Grand Junction, Colo., is nestled on the Rocky Mountain State’s western slope, some 250 miles west of Denver and 1,400 miles from Morgantown and West Virginia University .

Serious geography, it is, but on Sunday, May 15 th , that distance just won’t matter to Jeff Izienicki.

That’s the day of WVU ’s 136 th Commencement.

That’s the day he graduates with a master’s degree in special education.

That’s the day he says goodbye to a campus he’s never actually said hello toat least not in person.

Izienicki (pronounced EYES -ee-uh-nickee) is part of an ever-growing crop of distance-learners at WVU who are able to go for their sheepskin via cyberspace, no matter where they may be on the globe.

“I couldn’t have gotten a better learning experience,”he said.

That experience is evidence that distance learning is closing the gap as an accepted curriculum at many of the nation’s top colleges and universities. Millions of students across the country and the world are making the grade with online education, video classes and correspondence courses.

Students across the U.S. , the Nordic climes and the South Pacific have done just that by way of WVU to earn distance degrees ranging from athletic coaching to an Executive MBA , to software engineering and safety management.

WVU ’s totally online Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program, for example, is the only one of its kind in the world.

Distance classes are offered via streaming Webcasts, and through PBS broadcasts. And West Virginians studying at the state’s flagship university can also opt for more traditional classroom settings at off-campus facilities equipped with the latest technology to make the learning happen.

From off, off-campus, Izienicki is taking a graduate degree in the three-year”Severe and Multiple Disabilities in Education”program from the College of Human Resources and Education.

Like most students who enroll in distance-learning programs, he falls into the non-traditional category, age-wise. He’s 58, and firmly established in his career at the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center , where he teaches social studies to at-risk youth and runs several after-school sports programs.

At WVU , he said, he got a perfect meld of technology and tradition. Technology made it possible for him to tap in to Allen Hall and to do other online conferring with fellow students and his advisor, Dr. Barbara Ludlow.

Ludlow , a College of HR&E professor, is where the”tradition”part comes in. The professor, Izienicki said, turned a computer keyboard into a classroommaking a connection that was just a figurative as it was literal.

“From the first semester on, I was able to learn things that I could apply to my students here in Colorado ,”he said.”I’m dealing with kids who are addicts and have learning disabilities. I’m dealing with kids who are bipolar and who were abused. You can’t’fix them’overnightbut I could always come away from my WVU classes with some kind of knowledge or insight. How many times are lucky enough for that to happen?”

Tell that to Ludlow , and the educator will smile and give a”mission accomplished”nod.

That’s because for her, it’s all about creating a classroom feel, even if she has to work through the fiber-optics of computer lines to do it.

“It’s a common misconception that distance education programs are impersonal and abstract when compared with face-to-face teaching,”she said.”I’ve found the opposite to be true. We work hard getting to know each other. We share stories about our lives, and our families and our work.”

Ludlow has done such a good job of forging those bonds, that last year, one of her online students came in for Commencementonly Robin Lizama Palacios spent two days on two airplanes to get here from tiny Saipan, around 100 miles from Guam, in the South Pacific.

“WVU has given me a real opportunity,”Palacios said at the time.”I wanted to say’hafa adai’(a traditional Saipan greeting), and give Dr. Ludlow a big hug.”

Izienicki, of course, agrees. He was planning on flying in for Commencement also, until family obligations intervened. In the meantime, he has nothing but praise for the level of teaching offered in his program, not to mention its convenience and flexibility.

But the praise, he said, laughing, comes with a confession: While the program was most definitely convenient, it sure wasn’t easy. Especially, he said, for a self-described”legendary procrastinator”like himself.

“That was the most challenging aspect,”he said.”I mean, I have a tendency to want to wait until the last minute to do things. I hadn’t been a student for a long time. My job’s pretty demanding, and I have three granddaughters who keep me hopping, too.”

Izienicki knocked his time-management demons by creating his own course calendar, complete with assignments and deadlines. And that document, with its snarl of notations, was one he was married to, for better or worse, for three years.

“Oh, it looked like a real horror story at times,”he said, chuckling.”But it was there, and I had to live with it.”

His academic partnership with WVU all in all was a happy one, he said.

“Your online program and your university have a real reputation,”he said.”I know for me, it was a real learning opportunity, and a real learning experience.”

Which leads him to his Commencement experience. Maybe, just maybe, he joked, he can do that from a distance, too.

“I might have to put on my cap and gown and walk around my yard,”he said, chuckling.”I could say,’Let’s go, Mountaineers,’from Grand Junction . I’ve been doing that for three years, anyway.”