In 2004, Andrew Wojtanik (SFS ’12) won the National Geographic Bee, a world geography contest for U.S. students in elementary and middle school. His victory led him to a book deal, and he published a version of his study guide as Afghanistan to Zimbabwe: Country Facts That Helped Me Win the National Geographic Bee. A second printing of the book, National Geographic Bee Ultimate Fact Book: Countries A to Z, will be released on Feb. 14. Wojtanik went on to win the National Geographic World Championship as captain of the three-person U.S. team. The geography whiz sat down with The Guide to look back on his experience at the Bee.


How did you first become involved in the National Geographic Bee?

I got involved in sixth grade [through] my middle school in Kansas. That year, I was a young little kid with braces and glasses and enjoyed looking at maps while other people played video games, and I’m not ashamed of that at all. I was lucky enough to win my class bee — you go through the class and then the school — and I had won the school, and then you take a written test, and based on that written test you go to the state contest. I actually finished eighth in the state that year. Then I participated again in seventh grade, at a new middle school now, and made it to the national contest, representing Kansas. And then in eighth grade I won the national contest, and their national contest is here in D.C., so it was my first exposure to this great city.


How would you describe the process of publishing your book?

It was pretty relaxed, in the sense that they’d come to me, not me going to them, unlike lots of other publications. It’s not like sending in manuscripts and hoping that it gets published. While I was at the National Geographic Bee, I noted that I had created this massive study guide. It was about 400 pages, [on] every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, listing all the facts that I thought would be relevant. After I won, they said, “Hey, do you want to publish this book?” and I said “Sure, sounds great!” So I actually kind of scrapped everything that I had done and rewrote it in a form that was more amenable to other students [who] were interested in the geography bee. But it was difficult because I probably spent 30 or 40 hours a week outside of school — weekends, everything — just writing it again for about two months or so. Then, after that, it was cool because I got to go to a bunch of book signings, and it was a fun little superstardom for a little bit.


Did this experience help lead you to the SFS or shape your interest in international affairs?

It certainly did. I grew up in Kansas, where people think the State Department represents, like, U.S. states, not the world. There’s not a whole lot of understanding of why you would want to study international affairs. So when I came here it was a big leap of faith, and I, fortunately, love it. And it helps to know where these places are, to know what their background is, to know what their natural resource base is. … Their historical consciousness is what influences today’s current events. In that way, it is sort of the unique schtick that I have that other students might not.


Did your experience at the Bee help you with “Map of the Modern World”?

It did; I actually [tested] out of “Map of the Modern World” on the first time. I served as a TA as a sophomore. So that was fun. I think I influenced a few people [and made] it sound a little bit interesting. And I hope that geography does form a basis for our knowledge and conception of the world, because it really is completely intertwined with the politics, the economics [and] the culture.

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