The non-traditional path to higher education

WGU President Robert Mendenhall, graduate Elliette Teague and WGU Texas Chancellor Mark David Milliron at the university’s recent inaugural commencement ceremony. Teague, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 2002, was one of the guest speakers at the event. She is now enrolled in the WGU Texas MBA program. (Photo by Robb Cohen Photography)

by KIM HILSENBECK

Though Elliette Teague and Crystal Santos are pursuing different educational paths, both women wanted to make improvements in their lives and get ahead in their careers.

Teague’s story:

The 37-year-old immigrated to the United States in 2002. She was from a small farming village of about 1,500 people, two hours south of Manila in the Philippines, where her father, now deceased, raised rice and fruit.

After working as a sales associate at an appliance store and attending some courses at the university there, she knew she wanted to make her way to America.

“People never leave the village; they live there, marry, die. It’s the same cycle,” Teague said in a recent interview. “I don’t want that same fate.”

She continued, “Life is tough there. You really have to survive.”

With the $2,000 she saved, Teague arrived in San Diego, Calif., at age 28 and stayed with family members. She later moved to a one-bedroom efficiency. After applying for a work permit, she finally found a job selling mattresses. But with her thick accent and limited English, Teague knew her career options were limited.

Fate intervened, and she met her future husband, a Travis County Sheriff’s Deputy, online. In 2005, he offered to fly her to Kyle to meet; she accepted, knowing it was risky. And Teague said she never went back to San Diego.

Though her new husband said he would support her, Teague wanted to get more education. She had taken college classes in the Philippines and wanted to complete her degree.

“I’m tired of being a sales associate at a retail store,” she told her husband. “I want to be able to achieve something out of the risk I’ve taken in life.”

Teague enrolled with an online university here. She earned an Associate’s Degree in accounting, but looking back, she has some regrets.

“It was expensive,” Teague said. “About $550 per credit unit. My student loan was not enough to cover tuition; I had to pay some with credit cards.”

When a classmate was thinking of transferring to Western Governor’s University (WGU) Texas, another, more affordable online school, Teague did some research. She liked what she saw, in terms of both cost and accreditation.

“I really wanted to get into a technology company,” she said.

She had applied several times at a large tech firm in north Austin that specializes in computers and smartphones but was never asked to come in for an interview.

Meanwhile, Teague submitted an application and was accepted into WGU Texas. Later, when she re-applied to that high-profile tech firm, she was hired as a customer service representative. She feels that having WGU on her resume helped her get a foot in the door.

Eighteen months later, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing Management from WGU Texas. She has also been promoted to a more supervisory level customer service position.

Teague said she is now enrolled in the WGU Texas master’s program working toward her MBA.

“I never imagined I would get this far,” she said.

Teague chose an online degree because she was working full-time, so online classes were easier and fit into her life better than classes at a college campus. Plus, she didn’t feel like she missed out on the face-to-face interaction with students and faculty.

“I had a mentor who was great. And I’m pretty much independent – I like computers a lot. It’s easier for me to interact with other students virtually.”

Was it hard to stay motivated with an online college program?

“I tend to procrastinate. But when I think about the long-term goal that I have – I imagined walking the stage to get my diploma or waiting for a manager’s review of me – that kept me going,” Teague said.

She also said some people she’s talked to have a perception that online education is not as good as a traditional degree. Teague disagrees.

“Taking courses online requires you to be more disciplined; you have to push yourself harder.”

She is now also a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Teague seems happy with her life and career. She believes her MBA will help her continue to promote within her firm. She and her husband have even talked about moving back to Asia when he retires in eight years, so she can work at the company’s headquarters.

“I love my job,” Teague said.

 

Crystal Santos glows after her Gateway Health Care graduation ceremony with (l-r) daughter Alexis Hernandez, 8, son Jesse Hernandez, 6, daughter Aniyah Provost, 2, and godchild Dandyja Santos, 4. (Photo by Andy Sams)

Santos’ story:

Crystal Santos of Buda didn’t have the traditional teenage experience. Instead, she had a baby when she was 15, left high school and had a second baby two years later.

She got her GED when she was 18, then had a series of low-income, dead-end jobs as a receptionist, at the mall and other retail stores.

At age 21, she suffered a debilitating stroke from a blood clot that severely impacted her ability to function for several months.

“I learned to do everything all over again,” Santos said. “Walk, lift things, move my fingers, wash, feed myself and write. My brain was okay – I was telling myself to do it but things just wouldn’t work.”

Santos said her mother and younger sister took care of her children while she was in intensive rehabilitation and physical therapy.

“It was almost like being a child again,” she said.

While she was in the rehabilitation facility, Health South, Santos said she knew that when she got better she wanted to be part of the medical field.

Now 25 and with three children, Santos is on the right path to higher education. She recently completed a rapid education course through Gateway Health Care, which is managed by Skillpoint Alliance, to become a certified nurse’s aide.

Based on the Gateway model of rapid employment training for entry-level jobs, the course was condensed into three weeks. Santos said she received 75 hours of classroom instruction along with 25 hours of hands-on clinical work.

Instruction for the programs is contracted through Austin Community College, the current acting education partner for Gateway programs.

On the day she spoke with the Hays Free Press, Santos was graduating from the certified nurse’s aide program. Her next goal is to complete the medication aide program through Gateway.

From here, Santos said her world is opening up to new possibilities and opportunities that she didn’t have without an education.

“This is the start of my career,” Santos said. “With this certification, I can now get my foot in the door.”

Her current certification allows her to work at an assisted living facility, a rehabilitation center or a dialysis unit.

“I would love to work at Health South,” she said. “I will need two more certifications to work at a hospital,” Santos said.

Her Gateway Workforce Development team leader and Gateway graduate, Terrance Nixon, said Santos is in his first class of graduating students.

“When you believe in yourself, it feels good,” Nixon said. “The reward of this job is seeing people take on an opportunity and capitalize on it.”

The experience of completing her certification has made Santos more confident. Her outlook on life is also better.

“I feel accomplished,” she said. “Through Gateway, I was given an opportunity for a second chance that I might not have had otherwise.”

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