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Really Graduating from a Virtual Program

This past weekend, I took my family to San Diego for my Masters degree graduation.  We took Friday off school and work and flew down Thursday night.  We spent Friday at Legoland, visited with friends on Saturday, got dinner with my cohort Saturday night, and attended my graduation ceremony and a department reception Sunday morning before flying home Sunday evening.  I should probably explain that before Saturday, I had never met more than half of the people in my grad school cohort face-to-face.  Regardless, when we all gathered for dinner and the ceremony, we felt like old friends who had known each other for years.

most of my graduate school cohort that attended graduation

Just under two years, to be exact.  When we began classes in the Fall 2008 semester, most of us had never even heard of each other.  There are three guys who teach together in one school, but other than that, I think we were more or less strangers, thrown into classes together, and spread out all over the state.  Most of the cohort lives in the San Diego area, or at least Southern California, but several of us are farther afield: San Jose, Napa Valley, Rocklin, Paso Robles, and even one in Chicago.  Our experience in California K-12 education was the common factor.

As we completed projects together and learned to help each other out across the miles, via e-mail and Skype, we bonded.  This was clear when we sometimes had classes along with other graduate students – on-campus or distance students – not in our cohort.  We felt awkward with these “outsiders” in our courses.  When there was a lot going on in some of these crowded online classes, our COMET 2 group met in a Skype chat backchannel to help each other keep up and to joke around a bit.  As each course began, we heard about how our reputation preceded us: we are funny and like to have a good time, but we turn out excellent work due to our immense effort and creativity.  I could live with that reputation.

I share all of this because, to be honest, I had reservations about getting my degree online.  I enjoy going to school, mainly because I like meeting new people and having face-to-face interaction with them.  I like to learn, and I like working on projects, but I need the structure of a schedule imposed on me.  I had heard about friends’ experiences with online classes, and I worried that I did not have the discipline to work through all the material on my own.  The cohort experience with synchronous (real-time) online class meetings allayed all these fears.me, Kaz, and Deb

Maybe I lucked out with the fantastic cohort I got.  But it was great to know I had about thirty other people going through the exact same program at the same time, taking all the same classes with the same professors.  We shared ideas for projects.  We talked about our families.  We kept one another up-to-date on upcoming deadlines or what steps needed to happen along the way.  Some of us attended department events in the San Diego area or met up at conferences.  And when we finally met up for graduation, we really had a blast just being together “in real life.”

We actually have one more semester, which starts next week, before we receive our degrees in the mail.  We’re all happy to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, but I think most of us will feel a bit sad when it’s all done too.  Such lovely people, with wonderful, supportive spouses, are sometimes hard to find.  Several babies were born to these families during our program as well.  We feel like one big family now, and I don’t think any of us would trade the experience.

John and II chose to write about this experience this week because I want to encourage any educator out there reading this to consider pursuing an advanced degree.  One could argue that the economy right now does not support such a move, but it’s more of an experience and an accomplishment to achieve than a salary grade.  I ended up waiting sixteen years after receiving my Bachelors degree to start, and here I am, eighteen years after graduating college, finally achieving this lifelong dream.  My young son got to watch me walk across the stage, and I hope he remembers that I worked hard to reach a goal more than the three hours he had to sit through a ceremony.  What I’ve gained in this program will serve my students for decades to come, so it wasn’t all about me or just my family.

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