Blake Saltman, geography and Spanish linguistics: A passion for communication

Blake Saltman, winner of this year’s Ray Henkel Award, is graduating this semester with a double major in geography and Spanish linguistics, as well as a GIS certificate.  When he’s asked how this combination fits together, he explains, “At the end of the day, both majors are about communication.  That’s more literal for language, but geography and GIS deal with finding patterns and making them understandable to people – so it’s all about communication, too.” 

As an element of a high school political science course, Saltman was given an assignment to choose one book to peruse from a varied collection, and the book he pulled off the shelf was “Why Geography Matters,” by Harm de Blij.  What he got from this text stuck with him – that geography brings together a multitude of different fields – and he entered ASU with geography as his major.

He’d really enjoyed learning Spanish in high school, and had excelled at it, so continued to take courses in that area, and especially liked learning about the syntax and morphology of language and its translation – so decided to add a second major in Spanish, pursuing the linguistics track. 

“I especially enjoyed learning about dialects and their distributions – a geographical aspect of language,” says Saltman.

Study abroad

By his sophomore year, Saltman determined that he’d like to apply his geographic and language learning by spending time outside the United States, and investigated options offered by ASU’s Study Abroad Office.  He chose a 3-month fall-semester program located in Alicante, a city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.  He took intensive language and culture courses at the University of Alicante, stayed with a Spanish family, and volunteered as an English instructor at a local private school.

“The mix of students in the program was very international, with participants from Korea, Russia, and many other countries,” explains Saltman.  “The opportunity to get to know classmates from all over the world, as well as Spaniards, really made this experience meaningful.”

“Through all of this – adding a second major and spending a semester abroad -- my geography advisor, Tricia Strickland, was a critical guide. Having been a Peace Corps volunteer, Tricia is a great advocate for international experience,” Saltman explains, and “she was terrific at helping me figure out how to do all the classes I needed and graduate in 4 years.”

The spring following his semester in Spain, a friend told him about a very different type of international program, in which American students intensively teach English to children in a rural region of South Korea, Jeollanam-do.  “The program was very affordable, and I decided to give it a try,” says Saltman.

“This was a very culturally intensive experience – and a life-changing one.”

In the month spent in Korea, Saltman and the other ASU students had a chance to see Seoul and other areas of the country, but the majority of their time was devoted to teaching English to children in two 10-day summer camps, one with children about 10 or 11 years old, and the other with slightly older children.  “We taught 12 different groups of children each day, using lessons that we developed together with our Korean co-teachers,” explains Saltman.  “The long days, working with my Korean co-teacher and the children in a rural setting, was a real immersion into a different culture.”

As a result of his experiences, Saltman is passionate about the value of study abroad. In his junior and senior years, he served as a volunteer ambassador for ASU’s Study Abroad Office, sharing his experiences and enthusiasm. 

Applying geographic theory

All geography majors carry out a research project as part of the program’s capstone course, Geographic Research Methods.  Saltman and his two team members chose to investigate the relationship between ethnicity and access to Phoenix-area light rail stations.

“The project was at least partially motivated by my interest in environmental equity, which I first learned about in Intro to Human Geography with Professor McHugh, and Society and Environment with Professor Turner,” says Saltman.  “The project was a great experience in that it allowed us to apply a lot of the geographic theory we'd learned about during our undergraduate experience, in order to produce something new and tangible.”

Assistant Professor Deborah Salon, who taught the research methods course, comments, “Blake often went beyond what was required, looking on his own for additional information to gain a better understanding of the context for journal articles that we were reading. He is honestly curious about the world, and he excels in the basic academic skills of critical and careful thinking and communication.

“Blake is an extremely talented and motivated individual - not just compared to students here at ASU, but compared to college students anywhere.”

As he prepares to graduate, Saltman looks forward to the possibility of returning to graduate studies at some point. However, he sees full-time work experience as a first priority at this point.  Whether the nature of this work involves international perspectives, language, or geographic analysis techniques, Saltman is sure to focus on communication and to have an ability to share enthusiasm and passion for whatever he takes on.