Rock-solid SOU summer camp revives optimism in future

It's easy these days to be pessimistic about the future of our country, given the anger and angst boiling over the edges of the American melting pot.

After all, there are the never-ending wars, the ongoing economic stagnation, the ceaseless rants in the congressional kindergarten, not to mention the endless bickering between Democrats and Republicans nationwide that would shame the Hatfields and McCoys into a sobbing group hug.

But you sometimes stumble across something out of the blue that reminds one of our powerful potential as a diverse people.

Coming away with a new-found sense of optimism was the last thing I expected when I dropped in on Southern Oregon University's geology/hydrology summer field camp last week. Yet after chatting with the faculty and students, I walked away with something I haven't felt for a long time: renewed faith in our fellow humanoids, in our places of higher learning and in the future of our civilization.

The annual summer field camp offered by SOU draws applicants from universities nationwide. This year's class was limited to 30 students.

They came from prominent institutions of learning from around the nation: Boston University, Indiana State University, University of Cincinnati, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M, University of Wisconsin, Pacific Lutheran University, San Francisco State University, Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, Utah State University and others. Most participants were seniors, but there was a sprinkling of grad students.

All were drawn by the reputation of SOU's hard-science camp offered nearly every summer since 1979. In other words, it is a little university with a big reputation.

"We had to turn away 40 students — we can't take everybody who applies," said geologist Jad D'Allura, a SOU professor who retired this spring and is now teaching the class on a contract basis.

That speaks volumes about Jad and former SOU Professor Bill Elliott, now chair of geology and physics at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. Bill returns each summer to SOU's geology field class because he likes the regional geology as well as the people.

Both instructors are affable and very bright. The former may be desirable but the latter is essential in keeping ahead of these student brainiacs.

Consider Jahallah Simmons and Deepa Shah, Montclair State University seniors in New Jersey just across the bay from the Big Apple. Jahallah is a double major in biology and geology with a minor in chemistry, while Deepa's double major is in geology and physics. She plans to earn a doctorate in paleomagnetism, which — I looked it up — is the alignment of iron in rock with the Earth's magnetic poles.

In other words, both are smart enough to be accepted into any geology camp of their choosing.

"We wanted to come out West," she said. "This is a school (SOU) we really wanted to come to."

With that, they proceeded to talk about the rocks under our feet and those looming overhead deep in the Colestin Valley. They can tell you about the 100-million-year-old sandstone in the valley where the class is taking part in SOU's ongoing effort to create a geological map.

"We are measuring the strike and dip to see how the bedding is aligned," she said. "Basically, that will tell us which way the whole formation is dipping and oriented."

My puzzled expression prompted Simmons to rescue me.

"If it is striking northwest, it is a contact," he explained. "Whereas, if it is striking northeast, it is a fault."

The former is a contact between two different geological masses while the latter refers to a shift caused by a movement such as an earthquake, he added.

I didn't get a chance to talk to every student, but the half dozen I visited with were equally impressive. After all, these were the cream of the crop, young folks who are serious about studying hard sciences.

To a person, they were pleasant, engaging and highly intelligent. They are the kind of students you hope your children and grandchildren will emulate when they attend university.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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