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May 18, 2009

ULM awards diplomas to first GOLD class

Forty years ago, area professionals typically advanced their education and their careers through night school courses at then-Northeast Louisiana State College. Although the process was arduous, the resulting promotion and increase in pay was worth it.

Today's advent of the personal computer and the widespread availability of the Internet have thrown open the doors of higher education to scores of Louisiana’s workers in ways simply not available four decades ago.

Saturday, the first cohort of GOLD graduates – Gateway to OnLine Degrees – fulfilled their dreams of finishing a degree by way of a virtual classroom.

Nine graduates – seven who walked the stage at Fant-Ewing Coliseum on May 16 – earned degrees in general studies in a broad range of concentrations this semester at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Pam Villemarette, 26, was among them.

Born and raised in Bunkie, Villemarette moved to Monroe when she was 18 to attend ULM. But as her older mother suffered numerous health-related setbacks, finishing school became a secondary issue.

As a result, Villemarette worked three jobs to keep up with the cost of living and attending school. When the ULM GOLD program became available, she quickly signed on and dropped one of those jobs to devote time to finally finishing her education.

“It’s just not as overwhelming,” she said. “If I had to work all day long and then attend an on-campus class in the same day, I don’t know if I could’ve finished.”

Her case illustrates a common conundrum facing many of the region’s adult learners, and is one of the primary reasons ULM President James E. Cofer advocates the growth of "anytime, anywhere, anyplace instruction" at the university.

“ULM's new online initiatives give non-traditional students, many who are juggling careers and families far from our campus, access to the kind of quality education they want and deserve,” he said.

“In fact, the entire state benefits from these initiatives. Education is economic development, and using 21st-century technology to reach out to these students is consistent with our mission to become a gateway for diverse academic studies.”

Louisiana Department of Labor statistics estimate that nearly 30,000 positions in the health services sector alone will need to be filled by the end of the decade – making online coursework the last frontier, not only as a portal to college, but also in boosting the state’s economy and addressing quality of life issues.

Online learning even provides GOLD graduates, such as Margaret Ann Clary Russell of Monroe, the ability to pursue a master’s degree from another state.

Russell, who recently married and will relocate to Seattle, said the move wouldn’t stop her from pursuing a master’s degree in gerontology. She developed an interest in the subject following her mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s convenient. … I enjoy working at home online and I really just wanted to be with my new husband,” she explained.

For the 47-year-old Russell, the switch to online courses became imperative following her own continuing battle with health issues. A few years ago, she suffered a heart attack and questioned whether she’d ever be able to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“My energy level never returned. I just couldn’t be on campus anymore, but I wanted to complete that degree so badly,” she said. “The GOLD program was a godsend to me.”

Online courses do require dedication, Russell said.

“You’ve got to work for that online degree, just as much as any other student,” said Russell. “You’ve got to put time in your schedule to get that lesson down and post your assignments on deadline.”

Although Saturday’s GOLD graduates range in age from 24 to 48 years old, the most successful adult learners are disciplined and mature enough to handle the rigors of online coursework, said Robyn Jordan, coordinator of accelerated learning.

“The GOLD program is a program of self motivation,” she said. “Online students who have worked at least three years and have other real-world experiences seem to fare best in the program.”

Jordan said the accelerated pace and flexibility of online learning makes the rigorous coursework worth it. An added benefit is one-on-one access to course instructors. Whatever the reason for pursuing an online degree, the program shows great potential for growth.

“I expect our numbers to more than double by next spring,” said Jordan.

“The program was so flexible and convenient, had it not been for (that), I don't think that I would have finished in the time frame that I did,” said Phametta Ann Griffin.

“I am very, very excited,” said Villemarette. “I'm graduating with one of my best friends. It’s really a great thing.”

The GOLD graduates and their degrees are as follows:

• Margaret Ann Clary Russell of Monroe, Bachelors of General Studies in natural sciences and math

• Nancy Caroline Hill Doucet of Archibald, Associate’s Degree in General Studies, social sciences

• Kyle H. Dugas of Monroe, Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies, business

• Phametta Ann Griffin of Lake Providence, Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies, applied sciences

• Haley Brooke Hairston of Monroe, Associate’s Degree in General Studies, arts and humanities

• Cynthia June Mayfield of Monroe, Associate’s Degree in General Studies, social sciences

• Laurence Xavier Subelka of Ozawkie, Kan., Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies

• Pamela Ann Villemarette of Bastrop, Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies, arts and humanities

• Christopher Jerrell Ward of Bastrop, Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies, social sciences

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