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A Native American tribal voice in a global online classroom

Learning online in Oregon State’s Master of Natural Resources enabled Joe Peters and other Native American students to introduce Native teachings that were respected and embraced by faculty and peers.

Joe Peters earned his master’s online while protecting natural resources for the Squaxin Island Tribe

By Jordan Friedman

When Joe Peters started looking into natural resources master’s degree programs a few years ago, he knew he didn’t want to relocate from his home in Olympia, Washington, where he works as a natural resources policy representative for the Squaxin Island Tribe.

As he explored his options, he came across Oregon State University’s Graduate Certificate in Fisheries Management delivered online by the top-ranked OSU Ecampus. By enrolling in the certificate program he could try graduate level education online before committing to a full master’s degree in the discipline.

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“A lot of us don’t want to leave our community or our reservations and our tribal communities,” Peters says. “And so to have that opportunity to go back to school and not be transplanted or removed from your community is really big. Especially in a tribal community, you don’t want to leave your home.”

Ultimately, Peters earned his graduate certificate and continued on to OSU’s online Master of Natural Resources degree program. Due to his academic success, Peters was even able to bypass the GRE requirement. The Class of 2019 graduate says the online program became an opportunity for him to advance his career and offer a local Native American perspective to a virtual classroom of students worldwide.

Building up to a degree

Inspired in part by his cousin who earned a doctoral degree in fisheries, Peters recognized there would be benefits to continuing his education, both for his career and the Squaxin Island Tribe. He feels that he has a duty from his ancestors to protect natural resources for generations to come.

In his current role, Peters works with other tribes and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to resolve issues related to natural resources conservation.

Joe Peters on a boat in a river with his catch of salmon

OSU’s online courses helped Joe Peters in his role as a natural resources policy representative for the Squaxin Island Tribe.

Continuing his education was also a way for him to pursue his goal of working in a senior-level role. But having been out of college for two decades, Peters felt a sense of trepidation and wanted to get his feet wet before committing to a full online master’s program.

“I think testing the waters is a big way of knowing if you’re ready,” Peters says. “I didn’t want to jump in and go, ‘Oh, this isn’t working for me.’ ”

OSU’s online fisheries management graduate certificate program provided him the opportunity to get reacquainted with the student life while preparing for even more rigorous studies. The fisheries management certificate can serve as a direct pathway to the online Master of Natural Resources program.

Soon his trepidation turned into affirmation, and the Oregon State faculty who teach online with Ecampus were a big reason why.

“All of the OSU faculty and staff were very engaging in providing high-quality learning experiences in my online classes,” Peters says. “Carmel Finley taught History of Fisheries Science in my first term, and she was very instrumental in guiding me and building my confidence. I am thankful for her early impact on my journey.”

Lending a tribal voice

Reflecting on his experience in the certificate and master’s programs, Peters says he enjoyed the opportunities to connect with his classmates wherever they may be, with some as far away as Japan and the Philippines. He primarily interacted with fellow students on the course discussion boards — where students respond to a professor’s prompt as well as each other — and occasionally through videoconferencing.

“You are learning about things from different aspects of the country and world beyond a remote place in the Puget Sound area that’s very salmon-centric.”

These opportunities offered insight into natural resource protection from all over the world and allowed him to share his traditional tribal knowledge with others, including a few students who were members of other tribes. Peters discussed his culture with classmates, telling stories of fishing with his father and how those experiences are reflective of his tribe’s values.

“You are learning about things from different aspects of the country and world beyond a remote place in the Puget Sound area that’s very salmon-centric,” Peters says.

And just as his cousin inspired him to further his education, he hopes to play a similar role for young and adult members of the Squaxin Island Tribe. In fact, he did exactly that the week after he graduated in June with his MNR.

“We had a big education celebration for our tribal people, and that was another opportunity for me to walk across the stage in front of kids from kindergarten all the way up to Ph.D.s, and say, ‘I got my master’s degree’ and be recognized in front of all my community,” Peters says. “That’s a great example of ‘you can do it too.’ ”

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