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Wild education

Montana State University's online graduate program in environmental sciences has graduated 50 people in seven years. Most of the students in the program have been remote working professionals. 

BOZEMAN — Working in the wilds of Wyoming, Jennifer Malavasi and Leewood Oakley had more than the usual concerns when they decided to enroll in graduate school at Montana State University.

Even though they signed up for an online program designed for the convenience of its students, there were many days where they were more likely to see a swift fox or black bear than a cellphone tower. There were times when they were more apt to encounter a snowstorm or tornado than Wi-Fi.

"We are typically stationed pretty remotely," Malavasi said during a recent day off while she and Oakley were butchering an antelope.

Because of their jobs as environmental consultants, the friends and co-workers wondered how they would download reading assignments, communicate with their instructors or submit their papers on time. They were stationed in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, during the week, a town of about 270 people located 60 miles from Laramie and 90 miles from Casper. They frequently took massive pickup trucks, all-terrain vehicles or helicopters into even more isolated areas to survey wildlife and vegetation. The house their company rented for them wasn't set up for internet when they thought about enrolling at MSU.

But Malavasi had long wanted to earn her master's degree and thought she had finally found an online, affordable program that would work for her. Since she and Oakley both worked for SWCA Environmental Consultants, she knew they had some down time when they could do their homework. She convinced Oakley to join her after agreeing that they would take two graduate courses per semester. Oakley would pick one course, and Malavasi would choose the other.

The women enrolled in August 2016 and graduated in August this year with master's degrees in environmental sciences. Malavasi wrote her professional paper on disease in hatchery-reared chinook salmon, while Oakley wrote hers on invasive plant species. They completed their degrees in five semesters working two jobs each.

"It was not easy by any means," Malavasi said.

"There were definitely some moments," Oakley added, recalling extreme weather and dead batteries.

The women set timers on their cellphones to remind them when assignments were due or their instructors posted readings, Malavasi said. If they knew they were going to be out in the field, they downloaded readings ahead of time. When Malavasi wasn't sure she'd be home in time to turn in an assignment, she asked her husband to be ready to submit it for her.

They often did their homework behind the steering wheels of their parked Ford F-250s, turning the trucks throughout the day to keep the sun off their computer screens, Malavasi said. Other times, they hunkered down beside the tires of their ATVs. When they didn't have the service they needed to download assignments or turn in projects, they parked outside a Medicine Bow gas station that had Wi-Fi.

Oakley and Malavasi attributed their successful completion of their degrees to a variety of factors. Besides the gas station Wi-Fi and the encouragement and tutoring they gave each other, they appreciated understanding instructors and a "phenomenal" app that let them access their classes from a distance.

"Everybody was so flexible," Malavasi said. "The professors were all great. There were a bunch of days when we had helicopter surveys and airplane flights so we asked to get the materials ahead of time because we knew the next week would be terrible."

Oakley said the MSU program has already benefited them in their ongoing jobs with SWCA Environmental Consultants. She, in particular, is using what she learned about technical writing and wetlands. Malavasi said their courses in wetland ecology and aquatic work created a niche for them.

"It's something not a lot of people have experience in," she said.

Oakley earned her bachelor's degree from Unity College-America's Environmental College in Maine and worked for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department before joining SWCA Environmental Consultants and pursuing her master's degree. Malavasi earned her bachelor's degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey and previously worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Despite that background and experience, they said it's important to continue developing professionally.

"In our fields we need it to stay on top of things and keep going," Malavasi said.

Bob Peterson, founder and program director of MSU's online master's degree program in environmental sciences, said more than 50 people have now graduated from the program that began seven years ago and extends the walls of MSU beyond Bozeman. The program is housed in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU's College of Agriculture.

About 60 percent of the students are women and 40 percent are men. The median age is 35. About half come from Montana. The rest live elsewhere, mostly around the United States.

People generally go through the program in two to 2 1/2 years, Peterson said. The courses, approximately 15 of them, include activities, discussions, readings and exercises that students can access online any time that suits them. Students can come to the MSU campus one week in the summer for one or two courses, but it is not required.

"You could enroll and finish without ever setting foot on campus," Peterson said. "We designed it specifically that way so it would provide opportunities for place-bound people who don't have deep pockets."

Peterson said that graduates of MSU's online program come from all over the United States to walk across MSU's stage during commencement.

"They think of themselves as Bobcats, and we treat them as Bobcats," Peterson said.”

For more information on the program, go to http://www.montana.edu/online/degrees/environmental-masters/.

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