With a Degree, Diverging From a Well-Worn Path

April 28, 2017

The oil-and-gas industry is king in Gulf Coast Louisiana, where generations have gone to work in the refineries.

Christian Ryder’s father, grandfather, brother, and cousins all have worked in the oil industry, and he expected to follow. The Lake Charles, La., native, at 24, enrolled at Sowela Technical Community College with plans to earn an associate degree and become a refinery operator, a job that has long paid a comfortably middle-class salary.

But recent years have not been kind to the industry. A sharp drop in oil prices led to major layoffs — in a 12-month period, one in five workers in Louisiana’s oil-and-gas sector lost their jobs. Mr. Ryder’s father was offered a retirement package.

And Mr. Ryder found himself taking a different route after his curiosity was sparked by a physics course. “The more I learned,” he says, “the more I wanted to learn.” Now he’s studying physics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and hopes to go on to earn a doctorate.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at

Julia Schmalz is a senior multimedia producer. She tells stories with photos, audio, and video. Follow her on Twitter @jschmalz09, or email her at