For nearly 40 years, students from Christian colleges have trekked to the mountainous wilderness of Oregon for an unusual academic experience that dubs itself “out of the mainstream.” Called the Oregon Extension, the semester-long program invites students to slow down, breathe deep, read books, ask questions and confront big ideas.
Oregon Extension has its own campus, faculty, curriculum and financial benefactor. In July 2015, the program will acquire a new academic partner and accrediting school – Eastern Mennonite University.
EMU will award college credits to the students who participate in the Oregon Extension, process federal loans and grants, and provide outcomes assessments in line with EMU’s accrediting association. It will also create an academic governance committee that will give final approval to admissions requirements, faculty hiring and curriculum changes.
In return, the Oregon Extension will pay an annual fee for EMU’s administrative services, provide two full tuition waivers for EMU students each fall, offer the use of its campus to EMU at substantially discounted rates, and extend to EMU first consideration in filling a rotating faculty slot.
“This is a true win-win partnership, and we share a number of important core values,” says EMU provost Fred Kniss. “Oregon Extension will gain access to EMU’s expertise and experience in assessment, sustainability and environmental studies. EMU will gain increased access for its students and faculty to the excellent programs and facilities of the Oregon Extension.”
Oregon Extension was founded in 1975 on the site of a 1920s-era logging camp by several professors from Christian colleges. Its remote location – inside the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon, bordering the Pacific Crest Trail, at the intersection of multiple western eco-zones – made it an ideal setting for a unique curriculum that blended the humanities and environmental studies.
The Oregon Extension’s first academic partner was Trinity International University of Illinois. For the last seven years it has been Eastern University of Pennsylvania. In between, the partner schools were Houghton College of New York and Messiah College of Pennsylvania.
Up to 40 students and four resident professors create an intentional learning community each fall semester at the Oregon Extension. They read one book at a time and explore one idea at a time. They climb mountains, hike the coastline, stoke the woodstoves of their cabins and bake bread.
“The Oregon Extension is a place that lends itself to settling down with a book and getting lost in it and then seeking out others to discuss the book’s ideas,” says director Tad Cobb.
In 2010 the program acquired a benefactor when an alumnus who started a successful business purchased Oregon Extension’s property and guaranteed its financial future. He is Gary Erickson, owner and co-chief visionary officer of Clif Bar & Company, a leading maker of nutritious and organic foods and drinks for people on the go.
One professor at EMU who is especially happy about the new connection to the Oregon Extension is Steven David Johnson, who was a student and then a faculty assistant there in the 1990s.
During the 2012-13 academic year, he spent his sabbatical there, along with wife Anna Maria and their two daughters. Steve, a photographer, and Anna Maria, a writer, worked on a photo essay project about the ecology of the Oregon wilderness and the need for conservation. They also taught in the fall semester program at the Oregon Extension.
Johnson, who chairs EMU’s visual and communications arts and theater department, thinks his students would benefit from a semester at the Oregon Extension. “This program was one of the best things I did as a college student,” he says. “The landscape of southern Oregon is amazing, and I loved the combination of community living, honest conversation, and intellectual and theological exploration.”