Ever since she was a little girl, Ashley Backen loved being outside, looking at insects, animals and trees. But when it came to school, she just wanted to play basketball.
Backen was an all-conference player at Roseburg High School and continued playing at Umpqua Community College. But then she injured both her knees and her doctors, coaches and family encouraged her to look beyond basketball.
“Basketball was going to end for me at some point and I needed to accept that,” she said. “But then I was, ‘Oh man, now I have to think: What are my interests?’ So I went back to, ‘What do I like to do?’ and that led to the outdoor stuff.”
A natural resources instructor from UCC came into one of her classes and pitched the program. Backen didn’t know UCC offered a natural resources program, but her interest was piqued and she decided to fully immerse herself in the program.
She later switched from natural resources to forestry after learning about the differences in the programs, but said most classes either transferred or were complementary to her new major.
She also joined the Forestry Club at the college and became president of the club and a liaison for the Society of American Foresters in her sophomore year. Through the club she started networking with people in the timber industry.
Backen was able to secure internships, first as a land management intern at Lone Rock Timber and then as an intern at a sawmill for Roseburg Forest Products.
“I learned a lot. I was in my first year and when I applied I told them I didn’t know a lot and they were OK with that. They said, ‘That’s what this is kind of for,’” Backen said. “I learned to use equipment, I learned how to use a compass — I’d never used a compass before. You would think if you’re going into forestry you know how to use a compass, but I didn’t — I learned to read a map and navigate.
“Going out and doing that for three months, you get really good at learning things and knowing how to do something because you get to repeat it over and over again,” she said.
UCC offers forestry, natural resources, agricultural business and renewable materials programs with transfer opportunities to Oregon State University. The community college has a degree partnership program with Oregon State University, which means all credits transfers and students start in Corvallis as full-fledged juniors after completing the program at UCC.
Jarred Saralecos, UCC’s associate professor of forestry, said, “Oregon State is the No. 1 college of forestry in the country and the No. 2 college of forestry in the world. If you have an opportunity to work with a partner, work with the best.”
Backen said she had a smooth transition into OSU. “There were no classes that didn’t transfer,” she said. “I didn’t worry about taking classes I already took.”
Matt Hill, executive director of the Douglas Timber Operators, said forestry is a science that requires a formal education, but that within the forest product industry there are many lines of work.
Oregon State University’s College of Forestry Manager of Advising and Academic Relations, Nicole Kent, came to UCC each term to help students with schedules and teach about different programs offered in Corvallis.
“Having that was huge, it was awesome,” Backen said.
When asked how she enjoyed Oregon State University, she said, “It reminds me a lot of UCC, because the program is so small. We still have that quaint group work that I really enjoy.”
Backen’s goal is to graduate debt free from Oregon State University and to help with that she applied for, and received, a highly competitive scholarship with the Douglas Timber Operators.
“It’s an honor,” Backen said. “So many people applied for that, and for them to see that I’m worthy. It feel like it’s a boost in my, I don’t know if I should say confidence, but it definitely made me feel like I’m going in the right direction.”
Hill said the amount of the scholarship was increased recently and he hopes to continue to help more students, but unfortunately, several students are also turned down each year.
While Backen didn’t think of forestry as a career until she started college, she fondly remembers tree planting field trips in elementary school.
“Obviously at that point in my life I wasn’t thinking about my career, but I do remember it,” she said.
Backen hopes to move back to Roseburg after graduation.
“My ultimate goal career wise is come back to Roseburg, which has the vast majority of things you can do in the forestry field,” Backen said. “There are so many opportunities and I was born and raised, and I like living there.”
Hill said there’s a serious labor shortage in the forest products industry, “exacerbated by low unemployment but complicated by factors such as drug use.”
To help make sure the work in the classroom connects to the work in the field, Douglas Timber Operators recently placed Saralecos on its board of directors to have regular dialogue.