geological Survey], they have someone, some reference frame to ask.”

Others spoke about the hope for change that they draw from the idea of geology itself. “It’s very difficult to describe what pure geology is, because even when you’re looking at a rock, you need to understand physics to understand how it was formed, and you need to understand chemistry to understand what the minerals are in the rock,” said Caban. “And you need math to know all of these equations about how the rock was uplifted to the surface, or the pressure and temperature conditions it was at in the earth.”

In the same way the science itself brings together disciplines and ways of thinking, Caban sees potential for geology to help people to build community through their differences, and across fields. “If we can be in community with one another and make sure that everyone learns the best way that they can, we’re only making ourselves better, as people, as a department, as geologists,” she said.

In the meantime, says Caban, who will graduate at the end of this year, the goal is to keep GUAC going. “First and second years are highly encouraged to join GUAC and participate in leadership positions on the e-board to make the changes and connections they believe are important to this work,” she said. “Please feel free to reach out to me or Dr. Rachel Bernard.”