As Sarah Nickerson headed off to college in Boston in the fall of 2008, she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with her life — or if college was even for her. Steered by the belief that college was her only option, Sarah says she "went through the motions of applying because that’s what ‘everyone’ was doing." A week after moving into her dorm, Sarah called her mom and told her to come get her. "I liked my roommates, and I liked the campus and the environment," she recalls. "But when the first day of classes came and I had no motivation to go to my first class, I knew that being there wasn’t the right choice for me."
After moving back home, Sarah worked as a preschool teacher for a few years, and was then hired as a full-time nanny. She loved the work she was doing, but she still felt uncertain about her future. As she watched her high school friends graduating from college excited about their new careers, she found herself feeling envious. "I got to that point where I was like:
‘What’s going to be next? What are my options going past this?’ And I realized that in today’s world, I wouldn’t have a lot of options without a bachelor’s degree."
Sarah enrolled in a class at a local community college, but she quickly recognized this wasn’t going to be a viable route for her. "I was working 60 hours a week, so I was only able to take one class a semester," she explains. "At that rate, it would have taken me eight years to get my associate’s, which is crazy!" So she went online to research other options. And that’s when she discovered UMass Lowell’s online degree programs.
"I knew how reputable the UMass system is, and from the first contact, everyone I dealt with was so informative and helpful," claims Sarah, who had some of the same concerns that many prospective Graduate, Online & Professional Studies students do. "I worked full-time and lived a busy lifestyle, and I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time," she says. "I was also concerned about financial aid because I wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay out of pocket." After speaking with advisors at UMass Lowell’s Division of Graduate, Online & Professional Studies and the financial aid office, Sarah felt reassured not only about being able to balance her work life and her schoolwork but also about the affordability of earning her degree online. "Everyone truly made me feel like they do everything they can to make it impossible for you to fail," she relates. "They boosted my confidence and convinced me I would be successful. And the idea of coming out with a bachelor’s degree with such reasonable student loan debt was a huge factor."
Sarah knew she wanted a career that would enable her to help people but she didn’t have a clear degree path in mind. Once again, she sought guidance from UMass Lowell. "After chatting with advisors in a few different departments, I decided that a psychology major would give me the best, well-rounded experience for my pretty vague future plans," she explains. "I eventually changed my major to liberal arts because it gave me the opportunity to major in both psychology and legal studies."
Because she was working full-time while earning her degree, Sarah expected it to take her five or six years to complete the program. She did it in four. "I don’t think I was fully prepared for how motivated I would become," explains Sarah, who credits her professors for keeping her engrossed in her studies and giving her that push to keep going. "I enjoyed everything I learned — every class I took really engaged me. I was super confident after the first few semesters, and I truly couldn’t wait to learn more."
The flexibility of UMass Lowell’s online learning format and the ability to take classes year-round were also contributing factors in Sarah’s success. "The flexibility is one of the main reasons I was able to finish my degree," she states. "The summer offerings and schedule made it so much easier for me. The fact that I knew at the beginning of each semester what assignments were due on what day was so nice. I was able to schedule my entire semester around my work and personal life from day one. And being able to log in and do schoolwork whenever I could find the time was the best part."
With her bachelor’s degree now in hand, Sarah is excitedly planning for her future. "My husband, he works so hard and I never want him to feel like I’m not contributing or that we can’t have what we want in life," says Sarah. "Now I know that I’ll be able to have a steady career. My future is so much better."
In terms of her career and professional life, Sarah has decided to continue her education: She plans to enroll in a master’s degree program. "If you had asked me after high school if I cared about getting a degree, let alone a master’s degree, I would have said no," Sarah admits. "Now, I joke with my husband that I’m going to go on to get my doctorate — and make him call me Dr. Sarah! — because I now know I can do it if I put my mind to it."
When asked what she liked most about her online learning experience, Sarah readily responds: "ALL OF IT! The flexibility, the availability, the convenience. The fact that the professors were so accessible and still treated me like they ‘knew me’ even though I never met them. And the other students I interacted with, who were so friendly."
But there is one pivotal — and life-changing — thing Sarah says she gained that can be summed up with just one word: confidence. "I had no direction or passion prior to beginning classes at UMass Lowell," she says. "Going through this program made me a whole new person. It helped me realize that I have way more to offer this world than I was giving myself credit for."
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