Sometimes you make a major statement just by showing up.
When Robin Lizama Palacios arrives on the campus of West Virginia University this month for the school’s 135 th Commencement exercises, she won’t just be picking up that master’s degree in early childhood intervention she earned with a 4.0 grade-point-average.
She’ll also be delivering a goodwill message of sortswhile making a pretty compelling comment on the new state of the world, and just how that world rotates in relation to WVU .
By simply being a presence at Commencement, Robin will show that the world is (obviously) a smaller place. She’ll show that the Internet is making learning more immediate, and more accessible, no matter where you may be on the globe.
And she’ll show that as the world is shrinking, WVU ’s reputation as a top school for distance-learning is growing, growing, growing.
And growing some more.
Robin is a 28-year-old special education teacher on the tiny island of Saipan, around 100 miles from Guam in the western Pacific Ocean. She needed a graduate degree to upgrade her teachers’certification, and because she was so busy, the idea of earning a degree online was sounding better and better. She soon learned just where to turn in cyberspace, courtesy of two colleagues who told her about WVU .
They had also gotten distance degrees from there,Robin said recently by telephone from her island home.They told me about it. I knew of West Virginia, because my grandfather is from Pennsylvania, but I didn’t know anything about WVU . It really worked out well.
To work out the May 16 Commencement visit, Robin and family making the trip will jet to Japan and stay overnight. Then they’ll board another plane and fly nonstop to Detroit, then Pittsburgh.
After that, it’s a motor car cruise down Interstate 79 to Morgantown, where she’ll don her cap and gown for the ceremonies at the College of Human Resources and Education to complete her academic and geographic journey.
Two days to get here and two days to get back,she said.By airplane. That’s a little bit of a trip, huh?
The hiss in the phone line of that long, long distance call couldn’t hide the satisfaction, or the island lilt in her voice, as she talked about just how good it will feel to actually graduate. It
took her three years to do it, via her computer, which was tapped into real-time, streaming Web transmissions from WVU ’s Allen Hall.
Hitting the books was easy, she said, laughing. It was taking care of everything else that got tricky.
Robin has a demanding job, and an even more demanding home life. She began her career in Saipan’s public school system as a teacher’s aide, and like many teachers on the island, she worked, worked and worked her way up to her present job.
She and her husband, Gus, are the parents of two boys, Tyler, 6, and Damian, 3.
Dependable technology on the part of WVU knocked down one hurdle. She was able to take the transmissions from campus for granted, as Web snags were at a minimum.
But all bets were off, as far as her boys were concerned.
That was the challenge,she said,meeting class requirements while being a wife and mother at the same time. Cooking dinner, cleaning the house, having children, raising themI think it was difficult because my sons were always calling for me during the sessions. I had to �€~watch’my classes from home with everything else going on.
One thing going on was surprisingly easy to adjust to, she said. The time difference.
When it was 8 a.m. and classes were meeting at Allen Hall, it was 11 p.m. in Saipan. Gus and the boys were sleeping, but Robin was just getting to work.
I caught on to the time change pretty quickly,she said,because I had to. The house was quiet, so it was easier to work then anyway.
At home on the island
Saipan is a pretty easy place to live and work, she said.
The island is ringed by coral, and at just 15 miles long, it’s roughly the size of northern California’s San Francisco peninsula. Saipan is a true, tropical melting pot that’s populated mainly by Pacific Islanders and Asians. Around 1,000 Caucasians also live on the island.
Saipan enjoys U.S. Commonwealth status and is part of the chain of Northern Mariana Islands jutting up from the calm waters of the western Pacific in the area known as Micronesia.
It’s a popular vacation spot for Japanese tourists, because there’s plenty of room to spread out (Saipan only has around 69,000 people) and enjoy the dramatic tropical scenery of open beaches and rocky cliffs that are a welcome respite from the urban crush of Tokyo and Japan’s other sprawling cities.
The island is also steeped in history. It’s said that famed American aviator Amelia Earhart was executed there by Japanese military around 1938, after walking away from the crumpled steel of her wrecked planeand right into the middle of a circle of soldiers.
Saipan was the site of fierce fighting in World War II, and its Chamber of Commerce boasts brochures featuring glossy photographs of Japanese bunkers and other war artifacts that still surviveincluding one rusted American tank in a lagoon.
According to local lore, Japanese soldiers as late as 1952 were emerging with their hands held high in surrender from the brush now occupied by strip malls and luxury hotels. Not knowing the war was over, they had held out for as long as they could.
Robin’s American grandfather, John Wilson, has been holding out the longest of all, from the crop of CIA agents and other personnel sent to the island in 1959 at the high fever of the Cold War.
He was accompanied by his wife, Helen (who, like her husband, also hailed from Pennsylvania) and his four children, including Robin’s mother, Suzanne, who, at the age of 1, was the youngest of the quartet of Wilson kids to take up the new tropical address.
He stayed while most of the other CIA people went back home,Robin said of her grandfather who signed on as a Saipan government employee after his hitch with the agency ended.He’s the only one of the original CIA people still left. He’s actually pretty well-known on the island because of it. He’s 82 years old. He doesn’t talk about what he did in the Agency. But he loves Saipan, that’s for sure.
John and Helen (who died in 1974 in hospital on Guam after a lengthy illness), decided early on they would make their life in Saipan. Their children did, too, and Suzanne would grow up and marry Vicente Lizama, a full-blooded Chamorro, a Saipan native, giving Robin an interesting blended-heritage.
Suzanne and Vicente, and husband, Gus, will make the trip to West Virginia for graduation, along with a couple of aunts and uncles from Pennsylvania. That will make the experience even better, Robin said.
Well, my family is very important to me,she said.They’ve supported me on this from day one.
This trip to the U.S. won’t be the first for Robin, or her family.
They’ve been here a handful of times, visiting those above-mentioned aunts and uncles, and other relatives in her home state of her grandparents. And Robin’s job from time to time takes her to conferences in Washington, D.C., California and Hawaii.
This will be the first time in West Virginia,she said.I want to walk around WVU . I can’t wait to meet my classmates and Dr. Ludlow.
Meet the (WVU) family
That would be Barbara Ludlow, a professor of educational theory and practice who has
served as Robin’s advisor for the three years it has taken her to complete the program.
Ludlow, naturally, was impressed with Robin right from the start.
The work ethic from a far dot on the globe told the tale. Even with the time difference, Robin, more often than not, wouldgo livein class, contributing to discussions by way of her cell phone, or by computerwhich was set up with voice communication capabilities from Morgantown to Saipan.
She didn’t have to do that, but she did,the professor said.And it was always exciting for us. Our students from West Virginia and other states could hear the cultural perspectives from a fellow student on the other side of the world. She’s a wonderful student and a dedicated professional and it was an honor to help her achieve her goal. It’s going to be great to finally meet her in person.
It’ll be like meeting a movie star,Robin laughed.I just know her from my computer screen.
So what will Robin say next month when she regards her advisor face-to-face for the first time?
I’ll say �€~hafa adai’(a traditional Saipan greeting), and I’ll give her a big hug,Robin said.WVU has given me a wonderful opportunity.