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Oregon State history master’s student uses her education to bring the past to life

The Luper Pioneer Cemetery in Eugene, Oregon, is one of the historical sites where Jessica Sue Cole has conducted research and other work while pursuing a history master’s degree online with Oregon State.

By Tracy Scott

Jessica Sue Cole was at a crossroads.

Shortly before finishing her bachelor’s degree in history online from Oregon State University Ecampus, she began exploring graduate school options. Unfortunately, at that time, Oregon State did not offer a history master’s degree online. After much research, Cole was left torn between two programs — but one was out of state, and the other was in another country.

Fortunately, before she committed to one of the programs, she received news that would change the trajectory of her life allowing her to ensure that while some people of Eugene, Oregon are gone, they will not be forgotten.

“During my senior year, I learned OSU was planning to offer a graduate history program (online) the following year, and I was thrilled!” she said.

When Cole was awarded a Provost Distinguished Graduate Scholarship, that sealed the deal. But Cole’s initial path to college wasn’t a straight one.

“I put college on hold about 15 years ago when my eldest daughter was born,” she said. “I’d planned to return to school when she entered kindergarten — but surprise! We ended up having a second daughter join us, and then a few years later, our third came along.”

Cole, who was named the College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Senior during her undergraduate studies, hadn’t planned to finish her postsecondary education via distance learning. She started her bachelor’s degree online and intended to switch to in-person learning when her youngest child started school.

“Honestly, I thought I wouldn’t learn as much online,” she said. “I went into Ecampus expecting to get a subpar education compared to in-person classes.”

To her surprise, the quality, support and flexibility of a distance learning environment supported her personally and academically. “I’m so glad I decided to attend classes online because shortly after the semester began, the pandemic hit and then all three of my children transitioned to virtual learning,” she said.

Cole believes there’s no way she could have juggled going to school on campus with kids at home during the height of the pandemic. “I would have had to drop out,” she said. “The online option meant I could stay home with my family and still graduate on time.”

Cole’s undergraduate experience proved online instruction could allow her to enjoy the best of both worlds. “I don’t have to deal with trying to get classes that fit around my kids’ school or gymnastics schedule,” she said. “Plus, I’m a visual learner. Before, when taking in-person classes, I would have to spend just as much time studying material as I did attending lectures. But with online coursework, I can … dive right into the learning materials,” she adds.

As Cole works toward completing her degree, she reflects on her experience to date.

“OSU Ecampus is one of the best-ranked programs in the nation. I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything by not taking in-person classes,” she said. “My professors are extremely responsive, and I had personal advisors who helped me figure out what classes I needed for my undergraduate degree. I knew that if I had any issues, tutoring programs and counselors were there if I needed help getting back on track.”

While Cole lights up with a passion for the past, her future looks even brighter. With the help of OSU’s School of History, Philosophy and Religion, she secured an internship with the Oregon Genealogical Society, where she has volunteered for the past two years. She also developed long-term relationships with local historical organizations, Luper Cemetery and Mulkey Cemetery.

In addition to joining the board at Luper, her research at Mulkey led to an incredible discovery that reinforced her decision to follow her academic dreams.

“I was able to locate over 100 people buried there that the cemetery didn’t know about. What started as accidentally uncovering a few records became a full-on obsession. My goal is to unearth proof of as many unknown interments in the cemetery as possible,” she said. “Mulkey is now working to create a memorial to commemorate these people. I’m honored to have been involved in this process.”

As for the next step in her journey, Cole is excited to discover what else she’ll unearth. Her history master’s degree online focuses on community history and civic engagement.

“I’m currently working with a few historical cemeteries to create an interactive walking experience that educates participants on the area’s history, the cemetery itself and those buried there,” she said. “Bringing stories to life of those who’ve gone before us and sharing that information in a way that engages people with the past — it’s the most rewarding job I can imagine.”

Take your career to the next level and embrace your passion for history by learning more about Oregon State’s history master’s degree online.

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