COVID-19 Response and Reopening

Unique Maps to Higher Learning

Newer academic options in fields like GIS, social work and fire services are helping COCC students plot their path to a bachelor’s degree

A world map materializes on the screen, first appearing as the general outline of continents, muted in blue-gray tones, and then colorful circles of data, like an on-screen fireworks show, quickly blossom over the countries. Instructor Pat Kennelly, Ph.D., is showing his Zoom-based cartography class at Central Oregon Community College (COCC) how their software can plot layers of human-linked data — in this case, income and a nation’s overall economic development — in a concise, and even artistic, manner.

Among the students is Noah Mayer, a longtime map dabbler. When I was younger, I used to create maps for video games. The process and design of maps in GIS (geographic information systems) is similar, and being able to analyze data and thinking of interesting ways of displaying it is also a process that taps into my visual learning skills,” said the first-year student.

Another first for Mayer: He’s the first to embark on a brand-new degree offering, in geospatial science, part of the college’s GIS program. The field focuses on map-making in the context of people and the environment — an overlay of community with geography. It blends technology, data investigation and a keen eye for presentation. And it was specifically designed to merge with an existing geospatial science bachelor’s degree program at Oregon State University (OSU), where students can complete their studies fully online, making it a convenient fit for Central Oregonians.

Recent completers of OSU’s program have become city planners, engineering techs and social policy researchers. Mayer plans to continue with his studies beyond a four-year degree. “I want to develop the UX (user experience) for maps that display data to help design things like new cities or new highways for the increasing population,” he said. “GIS is only growing as a field and it’s interesting for me to see how widespread it really is.”

Kennelly likes to hear that passionate talk about GIS. (He himself often uses phrases like “super cool” when discussing student projects.) The degree, he shares, is opening new terrain for COCC students, preparing them for innovative ways to interpret the world. “It combines state-of-the-art data-collection technology with issues at the forefront of social, environmental and cultural impact,” he summarized.

Associate degrees at COCC that align with a specific bachelor’s degree at another institution help students plot their path directly from community college to higher learning. It preps them for what is next in a specific field of study.

In COCC’s Fire Science program, for instance, an associate degree in Fire Service Administration officially aligned this year (updating a prior agreement) with a bachelor’s degree at Eastern Oregon University, an online program. It’s designed for students aiming for officer level in their career; classes at COCC, in specialties like tactics and strategies, fire codes and community fire education, help set the stage.

“Most fire agencies will require a Bachelor of Science in fire service or emergency medical to promote to senior officer leadership, and Eastern Oregon offers both pathways,” explained John Failla, director of the Fire Science program at COCC. “Normally the students who are enrolled in this degree pathway are students who play a leadership role with their current agency and are pursuing their bachelor’s while going through their paramedic year, which is typically their third year here at COCC.”

One recent graduate of the program, who completed his practicum with the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District — and who earned a joint recruitment scholarship to do so — now works for Oregon’s Department of Safety Standards and Training. “He became a lieutenant in just his third year with the department,” said Failla.

As a human services and addiction studies student at COCC, Miah Andersen had clear academic ambitions. And some uncertainty, too. “I started at COCC with the intention of transferring to a university, but I had no idea what that looked like,” said Andersen, who graduated in 2020. “I knew that I wanted to pursue counseling.”

After a powerful class in early childhood trauma that inspired Andersen during her first year, she met with her program advisor and learned about a new path in social work for Central Oregonians available through Portland State University (PSU). The Bachelor in Social Work (BSW) online program, with an on-site office presence at COCC’s Bend campus, is clinically focused and teaches skills through methods like role-playing and group counseling.

“Being the first one in my family to attend a university, I feel like PSU is a great fit for folks who might be intimidated by academia,” shared Andersen. “The professors have been very personable and understanding during COVID. I’ve especially enjoyed classes where I have built hands-on skills.”

Gary Smith, Central Oregon site coordinator for PSU’s School of Social Work, works with students to make sure they’re on track. “I've worked with BSW students for several years in Central Oregon and I see their numbers steadily growing,” he said. “Not only do they save money, but there are a lot of places that hire folks with this degree.”

Additionally, Smith notes, PSU has had a Master of Social Work, or MSW, program in Central Oregon for over 20 years, with core courses taught in person at COCC’s Cascades Hall and electives taught online. Twenty-eight students are slated to graduate this June. Andersen, who will graduate from her bachelor’s program at the same time, is already planning to apply for the next MSW cohort, which commences in 2023.

“For those interested in human services, I highly recommend the combination of the Addictions Studies program at COCC and the BSW program through Portland State,” she said. “I’ll be finishing my education with field experience, a certification specialty and everything I need to provide quality services to my clients.”

For more information on these programs, visit or call 541-383-7700.

Image: A tactics and strategies Fire Science class at COCC helps prime students for a bachelor’s degree in Fire Service Administration.

By Mark Russell Johnson, COCC Staff Writer

Unique Maps to Higher Learning