Online degree completion programs like Western Governors University involve a wide range of non-traditional students, but current WGU student Jennifer Shaft, 30, of Tecumseh, Mich. has gone from being a high school dropout to a homeschooling mom to a future teacher in just over a decade.
Her path is unique, as is every non-traditional adult learner's story: married at 17, a "honeymoon baby" nine months later, and two credits shy of her high school diploma, Shaft followed her active-duty Marine husband from duty station to duty station across the country; a second baby soon followed. At 22 she finished her high school diploma, home-schooled her kids for a number of years, and juggled family and college, completing an A.A.S. in photography at a local community college in 2007.
She talked with About.com and reflected on her choice to enroll in the Western Governors University education major to earn a bachelor's degree and become a certified teacher.
About.com: What made you decide to go back to college?
Jennifer Shaft: The year after I graduated from [community college], I took on some photography work. I did a few weddings, some family sittings and some events. I discovered that I don't have a lot of patience for portraiture. I specialized in product photography, but without moving to a more urban area, I found it fairly impossible to get into. We simply were not prepared to move. My husband started researching online colleges and when we found Western Governors University, I was impressed. I wanted to get a degree in something I could actually use.
About.com: Why did you choose WGU?
Jennifer Shaft: After I graduated with my high school diploma, my plan was to get a degree in education. I ended up putting that aside because the cost was prohibitive. WGU is so much more reasonable in regards to tuition, plus they are NCATE accredited which was a huge deal to me.
It's the first online school I found that had a functional teacher education program, that included the student teaching section that would allow me to become a certified teacher. I looked at local schools, but I simply could not afford tuition, even with grants and financial aid. WGU made it possible.
About.com: What's been your biggest challenge?
Jennifer Shaft: There have been several, but I think the most difficult part is the lack of broken down deadlines. WGU really requires you to self pace your education. For someone with issues with procrastination, this is a huge challenge. I really have to stay on top of my course of study or I end up trying to rush through and get everything finished at the end of the term.
WGU is competency based and rather than grades, they have a pass/fail system. You have to have a B or better to pass each class. For the classes with performance based assessments, this is slightly easier, in that if you do the research, and write the papers required to the standards they look for, you can pass. The objective assessment classes are a bit tougher because there is a single test that you need to pass. In a traditional school, you can use homework grades to balance out test grades. For WGU, you have to pass that test with a B or better.
About.com: What has surprised you most about going to Western Governors University?
Jennifer Shaft: The amount of writing involved. Since there was not a huge break between my [community college] experience and beginning with WGU, I was used to the challenges of balancing home, school and family. WGU requires a lot more writing than some other schools. There are no worksheets or quizzes or class participation. The average assignment for a WGU class is anywhere from a three page paper to a ten page paper, and there are several per class. I am halfway through my program and I am still surprised at how much writing is involved.