Turning the world into a classroom

For some Oregon State University students, getting a master’s degree is about a lot more than writing a thesis. It’s about making a difference in communities around the state, and sometimes, around the world.

And now, OSU is part of a ground-breaking program that will enable students to pursue a degree at the same time that they are serving in the Peace Corps.

Andrea Durham spent two years in an Ecuadorian village while completing her master’s degree, and now works as a Benton County extension agent.

Andrea Durham spent two years in an Ecuadorian village while completing her master’s degree, and now works as a Benton County extension agent.

OSU has become a Peace Corps Master’s International partner, and will participate in an innovative program that allows a graduate student to get a master’s degree while also doing a full 27-month service project in the Peace Corps.

The program, the first of its type set up at a college or university in Oregon, will allow students to earn one of three graduate degrees in the OSU College of Forestry. The initial program should provide a model for other colleges at the university to develop participating degrees in the future, university officials say.

“Forestry is one of the ‘scarce skills’ that the Peace Corps has identified as an area of need,” said David Zahler, a senior instructor in the College of Forestry, director of the new program and former Peace Corps worker. “We see this as an important starting point that will facilitate other OSU colleges getting involved, and something that will open new opportunities to OSU students.”

Last fall, Oregon State also became the first university in the United States to partner with INTO University Partnerships, an organization that has worked with institutions in the United Kingdom to increase their international student enrollment. The collaboration, which includes a “pathway” program into the university, aims to double the university’s international enrollment within five years.
Under the Master’s International concept, a student first becomes accepted by both an OSU graduate program and the Peace Corps, and does the first academic year of their studies at the university. They then leave for Peace Corps training and a 27-month service period in a foreign country, often in Latin America or Africa. Finally, the student returns for at least one more term at OSU to complete their master’s degree requirements.

Initially, participating students at OSU will be able to earn a master’s degree in forest science, forest resources, or forest products. Within those degrees are several possible areas of concentration, such as agroforestry, forest ecology, silviculture, international marketing, forest economics, social forestry, and others.

Possible topics that might be available for a thesis, developed by OSU College of Forestry faculty who have already expressed an interest in serving as major professor for Master’s International students, include such things as the effects of non-native species, evaluating watershed restoration efforts, small business development in the forest products sector, and rural assessments of community needs and potential.

The Peace Corps provides support for the Master’s International student while they are on their foreign assignment, but students remain enrolled at OSU, receive some credit for their work experiences, receive deferred loan payments, and will be able to stay in contact with university faculty.

“The type of students attracted to OSU is similar to those choosing Peace Corps service,” said Sabah Randhawa, provost and executive vice president. “OSU graduates already choose post-graduate assignments with the Peace Corps in large numbers. By creating this seamless process whereby students can integrate their coursework with Peace Corps service, we hope to attract even more students who are bright, energetic and mindful of the international implications of their work.”
Although new, the program has already had many inquiries from prospective participants, Zahler said.
The program will allow students to develop some very innovative research projects while gaining more international experience, he said.

“Master’s International is the kind of program in which both the major professors and students have to be open and flexible,” Zahler said. “It calls for the type of person who is very capable and self-driven – working in a developing country is not like walking into a well-funded university laboratory with your graduate thesis already planned out.”

Andrea Durham, now a Benton County Extension agent at OSU, served from 2001-03 in a Master’s International program in an Ecuadorian village, 6,000 feet high in the Andes Mountains, while she was getting her degree from Michigan Technological University.

“I was a natural resource volunteer who was supposed to be working on the recovery of native forests,” Durham said. “We did that, but the local village also wanted me to help with health and water issues, family planning, youth development, women’s groups.

So I was in the middle of all that, with very little resources or funding, while trying to learn a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, the native dialect descended from the ancient Incas. It was quite a challenge.”

OSU officials say they believe that participation in Master’s International, which will result in more students returning to OSU with significant international exposure, will also improve the diversity of the OSU educational experience and boost other initiatives to increase international student recruiting.

More information about the program can be found on the web at www.peacecorps.gov/masters

~ Dave Stauth

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