At 28, Austin Smith Jr. is a husband, a father, a veteran, a hunting enthusiast and an environmentalist. He will add “college graduate” to that list this spring when he graduates from OSU-Cascades with a degree in natural resources.
Born and raised on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, Smith left home at age 17 to join the Marines. He says it wasn’t an easy decision.
“The reservation is my home because of the tight-knit community we are as a tribe that works together for the preservation of culture and traditions,” Smith says.
Smith served two tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom, first as an infantry rifleman and eventually as a Marine scout sniper — a difficult position to obtain.
Out of 42, applicants, only six were chosen after what Smith calls a “week of hell” being starved and sleep deprived.
Smith separated from the military in 2009 to come home to his family.
“I put them through so much being deployed in combat,” Smith says, “So I felt coming home was something I needed to do at the time. I also wanted to pursue my initial goal of higher education and getting a degree.”
Thanks to OSU-Cascades, Smith was able to live at home in Warm Springs and commute to Bend for class.
“It was easy access from home, and the instructors here are great. The class sizes are small, and you can have your questions answered quickly,” he says.
Smith believes finishing his degree in natural resources is just another stepping stone.
“Getting a degree is one thing,” he says. “Applying it in the real world is the next thing.”
Smith plans to remain in Warm Springs after graduation, applying his skills on the reservation as a wildlife biologist. His primary task will be managing big-game species on the reservation, restoring habitats and planning timber sales.
Smith will be the first wildlife management employee for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who is also a tribal member, which he believes will help bridge the needs of the community and the environment.
One example would be supporting the traditional seasonal ceremony of gathering first foods such as salmon, celery, huckleberries, deer and elk.
“The first foods are gifts from the earth that we cherish and utilize in our traditional ceremonies,” Smith explains. “The tribes have an interest in getting first foods back into their natural ecosystems. I want to help preserve those first foods and help protect what we have for future generations.”
Smith also wants to encourage his fellow tribal members to pursue a higher education.
“Having OSU-Cascades so close to home is a great opportunity,” he says. “I would tell other students to apply themselves. All you have to do is study hard, work hard, and you can complete those goals.”