Land surveyor based in Afghanistan earns master's degree entirely online

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Teresa L. Smithson could say she mapped out a plan to earn her master’s degree from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi this fall.

The professional land surveyor attained a degree in geospatial surveying engineering entirely online — from about 9,000 miles away where she works at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

Smithson, a civilian who lives in western Colorado, said the degree helps her expand her skills in surveying and digital mapping — a career field experts said is seeing a national shortage of professionals.

Surveying is a passion for Smithson, and the degree reaffirms her love for the field, she said.

“It is also important to me as a woman representing a very small minority in the surveying field,” she said in an email.

Fewer and fewer young people are seeking careers in surveying.

It is estimated that 1 in 5 professional surveyors is 65 or older, said Gary Jeffress, director of A&M-Corpus Christi’s Conrad Blucher Institute, who oversees the master’s degree program in which Smithson was enrolled.

Smithson, who is employed by a private company that works for the Army, developed a facilities management process for the airfield as part of her thesis that mapped the base’s infrastructure, including aspects such as existing electrical and sewer lines.

Her thesis helped provide the Army with tools that enhance service, bolster record keeping and reduce costs, Smithson said in an email.

“The program at A&M really provided me new skills that I was using on my job as I was learning them,” she said.

The project gained attention from her professors in Corpus Christi, who frequently used Skype to conduct sessions with Smithson and receive updates on her progress, Jeffress said.

He said Smithson, who is one of about 40 students in the university’s program, has proved to be an expert in her field, and her thesis work likely saved the federal government money.

Jeffress said the Internet made it possible for Smithson to earn her graduate degree from thousands of miles away.

“There’s all sorts of cool stuff we can do just like in the classroom, but it’s all online,” he said.

Smithson’s degree, which marks her second master’s degree, seemed easier to earn online, she said, because she didn’t have the same distractions as if she were at home in western Colorado.

“I don’t have a life here,” Smithson wrote in an email. “I work, eat, sleep ... and do school work in place of my social outlet.”

In addition to regular Skype sessions, Smithson also defended her thesis to her master’s committee — without being able to see the audience’s faces during the discussion.

“The hardest part for me was the closing,” she said, recalling her thesis presentation. “I came to the end but could not look out to the faces looking at the presentation to make personal contact and feel closure.”

Smithson, who hopes to conduct doctoral research, said her A&M-Corpus Christi online degree can show surveying as a sought-after career.

“Some of the brightest, most wonderful people I have met have been in this profession,” she said.

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