Alycia Larson doesn’t mind if people don’t actually know her real name.
Being known as “The Geography Lady” suits the 38-year-old South Philly resident just fine as she continues to spread her wealth of worldly knowledge across the Philadelphia area.
“I love it,” Larson said. “I first started doing programming with the library in 2014 and I wanted to know how could I do this all the time. I was joking around, saying that I wanted to be the Geography Lady. Then people said, why don’t you just be the Geography Lady? And here I am.”
Now she embraces her title and jokingly calls her bicycle “the Geographymobile,” which rides complete with storage compartment baskets on the front and back of the vehicle.
Larson, a former teacher, saw a deficiency in geographical teachings in the local school systems and believed she could heighten awareness of other cultures by touring schools and libraries, offering free events for children of all ages. Larson herself admitted she didn’t have the strongest upbringing when it came to learning about the countries of the world.
“That’s the crazy thing. In seventh grade, we learned about the 50 states and we learned about Western Europe and that was it,” she said. “We didn’t learn anything about Africa or South America or Asia or the Caribbean.”
Larson, a South Jersey native, expanded her knowledge by teaching geography to herself, using outdated almanacs and magazines and by asking foreign exchange students about their experiences. She caught the traveling bug during her senior year of high school after taking a trip to England and France. And after receiving her history degree from Rowan University in 2008, she made a choice to leave her job in Philadelphia to teach in South America.
“I was working at a nonprofit in University City, and the recession was coming,” Larson said. “They were offering voluntary layoffs. And I thought it might be a good time for a change so I moved to Patagonia (Chile) and taught English.”
Larson taught her native tongue to Spanish-speaking children in a town about a three-hour drive from the nearest airport. After teaching for a year in Chile, Larson returned home to the United States and lived in Kentucky and California before returning to the Delaware Valley. She decided to focus on helping immigrants adjust to the U.S.
“It made me realize that when I came back, I needed to do everything I could to help people who were new to our country to get along better because there were times I really felt lonely,” Larson said. “I realized how hard it is for people who move to different countries.”
Now her aim is to create awareness of foreign cultures among local residents. In December, the Geography Lady visited local venues, including the Philadelphia Free Library’s Whitman Branch on Snyder Avenue and the Shot Tower Rec Center on Carpenter Street for her “Lights Around the World.”
It was a celebration of the holidays, including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Larson told stories and highlighted cultures using sensory crafts, maps, books, photos and trinkets from different places across the globe. She also stresses inclusion of other cultures while ignoring stereotypes.
“We talk about how we don’t laugh at other people’s traditions and cultures,” she said. “I remember being in school and someone having a name that no one had heard before and being laughed at and teachers saying we need to be more respectful. At the end of the day it’s about realizing that we’re part of this big world and we should all respect each other and we shouldn’t be so afraid of the rest of the world.”
Larson’s upcoming events can be found on her website www.thegeographylady.com and she can also be booked for additional events. Last year, she made frequent visits to South Philly locations such as the Lilypad on South Broad Street, the Bok Building on South 9th Street and the Christian Street YMCA.
“This year, I went to 30 different places, not counting library branches,” she said. “I’m all over the city and in South Jersey as well.”
And if a fan of her work happens to notice Larson out and about, she’d be even happier if they didn’t remember her real name.
“If I run into someone on the street and they only know me by the Geography Lady, I know I’ve made it,” Larson said.