Twenty-two college hours from the 1970s, 152 college-equivalent credits and one Web courseit all adds up to a bachelor’s degree nearly three decades in the making.
It’s safe to say that 27 years ago when she started work on her college degree at West Virginia University, Gloria J. Heard never imagined she would conclude her course work on the Internet from the comfort of her home, over 200 miles away from the Morgantown campus. But that’s exactly how Heard, now 73, was able to finish the Regents Bachelor of Arts degree she began in 1977 as a WVU employee.
After coming to Morgantown in 1975 to take a job as medical photographer at the WVU Medical Center, Heard enrolled in the newly-created RBA degree program, which differs from other bachelor degrees in that Regents students may earn”college-equivalent credit”for selected work and life experiences that can be equated to college courses.
Heard had worked in photography since 1956 and received a significant number of college-equivalent credits for her certification as a registered biological photographer. She took her first college classSocial Science 101in the fall of 1977, and completed 22 hours of classes on the WVU campus before her career led her to the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1981.
Busy with her successful medical photography career that eventually took her to York, Pa., she didn’t give her unfinished RBA degree much thought until one day in 2003, about 10 years following her retirement from York Hospital.
“You know how they talk about simplifying your life? After I retired, I thought I would simplify and throw away a lot of stuff,”Heard explained.
While going through boxes of that accumulated”stuff,”she came across documents pertaining to her unfinished degree at WVU and wondered if there was a way to finish it. A phone call to Ann Paterson, then-director of the WVU RBA program, revealed that yes, it certainly was possible for Heard to complete her bachelor’s degree.
What followed was far from the simplicity she had set out to attain.
“Instead of simplicity, I created chaos,”she said, chuckling as she recalled the months of research required to compile portfolios of essays comparing her life and work experiences to WVU courses. She estimates that it took about 30-40 hours for each three-credit course.
Heard’s portfolios encompassed more than 35 years as a medical photographer and earned her 152 credit hours, well above the required 128 for the RBA degree, but she found herself needing just two more hours to fulfill the mandatory 24 residency credits. She would have to return to the classroom, but this time, the”classroom”would be much different.
“Attending classes on site at WVU was not an option,”said Heard, who still resides in York, Pa.
She instead opted to enroll in an online journalism course, Introduction to Mass Communication, which would count toward her residency credits.
While she had always been interested in computershaving purchased her first one, a Commodore 64, back in 1985and had used computers to prepare slides and graphics as part of her medical photography work, she still worried about taking an online class.
“In the beginning, I was extremely concerned and not sure I knew enough to do the course, but my RBA advisor, Ann Paterson, assured me I could,”Heard recalled.”Instructor (Lynn) Reinke commented, �€~It will all come together,’and it did. I learned to download class essays, which I had never done before, and to participate in a discussion board, which was also new to me.”
Heard quickly became a valuable contributor in the class, according to Reinke, instructor of Introduction to Mass Communication.
“Gloria was nervous when she started my online class, but within a few weeks, she had completely adapted to the technology. Like many returning students, she brought the wealth of her experience to the class discussion board and really elevated the conversation,”she said.
Reinke added that it’s not unusual for adults to really take to the online learning environment.
“Online classes work very well for returning adults students,”she said.”They need flexibility to �€~attendclass at odd hours around their work and home schedules. They are better at time management than some of the younger students, and they’re motivated. After working for a few years, they know the value of an education to their career aspirations.”
Besides picking up new computer skills, Heard found the course material fascinating since she had worked in media most of her life.
“Many of the topics in the Mass Communication course didn’t exist when I was born in 1931. Going through the 15 chapters was like reliving my life,”she said.
The A she earned in Mass Communication marked a triumphant conclusion to an RBA that was so long in the works. In honor of her accomplishment, Heard’s friends in York hosted a party for her in February, and on May 15, her family will gather in Hagerstown, Md., her hometown, to celebrate. About 7 to 10 of her relatives will accompany her to Morgantown on Saturday, May 14, to take part in the RBA graduation ceremony.
Completion of her college degree doesn’t mean Heard is planning to slow down any time soon, however.
“I’m like other retirees,”she said,”I don’t know how I ever had time for a full-time job. There is always something waiting to become a priority.”
Among the projects on the horizon for Heard include two books: a 50-year documented history of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, and a book addressing the subject of”Is it Ageism or Loss of Power?”that she may co-author with her niece, a geriatrics nurse.
“Completing the degree does give me a sense of confidence to follow another growth objectivethat of being capable of publishing a book,”she said.”Although the content of my degree recognizes life knowledge that correlates to classes taught today, it is not an ending but a bridge to move on to using that knowledge for future endeavors.”
One of the advantages of the RBA program, said Program Coordinator Carol Hando, is that it serves a different population and reaches out to students no matter where they live. With the availability of online courses from WVU , a lot more students are turning to the Web in their efforts to finish their degrees through the RBA program, she said.
For more information about WVU ’s RBA program, housed in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, go to http://rba.as.wvu.edu or call 304-293-5441.
Those interested in finding out more about WVU ’s wide variety of online courses should visit the Extended Learning Web site http://elearn.wvu.edu/ or by calling 304-293-2834. In addition to online versions of traditional WVU courses, Extended Learning also offers classes for adults who want to continue their professional education, renew certification or pursue personal interests.