If education equals empowerment, then Phyllis Griffin and Audrey Smith are two powerful women indeed.
Both have been working toward their online Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies degrees at Clarion University with concentrations in Women and Gender Studies. Both are adult students, parents and working moms who returned to school after several decades of life in other places. And - both have utilized Clarion's Virtual Campus to realize their dreams of attaining a college education that will benefit others.
"This degree program has helped me to understand where people are in their lives, and to better relate to them," says Phyllis, age 55, in a phone interview from her home in San Antonio, Texas. "My coursework addressed many types of people, from the homeless and drug addicts, to victims of abuse and the mentally ill. I am able to use what I learned every day on my job - to relate to different peoples behaviors and cultures."
Phyllis graduated from Clarion in May 2010. In her career, she works as the receptionist and coordinator of guest ministries at First Presbyterian Church San Antonio, a church of 3,000 members. In her personal life, Phyllis uses her new knowledge to help anyone she can in the community. "For example, When, I was riding the bus regularly to work each day," she says. "I got to know a young lady who is a single mother. I helped her and her two sons get to school each morning so that she could graduate from high school."
Based on that experience, Phyllis observed that the bus authority needed to adopt some new policies to make the riding experience easier for parents with children. As a project in Dr. Deborah Burghardt's class, she wrote a proposal to the bus authority, which is still being reviewed for adoption.
Audrey began her online coursework at Clarion in 2005. A mother of 10 children and a single parent since 2002, the Barre, Vt. resident has now finished most of her degree by carving out several courses per semester, along with a few classes each summer. Somehow, she has managed to stay on course for a Spring 2011 graduation while home-schooling several of her kids, writing three books, and running a business raising AKC-registered Pugs.
"My women's studies coursework at Clarion has been so empowering," says Audrey, age 52, in a phone interview. "It has inspired me to learn new things, and helped me to understand my own life and the world in so many different ways. As an adult student, this can be a challenge."
The Women and Gender Studies Concentration is a 21-credit option within the online Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies degree. It features diverse coursework in education, the humanities, business and social sciences. By studying women and gender, students learn to think locally and globally about the intersections of sex and gender with race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability, religion, age and nationality.
"With a concentration in Women and Gender Studies, students develop excellent problem-solving and cross-cultural communication skills," said Burghardt, who coordinates the program. "Employers believe these skills help graduates to value diversity in the workplace, and to better function in team-based settings."
Through Clarion's Virtual Campus, students can take courses while working full-time, without having to come to the university. Online study can be an ideal choice for people who are unable to travel to campus due to distance, job commitments or family responsibilities.
Both Phyllis and Audrey noted that their online learning experience has gone smoothly all in all, and that their professors have been accessible and supportive. "On the class website, Dr. Deb used discussion boards and group projects to put all of us students in touch with one another," says Phyllis. "She encouraged us to share all of our life stories. This was phenomenal for me, because as an African-American woman, I have lived through so many stages of race relations and the women's liberation movement in this country. Dr. Deb was very much in touch with us as her students, which is exactly what you need in an online class."
In her Survey of Women's Studies class, Dr. Burghardt set up an open discussion forum called Femquest Café. "We could go there any time to talk about anything and everything," Audrey recalls. "We happened to have all women in the class, so we talked about things like our husbands, domestic violence issues and parenting. I felt much more free to express my personal views online using the discussion board than I would have in a classroom."
Audrey says that Dr. Burghardt went beyond the class to encourage her students to excel in other areas of their lives. "She actually called me several times to include me in various women's studies activities, and helped get me inducted into Iota Iota Iota, the women's studies honor society. She is a highly involved, passionate professor. You feel that she knows about you, and that she cares about you."
Dr. Burghardt speaks highly of the two students. "People express doubts that online teaching and learning can result in a sense of community," she said. "I say then you haven't met women like Audrey Smith and Phyllis Griffin. They reached out to their peers, to me. They challenged their peers, challenged me. They developed friendships and mentored others through discussion boards and online cafés. We are separated by many miles and I have never met these women face-to-face, but I know them. I know their distinct voices, their hopes and dreams, just as I do those of the students I work with every day."
In a literature course she took with Dr. Juanita Smart, Audrey recalls that Dr. Smart provided prompt and supportive feedback on her writing, and ran a well organized online course. Beyond class, Dr. Smart also encouraged Audrey to apply for seminars at the Chautauqua Writers' Center in Chautauqua, N.Y.
Phyllis added that Dr. Donna Ashcraft utilized Web technologies including podcasts to reach her students each week. "The podcasts were phenomenal," she said. "I would listen to them each day while I got ready for work. The convenience of it was outrageous! Then Dr. Ashcraft would give us a Powerpoint presentation to go with it."
Phyllis is a native of New Brighton, Pa. She began her studies at the university in 1973 and nearly finished her bachelor's degree, but stopped in 1978 to marry Morris Griffin, whom she met at Clarion. The couple raised three children together, living in locations from Maryland to West Palm Beach and eventually, San Antonio where Morris works as a quality control engineer. Through it all, Phyllis kept in touch with her classmates from the 1970s, who were always encouraging her to go back and finish those final 18 credits of coursework.
"Diane Wells' family was my initial inspiration, as well as one of my alumni friends, Angela Brown, who told me, 'Phyllis - you can do this!' They told me about all of our other classmates from the 1970s who had gone back and finished their degrees online," she said. My husband, Morris and my children -- especially Nathan, who also graduated with me from Clarion -- were very supportive. I couldn't have done this without everyone's help."
According to Phyllis and Audrey, online courses were a challenge at first, but they quickly learned how to make it work to their advantage. "I struggled a little with passwords and other technical things, but it really wasn't bad," Phyllis says. "After that, I went online every day. I loved that I could get up and do some reading, go to work, and then finish my homework while dinner cooked. Other times, I would work on assignments late at night while the kids slept. The flexibility was unbeatable."
Audrey says she also appreciates the flexibility of online study. "I set deadlines for myself so that I get it all done on my own time," she said. "Because I am a single parent and I have home-schooled some of my kids, the key has been to balance my life. I do my coursework when my kids leave for school or late at night. Other times, I get up at 4 or 5 a.m. and take care of it early.
"You have to be self-motivated and roll with how your life changes each day. You also have to be able to say, 'Hey family - I am taking this time for my studies and I need your help.' They should be able to re-order their lives for you. Also, I exercise regularly and post inspirational quotes near my computer. Finally, I have been able to make some friends in the Women's Studies program. It really helps to have someone to relate to informally, so that you can support each other through all of the ups and downs."
For anyone considering returning to college as an adult, Phyllis offers this simple advice: "Just pick up the phone and call the Registrar's Office as soon as you can. That one piece is important. You can't be ambivalent about it. You just have to get off the fence and do it."
About Clarion University
Located 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, Clarion University is a public, state university with an annual enrollment of 7,100 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. The university sits on an historic 100-acre campus with 43 buildings including the Carlson Library, two dozen computer laboratories, and a $35 million science and technology center. Clarion University offers 27 nationally accredited programs, which is the most in the state system. The Clarion University Virtual Campus has been providing online learning opportunities to students for over eight years, and enrolls more than 1,300 students in its various distance education programs.
For more information
For more information on Virtual Campus degree and certificate programs, contact Clarion University at 1-866-272-5612, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.clarion.edu/virtualcampus/