“I am all for pomp and circumstance,” Cherlyn Jones said on Saturday morning, in a room down the hall from the grand ballroom on the sixth floor of the Hilton Austin, where her college graduation ceremony was about to begin.
A 36-year old woman with a creative streak, she had pursued a career in fashion and design before confronting the nagging feeling that her true calling was to be a nurse like her mother. But she needed a way to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing that would allow her time to raise her children.
Jones was one of 110 students who walked across the stage at the Hilton as part of the first-ever graduating class of WGU Texas, the state’s online university. Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order creating the school in August 2011. Just more than a year later, 450 total students from around the state have completed degrees.
WGU Texas is a state-centric incarnation of Western Governors University, an online, non-profit university created by governors of 19 states, including Texas, in 1997. The brand has practically become synonymous with the increasingly popular notion of a go-at-your-own-pace, competency-based approach to higher education.
In a video address to the graduates, Perry said they were "proof that WGU Texas is a great idea" and was already having a positive effect on the state.
Mark Milliron, the chancellor of WGU Texas, said the school’s flexible approach was ideal for working adults, and the diverse crop of students who donned regalia for the ceremony seemed to illustrate the point.
The graduates who make up WGU Texas' inaugural graduating class, including those who could not make it to the ceremony, range in age from 22 to 80. More than 90 percent of them are older than 27, and the average age is 39.
“They’re making history,” said Stefanie Sanford, the director of policy and advocacy for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Program and a former technology policy advisor to Perry, before taking the stage to deliver the morning’s keynote speech.
“We’re at a time of great sociological and economic change. Our educational institutions and individuals have to change along with it,” she said. “Not only are these students participating in the change, they are the change.”
Michael Stewardson, 46, graduating with a master’s degree in information security, said the WGU model fit him perfectly. He taught computer science at San Jacinto College for more than a decade and appreciated the opportunity to use his expertise to advance, rather than sitting through courses he could have been leading.
But he said some people misunderstand institutions like WGU Texas. “People have the perception that if it’s online, it’s easy,” Stewardson said. “That’s definitely not the case.”
Milliron offered up another common misconception. “I think it’s a myth to think that an online universities like ours is impersonal,” he said.
Annaliese Haben, a 37-year old graduate from Spring Branch, agreed. She said her mentor at WGU had called her every week and emailed constantly as she worked toward her bachelor’s degree. “They make sure that you’re successful,” she said.
One of the ceremony’s featured student speakers, Haben was frank with her fellow graduates as she detailed the circumstances that led her to WGU Texas.
A victim of the collapsing economy, three years ago she found herself with two children in or approaching their teens and, like her husband, no job. With little left to lose, Haben and her husband both decided to pursue previously shelved dreams.
He opened a martial arts academy. And she sought ways to get her degree so that she could become a teacher, afraid that her options might be limited by her domestic responsibilities.
“But I am stubborn and Google is every mom’s friend,” Haben said of the search that led her to the online university. She described finding WGU and finally deciding to enroll as “the moment I forgot my age and my failures.”
After celebrating graduation day, a first for her as well as the institution, Haben will return to WGU Texas coursework — now at the master’s level.