Bumpers College awards diploma to first graduate in online master's program
When a Lonoke County Extension agent walked across the stage to accept her master’s degree diploma May 11, she was the first graduate of a new online degree program offered by the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
Sara Beth Waller, who works and lives more than 200 miles from the Fayetteville campus, was the first person to take all online classes to earn a master of science in agricultural and extension education from the university.
“This program has been a blessing to me,” Waller said. “Without the distance education program, I probably could not have gotten my master’s degree, at least not as quickly as I did.”
Waller could not find an institution within driving distance that offered the degree she wanted, she said. She turned to Bumpers College, knowing it offered the program on the Fayetteville campus, and she spoke with Donna Graham, who was the Bumpers College associate dean in spring 2010. Graham told Waller about the college’s plan to offer the program online. Waller applied for admission and enrolled in online courses.
The Arkansas Department of Higher Education approved that program for distance delivery in spring 2012. It is one of three online master’s degrees developed by the college. All of the university’s distance education programs are listed at http://online.uark.edu.
Waller completed 33 hours of coursework, finished her master’s project and then passed her oral exam in spring 2013.
“I’m happy that we’ve created a program that meets the needs of today’s students,” Graham said. “It’s the future. It allows them flexibility.”
Work and family responsibilities prevent some people from enrolling in face-to-face graduate programs, Graham said. Online options help remove those barriers and make education accessible to more people across the state.
“I highly recommend it for anyone who may not live nearby or works full time and needs an alternative to sitting in classes,” Waller said. “It helped me achieve a goal that I was questionable about when I first started working for the extension service.”
The number of students who have enrolled in the agricultural and extension education master’s degree program has almost doubled in the last 18 months as a result of adding the online option, said George Wardlow, head of the department of agricultural education, communications, and technology. There are now 33 people enrolled in the program.
“The University of Arkansas belongs to the people of Arkansas,” Wardlow said. “This online program is one of the ways we can pay back their investment.”
Both Wardlow and Graham gave the credit for the program’s development to the faculty because they were willing to embrace technology and deliver their courses online.
“They saw the need,” Graham said. “We are in the education business; we should be innovative.”
The program succeeded because of the faculty’s enthusiasm, the evolution of online technology and the support of the university administration, Graham said.
Waller took courses from Bumpers College and the College of Education and Health Professions to earn her degree.
“They were really good classes that I will use,” Waller said. “The faculty in both colleges have been great at returning phone calls and emails when I had questions, and most classes utilized discussion boards where students interact, so you feel more involved in the classes.”
Waller learned how to use educational technology, work with volunteers and peers, and use different teaching methods for youth, she said. Those skills will help her lead 4-H youth development for the Lonoke County Cooperative Extension Service, which is part of the Division of Agriculture within the University of Arkansas System.
Waller earned her bachelor’s degree in agriculture business at the University of Arkansas at Monticello in May 2009, and she began working as an extension agent the following fall. Her supervisors at the extension service encouraged her to continue her education, and the job’s benefits included paying for part of her graduate school costs.
She said she loves working with 4-H students, ages 5 to 19, and teaching them about science, healthy lifestyles and citizenship/leadership.
“I like seeing students succeed at something,” she said. “The look on children’s faces when they do something right for the first time, it’s wonderful.”
Armed with her master’s degree, Waller will have even more knowledge to share with them.