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How Olympian Rebekah Bradford Plath Finished Her Degree Online

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Rebekah Bradford at the 2012 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada - Getty Images

VANCOUVER, BC: Rebekah Bradford of the US competes in the women's speed skating 10,000m final on day 7 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Richmond Olympic Oval on February 18, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.(Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

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Updated January 26, 2013
When Rebekah Bradford Plath puts her mind to something, she focuses on it like a, well, like an Olympian, until she makes it happen. The 2010 Winter Olympics interrupted Rebekah's college career. There are lots of good reasons people put college on hold, but that's got to be one of the more exciting reasons. Rebekah made the 2010 U.S. Olympic speed skating team, a dream come true, clearly. But while her Olympic dream took center stage for a few years, she continued to nurture her goal to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology. How did she manage that while training and traveling around the world?

She shared her secrets with me, her aunt. Rebekah's mother, Diane Bradford, is my sister. Diane and I grew up in a speed skating family. Our parents, Art and Lorraine Peterson, were officials in our local Bearcat Club in Minneapolis in the 60s. We had skates on our feet as soon as we could walk, gliding our way across the skating rink Dad made in the front yard every winter. Almost every winter evening after dinner, we headed as a family to the speed skating track on a St. Paul lake and trained until our noses were red and our fingertips nearly frostbitten.

Diane continued our family's speed skating tradition in her own family—she as a coach, her husband, David, as chief cheerleader, sons Andrew and Scott competed beautifully, and Rebekah skated all the way to the Olympics.

And continued her quest for a degree along the way.

Following is a Q&A between Rebekah and me:

Deb: Tell me about how and when you started college and why you stopped, and how you got started again.
Rebekah: I started going to the University of Utah in 2001 when I was 18. I took a break from college in 2007, at 24, when I made the National Team, to focus on making the Olympic team. After competing in the Olympics, I went back to school when I was 28 to finish my degree. The majority of my classes were online, so I had the flexibility to continue training, competition, travel, and my part-time job. I graduated when I was 29.

Deb: Did you finish online at the University of Utah?
Rebekah: Yes. This was one of the only reasons why I was able to finish my degree. It was interesting. One brief conversation with a teammate motivated me to seek out my school counselor. It was during that meeting I learned I could finish my degree online. It worked out well because I was able to access my classes when I was overseas competing. Even the morning of my double knee surgery, I listened to a lecture online.

Deb: I understand you got straight As the second time around. Why was it easier for you to get better grades online?
Rebekah: I believe I got better grades in school the second time around because I wanted to learn the material versus just to graduate.

Deb: You had four semesters left. Did it take you the regular amount of time? Four semesters?
Rebekah: The semesters were still based around the University of Utah's schedule. If I was out of state, I had to schedule a proctored exam beforehand during exam week. Currently, I am going through an orientation class through Ashworth College for a Masters of Science in Management for their online program. These classes are self-paced. However, with getting ready for the next Olympic Games, being a newlywed, and recovering from an illness, I am unsure what kind of pace I will be taking.

Deb: Tell me more about what was involved in setting up a proctored exam when you were traveling.
Rebekah: Arranging an outside proctored exam needs to happen in advance. Special permission needs to be granted and then the student is responsible for finding an adequate proctor. I've discovered that community colleges are well-versed when setting up a proctor.

Deb: What kind of job are you looking for now that you have your degree?
Rebekah: I would like to get involved in program development. Currently, I am an intern for the CRA department of GE Capital Bank, and I love working with the non-profit organizations in the Salt Lake City area.

Deb: What do you mean by program development? What does CRA stand for?
Rebekah: I have an internship through the Athlete Career Program set up by the United States Olympic Committee. They are dedicated to helping athletes gain experience outside of the athletic world to help them transition when they are done competing. I am enjoying working with the Community Reinvestment Act with GE Capital Bank here in Salt Lake City. Here we try to help non-profit organizations with their goals, i.e. financial literacy and program development in serving the surrounding community.

Deb: How will your psychology degree fit into that?
Rebekah: I grew up in a program-based system, and I think it's vital to give back to the community. I want to learn the ins and outs, and figure out how to make programs run as effectively as possible. A psychology degree is fantastic for any line of work. It really allows for thinking to happen outside of the box and helps you come at problem solving through a different angle.

Deb: What would you like people to know about going back to school the way you did?
Rebekah: I think that if you're motivated, go for it. You will figure out the rest as things come along, one step at a time.

Congratulations, Rebekah! On earning your degree and on being an Olympian. You are an inspiration.

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