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GRCC students to present geography research at Honolulu conference

April 8, 2024 GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When Anika Ojeda-Cea (pictured left) and Sandra Johnson (pictured right) took their first geography class at Grand Rapids Community College, they never imagined it would change the direction of their lives.

Yet today both students are not only planning to pursue advanced degrees and careers related to geography, they’re also flying to Honolulu this month to present their own academic study at the American Association of Geographers’ annual meeting.

Their study on the impact of eighth grade reading proficiency and teenage pregnancy is sure to capture the interest of conference attendees, said Professor Michael DeVivo, who directs GRCC’s award-winning geography program and taught both students.

“This is the first time these phenomena have been mapped in an analytical manner, and the results of their research have significant policy implications,” said DeVivo, who described Johnson and Ojeda-Cea as stellar students.

It was DeVivo who inspired both women to pursue careers in geography

Johnson enrolled at GRCC in 2022 using the Michigan Reconnect program, which offers tuition-free access for those age 21 or older to pursue an associate degree or occupational certificate at a community college.

Johnson’s goal was to finally earn an associate degree — any kind of associate degree.

“Over the years, I’d taken every possible college major because I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living,” said Johnson, now 41. “But then I took world regional geography at GRCC with Professor DeVivo and I thought, ‘I love this! This is great!’

“Now I’m graduating this spring from GRCC, transferring to Aquinas College to get my bachelor’s and looking at either the master’s program at Western Michigan or the PhD program at Michigan State,” Johnson said.

Ojeda-Cea traveled abroad for years before returning to Grand Rapids several years ago. In 2022, she started at GRCC in hopes of earning an associate degree. She, too, was intrigued by the possibilities of a geography degree after taking her first course with DeVivo.

“Geography encompasses so many different things; it’s just not physical geography with maps and locations. It’s also the human and cultural side of it,” Ojeda-Cea said.

Today’s geographers engage in exploration and discovery to benefit society. 

In that spirit, the women decided to join forces on a research project and found that one in five girls reading below basic proficiency in eighth grade will become pregnant in high school. Compared to girls with above average reading proficiency in eighth grade, less proficient girls were 4.4 times more likely to have incorrect knowledge about pregnancy risk factors, leading to misuse of contraceptives, Johnson said.   

“This is important because through solving teenage pregnancy, we can interrupt the cycle of generational poverty, we can address homelessness, we can address the need for foster care, incarceration rates and interrupt or address drug use,” Ojeda-Cea said.  “All these risk factors come from poverty and could be resolved, at least in part, by funding reading programs.”

The women will present their paper at the Honolulu conference, April 16-20.

When Ojeda-Cea graduates from GRCC, she plans to pursue a degree in integrative studies at Grand Valley State University and, potentially, a master’s at Western Michigan.

Both said the quality of education they’ve received at GRCC made all the difference in the world to them — and their futures. Johnson said she loves sharing her passion for geography and hopes to one day teach the subject at a community college.

“Geography is everywhere and I embrace the opportunity to tell people about it,” Johnson said.


This story was reported by Beth McKenna.