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Change of Plans

New series on young people whose lives were changed by COVID-19

Condon native Benjamin Rietmann signed up for the Peace Corps after finishing school at Oregon State University. Mr. Rietmann was in his first year of a two-year commitment with the Peace Corps and was serving in the Dominican Republic when he first heard of COVID-19.

“I’d been listening to the news and hearing about COVID but didn’t think it would be a big deal,” Ben told the Times-Journal. “I was chatting with some other Peace Corps volunteers and we all thought that an evacuation would not happen. Later that day, we received an email that Peace Corps was pulling everybody out.”

Ben Rietmann in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Rietmann was serving in the Peace Corps when COVID-19 forced him to return home. (Photo by Katie Cook)

Ben was working in the Dominican Republic with a dairy cooperative, providing agricultural support services to farmers. He had worked to build trust with area residents. He had also just started a kid’s club that was exploring environmental issues with youth.

Suddenly, Ben was told that he had to make his way to the capital, Santo Domingo, within 18 hours to make his flight home. He was being evacuated.

Ben, who is the son of Tom Rietmann and Katie Cook, returned to Condon on March 17 and spent two weeks in quarantine at his family home. He waited for the Peace Corps to offer guidance and to see if they would allow him to return to the Dominican Republic.

In early April, Ben received an email stating that the earliest opportunity to resume his service would be in mid-October.

Ben knew that he would be needed for harvest and that he would stay at his family’s ranch through the summer. Beyond that, he wasn’t sure what he should do.

Initially, Ben thought of applying for graduate school. However, with universities switching to online distance learning, Ben felt that he would miss out on meeting classmates and building relationships.

The Peace Corps then announced that they would offer professional development trainings for Peace Corps members that had to return home.

Ben says that the Peace Corps also gave returned volunteers the full amount of pay for two years of service and an additional $1,500.

The Peace Corps, working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), then provided a special job fair for returned volunteers.

Ben says that he interviewed four times and was offered a position with USDA in Washington D.C.

Ben accepted the position and will be working with the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service as an International Trade Specialist. Ben will be working with partners around the world to review and update trade policies relating to agricultural products produced with genetic engineering.

Ben recently received his security clearance and plans to leave for D.C. in early to mid-September.

Mr. Rietmann is not a stranger to the area or the agency; he did an internship with USDA in college and lived in Washington D.C. for a short time.

In a social media post, Ben said that he had enjoyed being back home and getting more farming experience but that he was not quite ready to settle down.

“It’s been kind of a rough year with lots of unexpected changes and uncertainty in the midst of the pandemic, but I’m looking forward to this new chapter.”

Piper Jamieson is a graduate of Condon High School and had moved to Ithaca, New York in 2019. Ms. Jamieson had attended Clackamas Community College and was taking online classes through Eastern Oregon University while living in Ithaca.

Although she loved the experience of living on the East Coast, Piper decided to move back to the west coast and enrolled this fall at Northwest University near Seattle. “I like small schools,” Piper told the Times-Journal while on break at Country Flowers, which is owned by her grandmother Darla Seale.

Piper’s excitement for attending the small Christian university began to splinter when she learned that Northwest University would be shifting to an online distance learning format this fall.

“Online learning is not for me,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hard to reach out when you need help. Even if you just need help with the software.”

Online classes aren’t for Piper Jamieson, who decided to join the workforce instead of returning to university this fall. (Times-Journal)

Having had the experience of distance learning from Eastern Oregon University, Piper knew she had to change her plans. “Attending Northwest would be the same thing with the added expense of private school tuition.”

As Piper weighed her options, she spoke with her sister Matney Jamieson, who had recently started working for A-Dec, a dental supply company that is based in Newberg. Piper says that the company is known to have a good workplace culture and provides tuition reimbursement for employees.

 “I had a choice: go to private school remote or go make some money with tuition reimbursement,” said Ms. Jamieson.

Had COVID not happened, Piper says she would be preparing to leave for Northwest University this week. While she is excited to live with her sister and to start work, she is sad that this might be the last summer she can spend working at Country Flowers.

Ms. Jamieson says that “It will be nice to work four days a week and to have tuition reimbursement but it’s bittersweet. I’ll miss coming home and spending the summer at Country Flowers and staying with my family.”

Morgan Jamieson attended Ithaca College last year and was told to pack for an additional two weeks when she left for spring break. Morgan arrived home in Condon on March 6th thinking that she would return to New York but soon learned that in-person classes had been canceled for the year.

Although Ithaca College had not done online classes before, they worked to provide internet-based education for their students. Like most schools, the college wasn’t equipped to make such a quick transition.

“I did a quarter of the year online,” Morgan told the Times-Journal. “I’m not a fan of it.”

Morgan Jamieson starts at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA this fall. The university will do a hybrid of in-class and online learning. (Times-Journal)

 Morgan finished the year at Ithaca and says it was a challenge to be in a different time zone with her peers.

An 8am class was suddenly a 5am class. “That didn’t make it easy,” she says with a bright smile.

Although finishing the year was a challenge, Morgan had already decided that she was going to transfer to Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington in the fall. She then began working at the Gilliam County Public Library for the summer. While there, she reaffirmed her passion for libraries and desire to work in libraries as a career.

A talented artist, Morgan painted the window of the library and developed a walking story tour for kids on Condon’s Main Street.

As she prepared to resume her education at Northwest University, Morgan learned that the school would be splitting their classes in half and alternating days between in-person and online learning. Although the school has less than 1,000 students, several restrictions were put into place to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus.

In addition to in-person classes, student accommodation was changed to single occupancy in the dorms. This means no roommates, which is a significant part of the college experience. Morgan says that housing was already an issue for the university and that student housing had been at capacity for many years.

Morgan gives credit to the school for taking a creative approach to solving the issue; the university approached the Red Lion Hotel and made an agreement to lease rooms for upper classman and to provide a dining location for them.

As she finished her final days at the Gilliam County Library, Morgan said she is excited to get back to school but that she also has some butterflies. “I’m nervous,” she says, “but excited too.”


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