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Cultivating a rural workforce

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Cultivating a rural workforce

Oregon State University student Brent Fessler, a junior pursuing an agricultural sciences degree, puts in a good 30 hours on weekends baling hay, repairing fences, and cleaning corrals on his family’s cattle ranch in Madras. The rest of the week, he lives in La Grande, studying for his OSU degree.

Although he’s hundreds of miles from OSU’s main campus in Corvallis, Fessler is a full-time student at the school—while on the campus at Eastern Oregon University. He’s taking advantage of an agreement between the two institutions that allows students to earn an OSU agricultural sciences degree while living in La Grande and studying at EOU, made possible by a partnership begun in 1984 and strengthened earlier this decade.

Bob Davies

Eastern Oregon University President Bob Davies speaks with Oregon State University students in an agricultural leadership class on the EOU campus in La Grande. (Photo by Denise Ruttan.)

Under the agreement, students can take EOU general education courses toward an OSU degree in agricultural sciences, crop and soil sciences, natural resources, or rangeland sciences. They also gain internships, mentors, and teachers at OSU’s research farm in nearby Union.

Here’s a look into a typical day for students enrolled in the program: Today, a class is learning about artificial insemination, a procedure used by cattle ranchers to breed higher-quality herds. Students gather in the experiment station barn amid dust and sweat as cattle wait fitfully. Pink plastic gloves cover their arms up to the elbows while mud and grass dirties their boots and jeans. They’re learning to safely handle frozen bull semen.

This may not sound glamorous, but it’s an experience that Brent Fessler can’t get merely by listening to a lecture or sitting at a desk.

“The teachers really get to know you. Everybody has an open-door policy,” Fessler said. “They ask [the students] where we want to go on educational field trips.”

While learning through travel and fieldwork is emphasized, classroom experiences are also important. Inside EOU’s modern agricultural sciences building, agricultural leadership students wear checkered shirts and hooded sweatshirts. They pass around a plate of cookies as they talk and laugh before class.

The guest speaker for the day is EOU President Bob Davies. Students listen with rapt attention when he speaks.

“Is it possible to be a great leader in a time of calm?” Davies asks the class. “Is leadership something that you’re born with, something that you learn, something that you can develop, or is it a trait where you either get it or you don’t?”

President Davies makes a point to talk directly to students, making no distinction between those enrolled at his school or OSU.

Tim DelCurto

OSU students in Eastern Oregon also learn at OSU's research facility in Union, where Director Tim DelCurto shares artificial insemination duties. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

The partnership between the two public schools goes beyond lectures, field trips, and class credit. OSU students can also compete on EOU sports teams, study abroad, and participate in Rodeo Club, theatre, choir and Range Club, among many extracurricular opportunities.

The proof of success is in the flipped tassels. In 2013, upwards of 40 graduates received OSU bachelor’s degrees in agricultural sciences while in La Grande. Many of them landed jobs in their fields after graduation, according to OSU instructor Jeff Sherman.

And the collaboration keeps growing. Three years ago, 135 students were enrolled in the undergraduate degree program. In spring quarter of 2013, more than 170 students were accepted, according to Tim Delcurto, program head for the OSU Agricultural Program at EOU.

Though still a year away from graduation, OSU’s Brent Fessler is confident he’ll land a job after he walks across the commencement stage. He plans to either work for a seed company in Madras or full-time at his family’s ranch.

Published in: People