At first glance, Jamie Gergen and Jennifer Kasse-Wanzer have little in common. Gergen hasn’t been to a college campus in a couple of decades. Kasse-Wanzer works at one every day.
What do they share? Both are pursuing bachelor’s degrees. And neither can attend college like a traditional student.
Kasse-Wanzer has two associate’s degrees, and she works full time to help support her family. Gergen entered the workforce before earning his undergraduate degree and has a medical condition that limits his mobility.
“There are a million individuals in Virginia that have some college credit but no undergraduate degree,” said Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason University.
Which is why Mason, a founding member of the Online Virginia Network and a partner with Wiley Education Services in offering graduate-level online courses and programs, is expanding its online offerings.
A return to college can happen for a variety of reasons. Students might need to re-skill or up-skill or might want to complete a degree that, for whatever reason, was unfinished.
Gergen, who worked in information technology for 20 years, including at AOL, PBS Kids and as a federal consultant, said he had reached a professional standstill.
Without a bachelor’s degree, he struggled to get interviews after losing his job in 2016. He chose Mason, he said, because of the university’s location, reputation and its mission to promote equal access for all students.
Online classes were a bonus.
“I have a genetic heart condition that limits my ability to move around,” said Gergen, an English major and senior. “[Online classes] allow me to earn my degree from the comfort of my home office where I have everything set up.”
Gergen said he also enjoys the “learn-at-your-own-pace” structure of online learning. The flexibility allows Gergen to attend class at any time and set his own schedule if he’s out of town or has an appointment.
That flexibility is also helpful for Kasse-Wanzer, a mother of two children who is an administrative assistant at Mason.
Her secrets to success?
Lots of coffee, wise time management and online classes, she said.
“Taking online classes has really helped me push forward,” the communication major and senior said. “The best thing about taking classes online is that I can do it on my own time; I can take my son to swimming lessons, and, while he’s taking the classes, I can work on my homework on my phone or on my tablet.”
Both Gergen and Kasse-Wanzer said they feel supported even without the traditional classroom.
“Every [online professor] I’ve had is very responsive—almost immediately,” Gergen said.
Mason provides an extensive catalog of online undergraduate and graduate classes and plans to expand to 15 online graduate programs over the next few years in partnership with Wiley.
With new technology hitting the scene, student experiences will continue to advance, Marks said.
“Online educational tools are learning how to build in mentoring experiences, learning how to bring in virtual internships [and] learning to build community in the online space,” she said. “What’s available now is helping us create an authentic, web-based experience for online learners.”
Gergen takes in-person and online classes and is grateful for both opportunities.
“I was very nervous when I went back to the classroom,” he said, because he didn’t fit the traditional college-student mold. “One of the things online classes allowed me to do is still get the college experience of knowing there were other people in the same class as me, but also, I eased into going back to school.”
“Online classes open so many doors that someone with my condition wouldn’t have opened 10 or 15 years ago,” Gergen added.
Online learning is also a game changer for Kasse-Wanzer, who previously worked at HBO Latin America and Telemundo networks as a behind-the-scenes production assistant, but believes a bachelor’s degree will open more doors for her in a highly competitive job market. She also wants to show her children that they can achieve their goals with patience and hard work.
For learners like Kasse-Wanzer and Gergen, achieving their career aspirations requires “flexibility, accessible pathways and providing education on their time in a way that makes sense for them,” Marks said. “Online education is the solution.”