Geography champ gearing up for next national competition

John Augustyn is running out of places to display his collection of trophies, plaques and medals, but that's not stopping the three-time national geography champion from pursuing even more accolades.

Augustyn's ascent into the world of academic competition began in fifth grade at the 2018 Chicago Regional National History Bee. Then a student at Notre Dame School in Clarendon Hills, he competed against students older and far more experienced.

"I somehow won the whole competition," said Augustyn, who went on to enjoy a four-year run of regional championship titles.

Topping Augustyn's long list of successes are his first-place wins in the 2021 United States Geography Championships, the 2020 National Historical Geography competition and the 2018 International Geography Bee. He's currently preparing for the National History Bee, U.S. History Bee, International Geography Bee and U.S. Geography Championship which, COVID permitting, will take him to Arlington, Va., this spring.

Preparation for a competition means countless hours of reading - a favorite pastime that Augustyn said first piqued his interest in subjects like geography and history. As a young reader, he devoured the "Who Was?" series of biographies. Today, his reading material comes in the form of the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, both of which he reads daily.

Geography is about more than knowing where things are located, and history is about more than memorizing dates and names, Augustyn said. Competitions require him to understand how events in history, as well as the natural geography of an area, affect its culture and the people living there.

"Political geography is interwoven into how historical events play out," he said.

His studies of history and geography have taught him about the people who live in any particular area, the foods they eat and even about animals. A recent competition required him to know the effect of the invasive water hyacinth on the climate of the southern United States.

Competitions take place in a variety of formats, including bees, bowls and exams.

"I like the bees the most because I feel as though it is the purest test of your individual knowledge," he said.

Augustyn said a wealth of facts and historical perspective are just the start of what he has gained from academic competition.

"It's taught me to think on my feet," he said. "I learned the importance of studying and being prepared."

Reading about the world isn't enough for this history and geography champ. He also enjoys setting foot on the places he learns about in books and articles.

"I've visited over 100 historical sites and national parks," Augustyn said.

Some are well-known landmarks, while other destinations are lesser known and harder to find. In summer 2021, he embarked on an 8-mile drive down a remote gravel road in South Dakota to find the geographical center of the United States - a spot marked with a simple pole and located nearly 20 miles from the more opulent monument that claims to mark the country's middle.

"It was an extremely unique experience for me," he said, and one that only adds to his vast pool of knowledge about the people and places that make up the world around him.

- story by Sandy Illian Bosch, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Sandy Illian Bosch is a contributing writer to The Hinsdalean