Stephen Cunha, Ph.D.

When thinking about geography, beautiful landscapes and essays about exotic native peoples in the pages of National Geographic come to mind. For Professor Stephen Cunha, this notion isn't that far off. Having worked as a Park Ranger at both Yosemite and Glacier Bay in Alaska, Cunha has spent time in some of the world's most beautiful spots. He's also traveled to some of the most remote places on Earth, from Asia to South America. Through his work with the National Geographic Society and the California Geographic Alliance, he's found ways to share his passion for the world and all its inhabitants with thousands of students across the globe.

One thing Steve doesn't do is spend time trotting from one famous gallery to the next in search of the world's bejeweled and bedazzling trinkets. He's after the kind of things you're more likely to find on a farm than in a boutique in Milan or Paris. So instead of raiding Mesopotamia for an ancient king's lost artifacts, Steve looks for the tools of everyday life. Like the sickle he holds in his left hand: "That cost me plenty because I had to trade my Russian-to-English dictionary to get it."

There's also the cowbell from Myanmar that Steve traded for one of his slotted spoons or the whip he picked up in Kyrgyzstan by trading a Swiss Army knife. Whether he's trading kitchenwares, pocketknives or plastic, inflatable globes, Steve finds these goods aren't just useful at home, they're like an international currency.

Steve has made a career out of inspiring others to pursue geography, but where did that initial spark come from for him? "It was the professors, especially the geography professors, all over UC Berkeley's campus. The way they were so familiar with exotic parts of the world and talked about them so comfortably, as if you might encounter them on the way back from class. That sort of nonchalant comfort really intrigued me and I wanted in on it."

He's collected a museum's worth of artifacts with little more than a few pocketknives and slotted spoons »

You won't find much diamond-encrusted jewelry or gold-plated idols among Stephen Cunha's collection. He prefers more practical items. "Everyday items remind me how people live and work. To me, the stories of farming implements and the things people use day-to-day have a lot more meaning to me. So when I travel I go out to the field or out to the fishing docks."

This guy's got so many stories from all over the world, it's little wonder that 150-plus students line up to take his Cultural Geography course every semester »

Steve's not one to sit back and let the PowerPoint do the work. His riveting Cultural Geography course takes students on a penetrating tour of our planet and the amazing people who make up the human race. Sure there'll be plenty of images to check out, but Steve's excellent photos from the tops of the Andes to terraced agriculture in the valleys of Nepal are infinitely more interesting than pie charts of castor oil production over the last 10 years.

Encouraging his students to leave tourist traps behind »

"I tell my students that traveling (even without knowing the language) is simple. You just have to get used to not having a plan," says the recent Wang Award recipient—the highest award given to California State University faculty.

"(My family and I) use the travel books to avoid every one else. If the book doesn't highlight or recommend a place, that's where we'll go." And what about not knowing Turkish when you arrive in Istanbul? "You learn a few phrases and motion like you're eating out of a bowl or like you need a place to sleep and you fake it."

Stephen Cunha, Ph.D.
Professor of Geography