Class of 2019: Geography major Neil Schubel charts a path around the world
May 1, 2019
For Neil Schubel, studying geography is about gaining a rich understanding of the world’s people, places, and environments. His quest for cultural awareness and desire to experience different worldviews and physical environments firsthand have defined his time at Virginia Tech.
Both inside and outside of the classroom, Schubel has been able to merge his interest in the natural world with human dimensions of geographic science.
“I chose geography because, being a part of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, it has environmental aspects, but it also has the human geography side as well. I really loved taking classes in political science and history and having them apply to my major,” Schubel said.
Stewart Scales, an instructor in the Department of Geography, described Schubel as a strong and well-rounded student. “Neil always showed a great interest in his studies, and he also chose to apply his work in the field. Studying abroad is one of the best things a geography student can do to expand their perspectives of the world. Neil has made the most of the opportunities presented to him.”
Schubel’s participation in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and Virginia Tech’s Army ROTC program has enabled him to further cultivate his interest in geography through overseas experiences in Oman and Sri Lanka.
During summer 2017, Schubel attended an Arabic language immersion program as an ROTC Project Global Officer in Muscat, Oman, and was selected as the distinguished graduate from his class.
“Oman was a unique experience,” said Schubel, who grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “In a word, I’d describe it as ‘surreal.’ There was a mosque on every corner, and everyone was wearing traditional clothes — the women in burqas and the men in dishdashis. I immediately understood that I was an outsider there. It was a powerful experience, one that shaped and changed how I look at the world.”
For Schubel, a long-distance runner who competed in mid-distance and distance events as a freshman at George Mason University before transferring to Virginia Tech, traveling to Oman meant coping with summer temperatures where the average high exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I mostly ran on a treadmill there,” Schubel admitted. “When I traveled to Sri Lanka this past summer, it was a little different. It was hot when I was there, and it was monsoon season, but I got to run with the soldiers at the military academy. They were very fit. They definitely pushed us on our runs with them.”
Schubel went to Sri Lanka through the Army ROTC’s Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program, which promotes cultural awareness and overseas experience to educate future leaders in the military. The program offered another chance for him to broaden his experience of the world — and even gain insight into what he sees happening on the home front in the U.S.
“Sri Lanka has a Buddhist and Hindu population, mostly, with Sinhala and Tamil being the two prominent languages,” Schubel explained. “It’s an interesting country, having come out of a 26-year civil war a decade ago. Talking to veterans of that war and understanding their experiences and viewpoints gave me a new way of thinking about the differences that we’re dealing with in the U.S.”
This willingness to travel to diverse places and be open to new ways of thinking about other cultures as well as his own was an important factor in Schubel’s selection as the Department of Geography’s 2019 Outstanding Senior. Scales said, “I think it says a lot when a person seeks to go outside their comfort zone intentionally. It speaks volumes about the person’s spirit and their willingness to learn.”
It will likely continue to define Schubel’s outlook and journey, as he will be joining the Military Intelligence branch of the Army when he graduates in May, training in the Basic Officers Leadership Course at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. This was his first choice of assignment, and he is excited about the next steps in his life.
“I don’t want to reach the age of 80 and regret the decisions I’ve made,” Schubel said. “I want to look back and be satisfied and proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I’ve experienced at Virginia Tech, and I look forward to what the future brings.”
“I also want to thank my parents, who have been an integral part of my life through their constant support,” he added.