Marietta College has earned a global reputation for its
program in petroleum engineering, drawing students from as far away as
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and China to this liberal arts school in southeast
In the past, nearly every one of the program's graduates
has scored a good job in the surging energy field. But not this year. As
the price of oil has plummeted, companies are cutting back on
production and expansion, and cutting into Marietta's placement rate.
Plas, scheduled to graduate in 2017, thinks she'll be OK. Her grades in
the petroleum engineering program are top-level, and her freshman
summer internship — a key element of the program — was exceptional. It's
like a gold star on a resume.
Katie Plas, a junior petroleum engineering major at Marietta College, studies before class.
Maddie McGarvey for NPR
She worked as a roustabout in Arkansas. Plas says it was dirty work, and sometimes dangerous.
wore flame-retardant clothing, all day long. And it gets rather hot
especially when it's a hundred degrees." She was 19, using a
sledgehammer, grateful for the growing-up work on her family's Ohio
Plas poses in her FRCs (flame retardant clothing) last year during an internship at Southwestern Energy in Arkansas.
Preston Rich/Courtesy of Katie Plas
In the oil field she lived in a "man camp" apartment, which was
one-third of a steel shipping container. Around the oil rigs and
pipelines, the college textbook pages could come alive. She would think,
"This is what I learned in class." And then the roughnecks would say,
'"Well, this is how it actually works."
She feels confident
she'll come out of the program next year with a job, but in the current
economy many of her classmates may not be so lucky. This spring, perhaps
only 30 to 40 percent of graduates from the program will have jobs
And enrollment in September could be off by half.
Other big universities with petroleum programs — the University of Texas
at Austin, Penn State and Texas A&M — say their numbers are down,
And so Marietta students like Jack Glime are watching the
market carefully. "The price of oil now is like probably 33 percent of
what it was when I got accepted into the petro program," he says. "It's a
The petro students are required to
take history, philosophy, writing and communication courses, which may
give them a leg up in shifting career choices.
Villaveces, who'll graduate this year, says he's considering law school.
"Patent law is something I'm looking into right now," he says, "and
being a liberal arts student is definitely gong to put me at an
advantage, and being an engineer, when I apply to law schools."
notion would make Bob Chase smile. He's just retired as chair of the
petroleum department after 37 years. "I've got former students that are
attorneys, I've got former students that are doctors, believe it or
not," he says. "One of my students who went on to become an
anesthesiologist made the comment that you'd be amazed at how a
capillary is similar to oil flowing through a pipeline."