Classes Plus AmeriCorps VISTA Equals a Michigan Tech Master's Degree

Martin Aksentowitz in a San Isabel Land Protection Trust forest.
Martin Aksentowitz in a San Isabel Land Protection Trust forest.

Martin Aksentowitz is earning his master’s degree at Michigan Technological University. And he’s doing it while assessing the health of forests in Colorado.

Aksentowitz is an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) member with the San Isabel Land Protection Trust (SILPT) in Westcliffe, Colorado. When he finishes his AmeriCorps VISTA service with landowners of the 40,321 acres in south central Colorado, he’ll receive his Master of Forestry from Michigan Tech. Aksentowitz completed three semesters towards the master’s degree on campus and now is finishing his degree as an AmeriCorps VISTA at SILPT.

A partnership established in 2012 between Michigan Tech and the US Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE)/VISTA Teams enables participating AmeriCorps members to receive credit toward a graduate degree while completing a year of service. Michigan Tech provides a scholarship that covers one-third of tuition for classes and full tuition while participants complete a year of service. This graduate program is available in nine academic fields at Tech and is available to all AmeriCorps members serving with the Build, Restore, Innovate, Develop, Grow, Empower (BRIDGE) Network.

San Isabel Land Protection Trust

SILPT is a non-profit that works to protect lands within a four-county region. The area has a long history of productive agriculture and ranching that has provided a reliable income for its rural landowners.

But changes in land ownership can lead to environmental and economic challenges, threatening water rights and sound land management practices. That, in turn, can place residents in economic jeopardy.

With a poverty rate already 10 percent higher than Colorado as a whole, the area is not prepared to withstand such instability. Protecting the landscape becomes vital to supporting the economy.

Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with SILPT, Aksentowitz is working with landowners who have placed their property under the trust’s conservation easements. In addition to coordinating improvement projects at the town’s Bluff Park, he developed a Forest Health Assessment initiative, which landowners use to share their concerns with SILPT.

“Fire is often at the forefront of their worries,” he says.

Bugs, Trees, Diseases

Aksentowitz walks the landowners’ property with them, looking for pests that could pose a threat, such as western spruce budworm, mountain pine beetle, pine engraver and tent caterpillars. He also catalogs species of trees, plants, animals and insects and discusses land management options such as thinning stands of trees. He prepares a report for their records and informs them of management publications and services offered by the Colorado State Forest Service Conservation District. It’s all done at no charge.

“The landowners I’ve met with have been extremely positive and kind,” Aksentowitz says. “It’s become my favorite part of the job.”

After earning a BA in History from Northern Arizona University, Aksentowitz served with the Peace Corps in Moldova, an eastern European country that borders Romania and Ukraine. Trying to decide what he should do when his Peace Corps service ended, he learned of the AmeriCorps VISTA position in Colorado and discovered that he could earn a master’s degree at the same time with reduced tuition. “Within a month of returning from Moldova,” he says, “I was in a classroom at Michigan Tech.”

Aksentowitz says that frankly, he was surprised by how much he learned in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Tech. “It’s a very intense master’s program,” he explains, “but the hard work paid off. I finished my studies and felt confident to start working.”

Aksentowitz also has high praise for the way Michigan Tech is helping him find a job after he gets his degree. “The professors and advisors at Tech went above and beyond what I expected to help me find work and make connections while job searching,” he says. The VISTA program also gives him a year of “non-compete” status after his service, a federal job status that gives his resume special priority in applying for federal jobs.

With his graduate degree in forestry in hand, Aksentowitz would like to find a job in silviculture—planned establishment and management of forests—to get more field experience. Eventually, his goal is to work for The Nature Conservancy.

“Martin is exactly the kind of person who fits the VISTA program. He has a great ability to use technical skills in a way that reaches people. Today employers demand technical skills but they are also looking for people who can communicate and work with a wide range of stakeholders. The VISTA program allows students to put both kinds of skills to use.”

For more information on Michigan Tech’s AmeriCorps VISTA graduate program, contact Professor Blair Orr,

For more information about joining AmeriCorps VISTA, visit

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.