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The power of bringing honors online

Oregon State University graduate Jose Torres kneeling on a hillside while conducting field research.

A recent graduate is a star example of why it’s important to make honors degrees available to online learners — and how Oregon State is leading the way

By Elena Moffet

In the winter of 2023, Jose Torres became the first Oregon State University student to complete an honors degree online.

Ask him how he got here, and his story might surprise you.

“Nobody in my family’s ever gone to college or university, so it wasn’t even in my mind. We’re all working class people, and so that was my thing,” he says.

Torres is a U.S. Navy veteran who joined the service straight out of high school and did three deployments — while being stationed in Japan, San Diego and Guam.

“I was going to become an aircraft mechanic. That was my goal,” he says.

Experience the academic excellence of the OSU Honors College online

Pursuing an honors baccalaureate degree online with Oregon State will enable you to participate in enhanced curricular and co-curricular experiences, engage in research with OSU faculty and write and defend an honors thesis on a topic of your choosing. Learn more »

But while stationed in Guam, he saw another possible path for himself when he decided to volunteer at the Guam Wildlife Refuge. There, he worked with the local Chamorro people to help support native species in the refuge.

“I was just like — ‘How do I get your job? I like aircraft and everything, but what are YOU?’ I just had no idea this was a possibility or a career choice that somebody could get paid for,” he says.

So when his contract with the Navy came to an end, Torres applied to the fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences bachelor’s program at Oregon State.

Alongside the FWCS program, Torres decided to enroll in the Oregon State Honors College, which is known for high levels of faculty engagement and creating research opportunities for undergraduate students.

“I read that you would have an opportunity to do a research project. I have a lot of experience with mechanical work, but it was nothing wildlife-related,” says Torres. “So I wanted to build my knowledge base.”

Torres reached out to Dr. Clinton Epps to ask if he would be willing to be his honors advisor.

“I got very lucky,” Torres says. “My honors thesis is on bighorn sheep morphology, and the professor I worked with, Dr. Epps — he’s one of the biggest desert bighorn researchers in America.”

While luck may have played a small role in a research opportunity being available, Dr. Epps gives Torres a lot of credit for his clear communication and follow-through.

“I really appreciated the time Jose took to make his early approach coherent. When you have so many professional interactions with people, clear communication matters. It’s a sign that someone actually took the time,” says Dr. Epps

Torres started at Oregon State in the fall of 2019 and like a lot of people, his plans were upended by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Two terms into his degree program, he decided to move back to Arizona to be close to family.

Where many people might have taken this as a moment to slow down or stop out, Torres decided to continue earning his honors degree online.

Determined to do in-person research while pursuing his degree online, Torres also applied for a VIEW Fellowship through Oregon State’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences. Through the fellowship, he received funding to spend two months in the Mojave Desert during the summer of 2021, assisting Dr. Epps with bighorn sheep research.

“We were collecting fecal samples and behavioral information, so we had to go out and track them,” explains Torres. “We were hiking 6-8 miles a day. I got a lot of great experience from that.”

Torres went on to write and defend his honors thesis on how climate impacts bighorn sheep morphology. To do so, he used a dataset from the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, which has collected data from bighorn sheep captures since 1978. Dr. Epps continued to advise Torres remotely throughout his honors research and thesis, despite being in different states.

“The bulk of his research for his thesis was cleaning, sorting and figuring out how to deal with this enormous data set, so we met online pretty much weekly for a year and a half,” says Dr. Epps. “It was really a joy because Jose is so positive, he’s so hardworking, and he follows through so well.”

While working and completing his honors degree, Torres learned about a United States Geological Survey fellowship, and Dr. Epps gladly nominated him for the opportunity.

“I did three interviews,” says Torres, “and when I got to the Burmese python opportunity in Florida, I said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, this is what I want to do. Pick me.’ It turned out to be such a great experience.”

That great experience would lead Torres to an even cooler opportunity — when his fellowship ended, the USGS offered him a full-time position in Florida, helping to combat invasive Burmese pythons throughout the Everglades and south Florida. In addition to helping with ongoing scientific research with USGS, Torres will help train the next round of interns, teaching them how to do captures, autopsies and necropsies as well as how to use outdoor vehicles like swamp buggies and airboats.

Torres has advice for future students who decide to pursue this Honors College opportunity online. “I’m not gonna tell you it’s easy. I mean, I’ve been working hard… But it’s been a very rewarding experience.”

When asked how the Oregon State Honors College helped prepare him, Torres praised the support of his advisor and mentor, Dr. Epps, but he also spoke highly of the Honors College coursework outside of his fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences major coursework.

“I took a class called Society and Emotions, and I know it doesn’t have anything to do with my major, but overall, I learned so much,” he says. “It’s so interesting to think about — what is love, or why do you feel love? Why do you act a certain way toward certain individuals? Why did you smile at that person? I’ve enjoyed these classes. I think about this stuff a lot more now.”

Oregon State is one of the only institutions in the nation to now deliver an honors degree online, and Torres has advice for future students who decide to pursue this opportunity.

“I’m not gonna tell you it’s easy,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been working hard… But it’s been a very rewarding experience.”

Rewarding for Torres and inspiring for others.

“When he went back to Arizona, he was taking a full load of classes and working pretty much full time and still working on his thesis,” says Dr. Epps. “He made it happen trying to keep all those other balls in the air. It’s amazing.”

That hard work is now culminating into some major life accomplishments for Torres: a degree in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences, a full-time job with USGS and the distinction of being the first Oregon State student to complete an honors degree online.

“Sometimes I gotta pinch myself,” Torres says. “It’s been a long journey. But it’s just been such a great opportunity.”


Find details about pursuing an Oregon State honors degree online, how to join the Honors College and read frequently asked questions.

Learn more about the OSU Honors College

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