Steel mill’s closure leads environmental sciences student to a new future
By Tyler Hansen
March 10, 2017
Two hours before he walked across a stage to accept his Oregon State University diploma, Orman Morton III was asked to reflect on what the feat meant to him.
The question caught him off guard. His eyes welled up. His booming voice quivered.
In that moment, the events of the years leading to his graduation raced through his mind.
The Baltimore steel mill where he’d worked for 10 years had been shut down, bankrupt, a casualty of the economic recession. The stability in Orman’s life vanished, and the recovery was not quick.
For the next four years, he was unemployed. In order to provide a better life for his three children at home, Orman, a single father, needed to reinvent himself. His approach was unconventional, and it was emotionally draining.
What sustained him was the family support he received in Baltimore and the strong sense of community he found on the other side of the country at Oregon State.
Orman enrolled online with OSU Ecampus in its environmental sciences bachelor’s degree program. As a Native American in the Penobscot Nation, the program suited him perfectly and gave him a way to satisfy a long-held desire to build a career in environmental sciences.
“My whole life has revolved around the environment, around fish and wildlife,” Orman says. “It’s a part of who (Penobscots) are and a fabric of our culture. It’s what identifies us, and it’s just an obsession I’ve always had.”
Despite being 2,400 miles away from Oregon State’s Corvallis campus, Orman became involved in OSU’s indigenous student community through the Native American Longhouse Eena Haws. He became a member, established personal connections and took part in virtual events where he could interact with others on the opposite coast.
Just as Orman discovered with his engaging online course work, the divide between himself and campus did not diminish the impact nor the enjoyment of his student experience.
“The Native American community (at OSU) is very proactive. Even as an Ecampus student, you get treated with the same perks and opportunities that the campus students do,” he says. “That was very important to me.”
It was another layer of a robust support system that propped Orman up whenever he wavered as a student. His sister-in-law, brother and mom all helped care for his kids while he studied and took tests at night.
He found volunteer work with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, analyzing the fish population and water quality in Chesapeake Bay. And when his son needed help with his AP high school environmental sciences course work, Orman was happy to be a tutor.
These are the images and memories that passed through Orman’s mind when he was asked to measure the magnitude of the moment at OSU’s commencement last June.
He fought back tears when he said that his family contorted itself to work around his academic schedule and his priorities for three years. He squeezed his kids’ swim lessons and soccer practices and baseball games in between his studies.
But the hard work, as expected, was worth it. Orman’s Oregon State degree helped him earn a position as an environmental scientist for a firm in Maryland that does stream restoration and design, wetland delineation and environmental monitoring.
It took him losing his job to land the one he’d always wanted.
“Oregon State gave me the opportunity to put myself back into a position to provide for my children,” Orman says. “I will always be indebted to this institution for accepting me in a time when this degree offered me the only opportunity to regain control of my life.”