Montana State University

MSU online grad urges parents of special-needs children to get degrees

June 16, 2015 -- MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN -- Rebecca Jones was a student on campus at Montana State University, moving along toward her degree in elementary education when her world came to a screeching halt. Her son, then 2, was diagnosed with autism.

 Jones needed to drop everything to help him, spending roughly four to five hours a day one-on-one with him. She left MSU and moved from Belgrade to Townsend to get him established with health care services there.

Soon after, Jones started searching for online courses that could fit her new living dynamic. She found MSU’s online bachelor’s degree completion program in liberal studies on the MSU website.

MSU’s degree completion program is designed for students who already have 60 or more credits – from MSU or elsewhere – but haven’t yet finished a bachelor’s degree. Students take online classes in four subject areas to earn a degree from the College of Letters and Science.

“The online opportunity was excellent,” Jones said. “The schedule was flexible, and I ended up taking classes that helped me help my son.”

As an MSU student, Jones said she had access to journals and databases via the MSU Library – another tool that helped her not only excel as a student but also have access to current research that helped aid in her son’s healthcare.

Jones, who graduated this spring, said she enjoyed all her classes and ended up appreciating the broad background of the liberal studies degree.

“Left to my own devices, I would focus more on the sciences,” she said.

But, as the degree’s multi-disciplinary nature requires students to take classes in four main subject areas—humanities, fine arts, social science and natural science—Jones said she ended up enrolling in – and thoroughly enjoying – courses on many topics, including theatre and culture.

Jones said a highlight of the degree program was “Film, Photos and Culture” with instructor Lori Lawson in her last semester.

“It was the best way to go out,” Jones said. “She is an incredible professor. The material and the way the course was structured were excellent.”

Jones said that, like many online students, she worried that the distance learning experience would be isolating. Instead, she said, it was anything but.

“I made a lot of great friends. We’d have a class discussion, then after that, we’d have a person-to-person discussion,” she said. “It was really fun to travel through (the program) with some of the same people.”

As for advice she’d give a fellow online student, Jones said reliable Internet access is key, citing a time when a big storm rolled in, shut down the Internet at her home and forced her to rush to the public library to get online. Additionally, Jones advised students to schedule time each day to study.

Jones said her next goal is to earn a master’s degree in orthotics and prosthetics. She said she would definitely recommend MSU’s online bachelor’s degree completion program.

“The program was excellent,” she said. “I have no qualms about recommending it. It was a great experience.”

Rebecca’s son is doing well, too.

“After undergoing intensive therapy for two years, he was able to successfully integrate into main-stream education, and he is doing remarkably well,” Jones said. “His success was entirely contingent on my ability to change my availability, as was possible with the completion program.” 

Most importantly, Jones said, she wanted to make sure other parents who are in a similar situation know they don’t have to put their lives on hold.

“I’d love more people to know it’s doable,” she said. “I’ve seen parents stop their lives in order to care for and support their children with special needs or unique circumstances, and it breaks my heart.”

“Granted, for some parents it may feel like everything suddenly freezes up when the unexpected occurs,” she added. “However, I tell others that gaining education – especially during the unexpected times – unfreezes the moment and ushers in a stronger, more positive outcome for everyone involved.”

To learn more about the program, visit MSU Extended University’s Web page at http://eu.montana.edu/online/degrees/completion/ The admission deadline for students who want to enroll this fall is July 1.

Contact: Suzi Taylor, taylor@montana.edu, (406) 994-7957.