By AMANDA REAVY
Published Sunday, May 14, 2006
Graduation day was a milestone Julie Cramton didn't want to miss.
She wasn't just proud of the bachelor's degree in English she earned in two and a half years from the University of Illinois at Springfield. The Saginaw, Mich., resident had never stepped foot on the campus, let alone Springfield, and it was time for that to change.
"It was very important for me to be here," Cramton, 37, said following Saturday's ceremony at the Prairie Capital Convention Center. "I thought about how much what I learned means to me and how wonderful the professors and admissions office and financial aid had been as they all worked with me by phone and e-mail. I thought, 'You know, after all the hard work, I need to come down here and meet some of these people.'"
Cramton was one of about 25 students who made the trip to Springfield to celebrate their graduations through UIS' online degree program. Some came from faraway locales including Alaska, California and Florida.
Speaking to the nearly 700 UIS graduates attending Saturday's ceremony, Chancellor Richard Ringeisen noted online graduates from across the country were brought together with the second class of graduates in the four-year, residential Capital Scholars program, started in 2001.
"Both helped change and establish a new tradition at UIS," he said.
Ray Schroeder, the director of the Office of Technology Enhanced Learning at UIS, said he didn't have this year's total for online graduates but that participation grows each year.
Schroeder said the online degree program began in 1999 and a total of 1,047 were enrolled in online courses this semester out of the university's nearly 4,400 students.
"We were one of the fairly early ones among public universities in providing online degrees. We have 12 degree programs, and this fall we may have 14," Schroeder said. "Nationally the number (of online students) is growing about 20 to 25 percent. At UIS, it's slightly higher, in the 30 percent range because in our area, so many professionals who work at the state are interested in completing degrees and pursuing a master's online ... "
Schroeder said two-thirds of those enrolling in the online degree program are female, and the average age is 37 years old.
"It really is all about access to higher education. It's all about providing access to students who otherwise could not get a college degree or an advanced degree, whether it's a geographic issue, a family responsibility or a job responsibility."
Though students may be separated by thousands of miles, Cramton said online discussion boards and e-mail allowed her to communicate in-depth with fellow students and her professors, forming a sense of community with those on campus and off.
"Coming here was not a foreign experience or strange," Cramton said. "I am not attending an online program, I am attending UIS, which happens to have classes online."
Cramton, her fellow online graduates and their professors had the opportunity to meet before the graduation ceremony during a brunch Saturday morning.
"It's remarkable to see students in person ... It's almost like a homecoming or reunion. Sometimes it's even a little emotional for students to meet people in person," said Schroeder, who teaches online courses himself.
Cramton said it was fun connecting a familiar name with a face. One name she recognized was Janine Maffett, who shared two courses with her.
Maffett, a 44-year-old resident of Melbourne, Fla., said she was drawn to the online degree program because her husband's job as a manufacturer requires them to move frequently. Though she tried to complete her degree three times previously, the constant moving posed a problem until she enrolled at UIS.
"With the online program, it didn't matter if we traveled, I could still stay at the same point in my coursework," Maffett said, who lived in Springfield for two years with her husband, Geoff.
Maffett said her husband's own experience of taking several online courses at UIS coupled with the school's reputation led her to choose UIS' program.
Both Maffett and Cramton say they've raved about the benefits of online learning in general to their friends and coworkers.
"People are recognizing that it's truly a valuable educational experience and not fly-by-night, sit at a computer for half an hour and get a course done. They are legitimate programs," Maffett said.
Amanda Reavy can be reached at 788-1525 or email@example.com.