Jerry Petersen takes a break from working in the Koppel Farm community gardens.
After the midwife left the yurt, Jerry Petersen looked at his newborn daughter.
Petersen and his wife, Stephanie, lived in the remote forest of the Olympic Peninsula. He was a self-employed landscaper and they’d built the yurt themselves, using plans from the library. They were used to being independent. But now Petersen had two children – Ariane, and her 5-year-old sister, Jera – depending on him.
“I began to wonder how I would support my family if I injured myself on the job,” he said, “if I fell off a ladder or a tree fell on me.”
Not long afterward, Petersen strung 100 feet of wire from his neighbor’s phone line. He hooked up his computer, dialed up an ISP, and connected with WSU’s online degree program, which he’d learned about at a WSU Extension office.
“They explained my degree would be just as valid as if I’d gone to classes in the flesh,” he said. “I also found out I qualified for financial aid, and that the courses were taught by WSU faculty, the same folks who taught on campus. I was sold.”
Two years later, in 2003, Petersen graduated summa cum laude with a social sciences degree. After encouragement from teachers and fellow students, he moved to Pullman. In 2006, he earned his master’s in English. He was awarded his doctorate in May 2010.
Along the way, the former online student became an online instructor. More... He teaches composition and rhetoric, and won the 2009 English Department’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He also assesses freshmen placement exams for the WSU Writing Program and is a volunteer sign-language interpreter for WSU and in Moscow.
One of his former online writing instructors is now the chair of his department.
“Jerry was as great a student as he has turned out to be a teacher,” said Professor George E. Kennedy. “He became our Blackburn Post-doctoral Fellow this year for the outstanding quality of his dissertation, effective teaching, and abundant promise of professional success to come.”
Ariane is 9 now. She studies dance at the Northwest Dance Center, and volunteers alongside her father at the Koppel Farm community gardens. Jera is 14 and devotes herself to animal welfare causes. Stephanie Petersen earned a B.S. in biology at WSU Pullman and works for the Plant Biology Department.
Jerry Petersen has traded rain forest for wheat fields. But he sometimes pauses during an online course to discuss the yurt.
“I tell my students I know what they’re going through,” he said, “because I completed the same course from our little house in the woods.”
Students are surprised he was once one of them, he said. They’re also encouraged to see that a bachelor’s degree can be just the beginning of the journey:
“WSU’s online program is about real education,” he said, “and real opportunities to improve or transform your life.”
Story and photo by Richard H. Miller/WSU Online