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Recent graduate Peter Gray Smith, BA ’10, has an explorer’s spirit and the tools to map out his adventures. While at GW, Smith completed a double major in Geography and International Affairs, minored in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), worked with the National Geographic Society, and spent his final spring break on the adventure of his lifetime . . . so far.
Adventure in the Panama Jungle
Smith and his friend Adam Mack, BS ’10, wanted to spend their last spring break doing something they would remember and cherish for the rest of their lives—an idea that lead them to the Sambú River and the Darién Jungle of Panama. Armed with their motto, “If it exists on the planet, if deserves to be studied and understood,” Smith and Mack traversed to Central America.
“We wanted to go somewhere most people have never been,” explained Smith. “Panama itself is not that unique of a destination, but the Darién Province jungle is. We read somewhere, ‘Darién has everything that can kill a human from landmines to mosquitoes’ and that really intrigued us.”
Smith and Mack guest-blogged about their incredible adventure for My Wonderful World—a National Geographic-led campaign to expand geographic learning in school, at home, and in communities. Their blog posts weave an illuminating and sometimes harrowing tale of their journey down the Sambú River with friendly, eccentric guides, including a 65 year-old machete-wielding local named Juan Loco who took them fishing from his piragua, or dugout canoe.
“The typical Dariénista, or a native in the Darién Province, is much harder than most people we know back home. These people live for days on what college students here make in an hour,” said Smith. “Every person I met down there commanded respect from me because they were so positive about life despite their situations. Upon reflection, I realize that no matter how different the situation or setting, people everywhere are similar many ways.”
Needless to say, both Smith and Mack were impressed and humbled by their experiences.
“With the sunset over the Sambú River, it all sank in. We were no longer just your average travelers. Sambú had made us hunters, fishermen, jungle adventurers, and warriors. In just that short time, Sambú had changed us . . . and it was definitely for the better. A few more days of similar adventures brought us to the end of our trip and to the old airstrip. We will never forget Sambú and the gracious people that accommodated us.”
Geography was not a discipline that came easily to Smith when he first arrived at GW. But, with the encouragement and support of Geography Professor Joe Dymond, Smith found his passion and excelled in his studies.
“Professor Dymond would explain concepts I was having trouble understanding and then we would talk for an hour at times about traveling, books, or anything else. “We built a real teacher-student relationship, and I am better for it.”
Thanks to a recommendation by Dymond, Smith landed a job with the National Geographic Society and the D.C. Geographic Alliance. He and fellow geography major Peter Tchoukaleff were charged with creating an atlas of Washington, D.C. for use in third through eighth grade classrooms. They traveled throughout the city for the project, discovering the expansive cultural diversity within D.C.’s borders.
“We wanted to illustrate the city as more than monuments and museums,” said Smith. “Without the background in theoretical knowledge taught at GW, or the ability to analyze people and ask them the right questions, projects like the atlas would be impossible to finish.”
Another mentor, his senior seminar professor Marie Price, provided invaluable insight. “She forced me to think about the discipline of geography not just in terms of academic theory but as crucial to my understanding of the rest of the world. The principles she taught in the class and during discussions in her office were greatly beneficial for atlas project at National Geographic.”
A week after graduating from GW, Smith was commissioned into the United States Army. He will continue his work with National Geographic through July and this fall will attend flight school in Ft. Rucker, Alabama, where he will train to pilot UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. After flight school, Smith will be stationed with the Maryland National Guard.
To his fellow GW graduates, Smith offers this perspective on scholarship and experience: “It is the responsibility of those who have seen knowledge to spread it, to reignite that spark and drive that brings Americans out of their shells and opens their eyes and minds to world unknown.”