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Sustainability, anthropology grad finds inspiration amid poverty, disaster

Joshua Chan Burgos, an OSU Ecampus graduate, wears a graduation cap and gown while surrounded by his family and OSU's mascot, Benny the Beaver

Joshua Chan Burgos has some graduation day fun with his biggest fans — Emily Leyava, his partner; Evelyn Burgos, his mother; Leo Chan, his father — and of course, OSU’s favorite photobomber.

Volunteering with orphans amplified Ecampus alum’s passion to learn and make a difference

By Tyler Hansen

Inside a classroom in the remote countryside of Central Asia in 2013, in a village where inspiration could be snuffed out at birth, Joshua Chan Burgos was jolted into a new and ambitious sense of what he needed to do.

Volunteering for a nonprofit, he was surrounded by orphans, some as young as 5. Many were destitute even before they had lost or had been abandoned by their family of birth. Drinking water was scarce; food even harder to come by.

Amid the poverty, Chan Burgos looked around and saw young faces filled with excitement. He saw children determined to get educated and find a job in a larger town so they could give back to their small communities.

“An entire village put all their money together so one of these kids could go to school,” Chan Burgos told himself.

Something clicked. He knew his next step was to find a place where he could prepare to put into practice his belief that learning and community-building can occur anywhere on the planet, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Joshua Chan Burgos kneels in a greenhouse, with pencil and pad in hand, on the cover of the Oregon Stater alumni magazine.

This article originally appeared as the cover story in the winter 2020 issue of the Oregon Stater alumni magazine. Read it on desktop or mobile »

That his search led him to OSU is evidence of the breadth of Oregon State’s impact in the modern world. The university’s legacy of promoting cultural and environmental progress attracts people who want to tap into Oregon State’s expertise, and OSU Ecampus makes it possible for them to do it from any point on the map without it sacrificing high-quality, transformational academics and mentoring.

Chan Burgos’ circuitous journey had taken him from Puerto Rico to Hong Kong to Central Asia to Ohio and then Florida, and then to earning two Oregon State degrees online so he could devote his life to creating a healthier planet.

Along the way, his personal story became part of the always-expanding, always-evolving story of Oregon State University.

Putting theories into practice

Like many students who learn online with OSU Ecampus, Chan Burgos already had a wealth of life experience when he enrolled. His upbringing in Puerto Rico — born to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from China — taught him not only the value of service but also the power it wields in building resilient communities.

He developed an understanding of the environment and his diverse cultural history, which would eventually spur his decision to pursue a double major in sustainability and anthropology at OSU. He welcomed the opportunity that his Ecampus courses afforded him to refine his intellect, and he came to understand one of the most valuable lessons of all — that there is a sizable gap between knowing something and being able to put that knowledge to use.

“My degree programs forced me to dive deeper into how cultures impact the environment and how the environment, in turn, impacts people’s culture,” he said. “When I started at OSU, maybe I understood those things on an emotional or psychological level, but now I understand in a way where I can put it into action and create positive change.”

Research in rural Oregon

The notion of knowledge in action presented itself throughout his time as a distance learner. Both of his degree programs required heavy doses of hands-on learning, including sustainability work in Florida’s state parks and on a small organic farm.

Another opportunity came in September 2017 during OSU’s anthropology ethnographic field school. For two weeks in Polk County in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Chan Burgos immersed himself in a rural community, conducting research and interviewing locals. He was so energized by the experience that he called his mom, Evelyn Burgos, from the Portland airport on his way home to Tallahassee, Florida, to tell her about it.

“What I’ve learned from living and visiting so many places is that community is wherever I am. I learned about community resilience from my parents, but it’s everywhere.”

She also had some good news. While Chan Burgos was at the field school, Hurricane Irma — a category 5 storm — had only grazed the northeastern part of Puerto Rico. As hurricanes go, this one had been gentle with Chan Burgos’ family home.

However, she told him, another hurricane was coming, this one called Maria. They shared optimism that it couldn’t possibly be as big of a threat as Irma. They’d soon be reminded that the environment’s impact on a culture can be brutally destructive.

On an island of his own

Chan Burgos’ academic and career trajectory nearly collapsed on Sept. 20, 2017. It was the first day of fall term at OSU. His eagerness to learn was at a peak.

Then the most destructive storm in Puerto Rico’s history made landfall.

From their home in Florida, he and his partner, Emily Leyava, helplessly watched news reports as Hurricane Maria devastated his homeland. Flooding and erosion ravaged the island. Lack of access to food and water would eventually contribute to 4,645 deaths, according to a Harvard study completed well after the disaster. A month after the storm, 88% of residents, including his parents, remained without power.

Chan Burgos tried to manage a full OSU course load online as he shut down emotionally. He felt compelled to quit school, go to Puerto Rico and help.

Joshua Chan Burgos writes on a notepad at OSU's Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.

While in Corvallis for last June’s graduation ceremony, Chan Burgos spent an afternoon at OSU’s Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture on campus.

Then it dawned on him that he didn’t have adequate training and would probably only get in the way. He leaned on his stateside support system, including his OSU instructors, to help with his anxiety over not going home.

“What I’ve learned from living and visiting so many places is that community is wherever I am,” he said. “I learned about community resilience from my parents, but it’s everywhere. The support of my professors helped me get through that period.”

Merging worlds

Months after taking part in OSU’s June 2019 commencement ceremony in Corvallis, Chan Burgos chuckles in amazement at just how directly he applies what he learned as a student to his new career with the Florida Conservation Corps.

His job includes ecological restoration projects for Florida’s longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem. As fate would have it, he had taken an Ecampus course on ecological restoration in which he created a mock plan for restoring longleaf pines in a certain tract of Florida.

And with the big picture always in mind, he taps into his anthropology background in order to blend the natural world with the social.

“We need people to care about sustainability efforts, and to do that you need to give them a sense of place that’s tied to the land,” he said. “We’re trying to not only restore a certain acreage of these state parks, but we’re also trying to do it in a way where we work together. It’s community restoration, too.”

Chan Burgos remembers the look of amazement on the faces of the Central Asian orphans when they first saw a little dot representing their village on a map of the world. Rather than be overwhelmed by how much they didn’t know, they were more excited than ever about their chance to learn more.

The memory of their eagerness to move on and grow their understanding of the world, and to better grasp how they could make a place for themselves in it, is what keeps Chan Burgos moving forward.

“Those young people changed me,” he said. “Watching them work so hard, I knew I couldn’t waste my opportunities to make an impact. There’s still something I can do, and I’m going to do it every day.”

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