Five degrees and rising: Always more to learn for animal rights advocate and technical writer

by Matt Jardin  |   

Few people carry their childhood passions into adulthood. UAA alumna Lori Jo Oswald, A.A. '83, B.M. '84, A.A.S. '06, is one of those lucky people, turning her love of animals, writing and learning into successful forays into animal advocacy, technical writing and teaching English. (Photo courtesy of Lori Jo Oswald)

Few people carry their childhood passions into adulthood. Even rarer is someone able to find a calling and make a living with those passions. UAA alumna Lori Jo Oswald is one of those lucky people. To be fair, most childhood endeavors would be extremely difficult to continue into one's later years.

Born and raised in Anchorage, Oswald's pastimes included reading, writing, playing with her dogs and exploring the woods that eventually became the UAA campus. Oswald was able to build a life around all of those pursuits, by operating her own technical writing business, establishing two nonprofits for pets, and graduating from and teaching at UAA.

That last one is perhaps the most surprising to Oswald, admitting that "for someone who didn't want to go to college, I've probably gone to college longer than anyone."

At her sister's behest, Oswald reluctantly dipped her toe in the world of higher education by spending a semester at California State University. Oswald was all in, and when she found herself back in Anchorage, she hit the ground running.

"All the things I didn't like in high school were gone. I had freedom to choose, and that was so important to me," she recalls. "I ended up being so fascinated by everything that I took classes in all kinds of subjects, majoring in just about everything and attending UAA and Anchorage Community College full time while still working and volunteering."

Kicking off her long line of degrees, Oswald earned her A.A. in social science in '83, followed quickly by a B.M. in music performance and a minor in English in '84. As an avid literature lover and hopeful English teacher, she originally planned to graduate with a proper bachelor's in the subject. However, due to a conflict with her other longtime love, animals, along with society's attitude toward animal rights at the time, Oswald was forced to take a detour.

"Back in the early-to-mid '80s, biology was a requirement for a bachelor's in English," she describes. "I knew from junior high and high school that we would have to dissect animals in the lab, and I just ethically could not sign up for the class. I petitioned to take another class, but this made no sense to the associate dean at the time. I liked him a lot and he was terrific about always signing my petitions to overload on credits, but 'animal rights' was not a recognized term back then."

(Photo courtesy of Lori Jo Oswald)

Oswald's advocacy for animals goes beyond simply growing up with pets. When she was in high school in 1977, after returning home from a shift at Anchorage downtown diner Lucky Wishbone, Oswald turned on the TV to see a local PBS documentary about Animal Control and pet overpopulation in Anchorage.

"The part I saw horrified me and changed my life right there," starts Oswald. "Two dogs were put into a decompression chamber and the film crew silently filmed their slow deaths. I always figured I'd be the cliché old lady in tennis shoes volunteering to help animals. But that moment clarified for me that there would be no waiting. The next three days, I skipped school and went to animal control, and that led to my starting a drive for a spay clinic."

From high school on, Oswald was never not volunteering at an animal shelter or nonprofit. She helped establish the Alaska SPCA spay/neuter clinic, co-founded the Alaska Humane Society, sat on the first Mayor's Advisory Board on Animal Control, and successfully worked to get the decompression chamber banned as a method for euthanasia in Alaska, the very tool that sparked her crusade.

In 2002, Oswald founded the nonprofit STOP the Overpopulation of Pets. The program subsidizes Alaska's high cost of spaying and neutering pets, which Oswald puts at around $300-to-$500 and one of the contributing factors of pet overpopulation and needless euthanasia.

"We have had some incredible changes in the last 20 years. In the late '70s, Anchorage was putting down nearly 10,000 dogs and cats a year. Now it's down to less than 650 and not all of those are due to pet overpopulation," Oswald states. "This is due to many factors. One is better education of pet owners; another is tougher rules about spaying and neutering pets before they are adopted so they don't come back with litters. Spay programs are essential in reducing the numbers of pets coming in. Nowadays, there are many caring staff, volunteers and rescue groups that help foster, train and find forever homes for pets."

Even though Oswald chose another route to get her degrees in English, she couldn't be happier with the way things worked out. She likens her situation to Mr. Holland's Opus, a 1995 film about an aspiring composer who takes a teaching job to make ends meet.

"There's a great message there. Sometimes life doesn't work out the way you planned, but perhaps the alternate life is a better one than you could have dreamed for," says Oswald.

(Photo courtesy of Lori Jo Oswald)

After her first UAA degrees, Oswald proceeded to earn an M.A. in '88, and a Ph.D. in '94, both in English, from the University of Oregon in Eugene. During that time, she got her first taste of her other dream career: technical writing and editing. Although she started writing for pay back in fourth grade (an Archie Comics letter on dinosaurs), and has published hundreds of articles, poems and short stories, it was two technical editing jobs she worked during graduate school that started her new career path. By the time Oswald moved back to Anchorage again, she was able to grow her skills into a thriving business.

Oswald has been writing and editing technical reports, proposals and manuals for numerous companies since 1994 through her company, Wordsworth LLC. Later, she co-founded Forms in Word, a document design service.

"I've always loved stories. It's just that instead of writing the Great American Novel, as I dreamed when I was a child, my stories have been about people, companies and procedures," says Oswald. "It's fun for me to take what may seem like a jumble of words - or wording too technical for the intended audience - and make them coherent, organized, even powerful."

As if establishing a business wasn't impressive enough, Oswald did it while continuing her animal advocacy, raising a son and returning to UAA, once again as a student, but also as an English teacher, her original dream job. Oswald earned her latest degree, an A.A.S. in corporate information office systems in '06.

Eventually, Oswald reasoned that "something had to give." After juggling so many passions for so long, she once again found herself at a crossroads having to choose between her two dream jobs: technical writing or teaching English.

After much back and forth, Oswald chose technical writing, citing the flexibility to work from home and raise her son while operating her businesses and nonprofit. Best of all, she gets to continue learning as part of the job, and her subject matter is only as limited as her client base.

"I believe in lifelong learning, and as a technical editor, I get to learn something new all the time," she says. "I have written or edited reports, proposals, manuals, articles and book chapters in such areas as education, agriculture, the oil and gas industry, construction, engineering, the environment, business, music and more. There is always more to learn!"

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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