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Columbia mother wins full-ride scholarship for online education

Saturday, November 29, 2008 | 4:49 p.m. CST; updated 8:43 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 29, 2008

COLUMBIA — Everyone has a story.

Columbia mom Sandy Decker’s earned her a full-ride scholarship to college. Her essay, which she entered into a contest called Project Working Mom, was one of 40 chosen from among 50,000 entries for a prize of a tuition-free online education.

Decker received her scholarship from DeVry University and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting, with plans to attain her master’s degree. It’s exactly what she had been seeking.

“Going to college is a goal for family and for myself,” Decker said. “I want to complete my education but also make sure that my children are happy and have what they need and understand what their purpose is.”

In her essay, Decker, who is 38 and married, wrote about the challenges of running an in-home day care while taking care of her own four children — one of which has special needs. She wrote about her goal of becoming an accountant and how an online education would make it possible for her to study and take care of her children.

But Decker said she also wanted to teach her children the importance of going to college.

“I like learning; it gives me an outlet,” Decker said. “And it shows my children I have homework, too.”

That idea of being a role model “was the main theme across the majority of the essays” entered into the contest, said Helen MacDermott, who works with eLearners.com, which launched Project Working Mom. “Every woman wanted it for herself, but more importantly, they wanted it for her children's future.

“One thing I learned from this campaign was how resilient the working mom is,” MacDermott said. But there are challenges, and overcoming them is what the Project Working Mom essay contest is all about, she said.

“Our goal is to improve the lives of working moms through online education,” she said.

Online education is a growing trend that is not going unnoticed by university officials. Recently, UM System President Gary Forsee and his wife donated a combined $2 million to initiate technology improvements within the UM System to enhance the technology available for students and improve research and distance education. Forsee said online programs are vital to the growth and success of the UM System, as previously reported by the Missourian.

MU has seen online education growth of its own. "This fall we’ve had a really healthy growth in online degrees; online and independent study courses are up one third this fall,” said Dolores Shearon, director of marketing for MU Extension.

MU Extension oversees MU Direct, which is MU’s center for continuing and distance education. MU Direct has been offering online degrees for about 10 years now, with 35 programs available.

“The age demographics we see are those who are in their 20s and 30s who prefer online education to in-class, which is usually due to circumstances of their lives – they have jobs, spouses, children or other obligations that cause them to look for education alternatives,” Shearon said.

Columbia College has also seen an increase in online class enrollment, as reported previously in the Missourian. Columbia College offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

But Project Working Mom, which began its campaign in January, has a special focus: making working mothers, in particular, more aware that going back to school is a realistic option with an online education.

ELearners.com approached DeVry, a university that offers courses at over 90 locations as well as online, with the idea of putting together a program to help women overcome the barriers of going back to school.

“We found that working moms face the most barriers – the most influential elements being lack of time, money and confidence,” MacDermott said. “We approached a few universities that offered an online education to try to eliminate these factors.”

The scholarship helps her manage the expenses of education while raising four children — one with autism — and running her day care. In addition, the flexibility of online classes helps mothers juggle work and school, MacDermott said. And that builds confidence.

“We saw this as a perfect opportunity to encourage and empower women,” said Donna Shaults, director of public relations for DeVry University. “The flexibility (of online education) is perfect for working moms.

“Knowing you can help someone else achieve their goals was a primary reason for our involvement.”

As a result of the success of the project, eLearners.com continues to develop this campaign with Project Working Mom 2 and 3.

Like almost every other mother, Decker’s advice to her children is simple: She wants them to learn the importance of going to college so they can be whatever they want when they get older, no matter what the cost.

“My life is not simple,” Decker said.  “But it can be done.”


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