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Remote studies, experiential learning push forward fisheries career

Tommy Sheridan, Oregon State Ecampus alum, at work in a crabbing facility in Alaska.

Oregon State Ecampus helped Tommy Sheridan, pictured above, pair his passions for workforce development and Alaskan aquaculture. Now, through a donation to the OSU Foundation, he’s paying it forward to future Oregon State online fisheries students.

Ecampus enabled Tommy Sheridan to grow his fish and wildlife career without leaving Alaska – or even his job – and he wants future students to follow in his footsteps

By Erin J. Bernard

Forging a career in Alaska’s seafood industry isn’t easy – the terrain is rugged, the catch is unpredictable and the weather is… inclement.

Making it there requires going with the flow, says Oregon State University Ecampus alum Tommy Sheridan, who previously earned a Fisheries Management Graduate Certificate and a Professional Science Master’s in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration.

Pathway to a master’s degree

Earn a graduate certificate online to advance your career and serve as a pathway to a master’s degree. Credits may be applied toward Oregon State’s online Master of Natural Resources degree or Professional Science Master’s degrees in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration or Environmental Sciences.

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Do that, he says, and you’ll discover a land ripe with possibility.

“There’s no place like it. I can’t see myself ever leaving,” he says. “My career is inexorably linked with Alaska. I have more to offer this place than anywhere else, and vice versa.”

Now, with a gift to Oregon State Ecampus through the OSU Foundation (and accompanying outreach efforts) Tommy is encouraging future fisheries students to follow in his wake.

An upstream trajectory

Like many before him, Tommy was lured to The Last Frontier by a passion for aquaculture. He arrived in 2002 after working as a research assistant and science diver and landed a series of remote field jobs, from conservation intern to fisheries technician to assistant hatchery manager.

Chasing the currents of his passions meant making his home in some pretty unexpected places: a travel trailer parked beside a remote alpine lake, a floating house in a remote fjord, even a research vessel plying the choppy waters of Prince William Sound.

By 2012, though, things were shifting. Tommy had married a woman he’d met on the ferry to Juneau, they’d decided to start a family, and he sought to rise higher in his career. In order to be more competitive in the field, he knew he needed to further his education.

Tommy chose a fully online Fisheries Management Graduate Certificate, offered by the OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences and delivered online through top-ranked Oregon State Ecampus, then went on to enroll in the online P.S.M. in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration through OSU’s pathway program.

He was the first Alaskan to enroll in either program, but the choice felt easy – he’d already taken several postbaccalaureate Ecampus courses, studying under OSU faculty he’d met in the field, and he knew the format worked well for him.

Tommy Sheridan and his family stand on a dock in front of a snowy mountain and a town in the distance. From his home in Alaska, Tommy earned a Fisheries Management Graduate Certificate in 2012 and a Professional Science Master’s in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration in 2017.

Supported by his family, Tommy went back to school online at Oregon State to further his education and advance in his career, all while living and working in Alaska.

The ‘beauty and promise’ of a remote education

Historically, ambitious Alaskans like Tommy have paused promising careers to pursue advanced out-of-state education, and they don’t always come back. That’s hard on the seafood industry, Tommy says, and completely avoidable: “That’s the real beauty and promise of distance education. Students don’t need to leave their day jobs. There’s so much value in developing those connections and maintaining that real-world experience.”

While studying, Tommy continued to advance professionally: He worked as an area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and was soon tapped to manage one of the state’s largest salmon fisheries.

He also augmented his remote studies with experiential learning opportunities: visits to the Oregon Hatchery Research Center and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, trips to present at various conferences as well as OSU’s Corvallis campus to take classes for his (non-distance) rural studies minor. He even made it to a Beaver football game.

“Students don’t need to leave their day jobs. There’s so much value in developing those connections and maintaining that real-world experience.”

By then a seasoned fish and wildlife professional, Tommy enjoyed helping his classmates connect theoretical concepts to practical applications in the field, and his capstone project, which involved developing and teaching a fisheries course for the University of Alaska Southeast, solidified that work-learn-teach trifecta.

“It was a great experience for me, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the framework of Ecampus and the flexibility I had to spend that time outside of the online classroom,” he says.

A true believer

Then, things shifted again. The Sheridan family had grown to four, and they felt ready to be less remote – at least by Alaskan standards.

So Tommy took a job with Silver Bay Seafoods, a fishermen-owned processing-and-freezing company in Valdez, a close-knit community on Prince William Sound.

Tommy Sheridan and Chris Golatto talk outside of a crabbing facility

In his role on the City of Cordova Fisheries Development Committee, Tommy worked with community partners, including Trident Seafoods’ Plant Manager Chris Golatto, pictured with Tommy, to help re-establish the Prince William Sound Tanner crab fishery.

After graduation, Tommy stayed on at Silver Bay as an external affairs officer, working to facilitate communication between Silver Bay’s fishermen-owners and fishery policymakers. He loves the work, and largely credits his Oregon State education for preparing him to do it well.

Last year, Tommy began paying that gratitude forward. His $500 gift to the Gerald R. Fisher Internship in Aquaculture & Hatchery Management, made through the OSU Foundation, supports travel funds for Ecampus fisheries and wildlife students eager to augment their online experiences by attending real-world forums, like conferences and regulatory proceedings.

Tommy says he truly believes that the distance education opportunities available through Ecampus could transform the way Alaska’s seafood industry trains – and retains – talented workers. That’s a cause close to his heart, and one worth championing in any way he can.

“I see there being a lot of opportunities for connecting with people who are in a similar position as I was in 10 years ago,” he says. “If I can reach those people, it’s good for them, and it’s good for Alaska.”

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