March 4, 2019

DEMASSA & DELGADO | Professor Spotlight: Bruce Monger and Uncharted Territory

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Our greatest guides at Cornell should be the professors who stand before us each day. For us, one of these individuals is Prof. Bruce Monger, Earth and atmospheric sciences, whose well-known course EAS 1540: Introductory Oceanography draws over a thousand students each Fall. He has consistently anchored political activism in his pedagogy, even inspiring a former student to take a year off to work as a climate activist for The Sunrise Movement. We asked him about the path he forged and the advice he offers for students today.

From logging trees in the Pacific Northwest to lecturing oceanography in Bailey Hall, Monger built his career out of a keen sense of adventure.

While growing up in a small, blue-collar town off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, Monger experimented with chemistry sets while his friends took woodshop and industrial classes.

Be Your Own Pioneer

At 19 years old, Monger set out on his motorcycle and headed eastward. En route to Colorado, Monger found himself checking into a motel one night in Salt Lake City when he could not find any suitable campgrounds in the area.  This night served as the impetus to Monger’s own trailblazing: it was the “gradual realization that [he was] growing up.” He realized that he did not have to settle down and commit to logging. Monger reflected to himself what he would rather pursue next.

In Monger’s eyes, he had two options: “One, buy a larger motorcycle and travel the U.S.A. or two, get a college degree, become an oceanographer and travel the world.”

And while at first he was not insistent about the ocean, the prospect of traveling the world in research vessels was thrilling.

Treat Life like a Gift Catalog

As a first-generation college student at the University of Washington, Monger went into college with apprehension that he would not be able to fit in. Yet, he stuck to his gut and persisted to seek out novelties: For him, the course catalog was more akin to a gift catalog.

“It was like the Christmas catalog, but for what you could become,” Monger said.

Monger placed academic curiosity above all in his undergraduate experience and explored subjects such as aerospace engineering and landscape architecture.

Seek Mentorship

From getting his masters degree at the University of Washington to his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, Monger never lost touch with his advisor, a professor at the University of Washington: Chuck Green. It was Green who talked to Monger after his time in Hawaii and invited him to Cornell for his post-doc. After Monger worked at a NASA center for a few years for sunlight sensing, Green called him again, inviting him to teach and conduct research at Cornell.

Not too soon after, he found himself teaching the famed oceanography course, a course which at first attracted around 150 students. Last semester, the course enrollment reached a new peak: 1,100 students.

Monger would not be where he is today — making an impact on students and calling for imperative climate activism — without the ways by which he redefined his life through an unfettered fearlessness to take up the unknown and appreciate the value of mentorship.

I (Canaan) am one of the thousands of students who have taken Prof. Monger’s course. The decision to switch majors from biology to environmental engineering and computer science came purely from taking Prof. Monger’s inspirational oceanography course; to become more aware of worldwide quagmires, to utilize my classroom experiences to enhance the standard of living for others and to mitigate the rapid declination of our environment are just a few of the takeaways after being sagaciously instructed my first semester. After taking Prof. Monger’s course, I spent the summer in the Amazon Rainforest in Juína, Brazil to join environmental conservation efforts. Like Monger’s advice, I found myself on a new frontier in an experience that redefined the role I saw myself having in our world. Later, I became a teaching assistant for the oceanography course and can only hope to further develop and encourage others to use their voice and knowledge for the betterment of our society, political structure and environment.

We may not all be oceanographers one day, but let’s chart our own uncrossed waters. Let’s risk finding ourselves adrift because only then will we realize there is no set compass to steer our futures.

A further piece of advice from Bruce: The voices of our generation will have the most power in confronting the political, social and environmental crises of our time.

With polar vortexes, whirlwinds of prelims and swells of career fairs, we are often too engrossed in our immediate surroundings and our imminent deadlines. We pursue our goals by following a step-by-step manual of someone else’s success, hail those who have their summer 2020 internships locked in and long for the security of defined path ahead of us.

So, in a competitive environment like Cornell, we must recognize those who have beaten against the current — the groundbreakers that did not shy away from beginnings and starting over at square one.

Laura DeMassa and Canaan Delgado are sophomores at Cornell University. They can be reached at [email protected]. Double Take appears every other Tuesday.