GREAT Success Beyond the Classroom (Dayton Daily News)

November 21, 2012

By Beth Sears

WEST MILTON — Debra Stewart of West Milton was apprehensive about returning to college to complete her bachelor’s degree.

In her late 40s, she was working full time as the activity director at St. Leonard, a senior living community in Centerville; she was caring for a husband who was ill; and she would be taking the classes online.

Not only did she complete her bachelor’s degree, but also she completed two master’s degrees and is now working on a doctorate.

Her efforts earned her national recognition from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities earlier this year. Stewart was one of five people nationwide honored with the Graduate Recognition for Excellence, Achievement and Talent (GREAT) Award. The award recognizes outstanding academic and personal achievement.

“It’s a very humbling experience, especially since there are so many people doing exactly what I’m doing,” she said about receiving the award.

Stewart’s journey back to school began more than eight years ago when she decided to complete her bachelor’s degree. Because she had completed her associate’s degree in fine arts from Sinclair Community College and had taken some other courses, she only had to take seven courses to complete her bachelor’s degree online from Ashford University.

However, like other people working full time and pursuing their education, it required time management.

Care issues

Stewart began pursuing her master degrees when her husband, Russ, was ill with several health problems caused by Agent Orange exposure. Because she expected to be caring for him from home some day, she pursued the degrees in hopes of teaching online.

“It was quite a balancing act,” she said. “It was difficult working and studying around the care issues of my husband, and I often completed my course work at 4:30 in the morning.”

Although her husband died last year, she is continuing her educational pursuits.

Stewart completed two online master degrees: a Master of Business Administration and Master of Arts in Teaching and Learning With Technology degrees at Ashford University. Now, she is pursuing her Doctor of Psychology, Educational Leadership and Health and Wellness Psychology Specialization degree online at University of the Rockies.

“I’ve been going to school nonstop for the past eight and a half years,” said Stewart, who is now the wellness director at St. Leonard.

A combination of perseverance, focus and little sleep enabled her to complete her goals.

She said that she, like other adult learners she knows, set her priorities. She spends little time watching television and sleeps about six hours a day.

“I’ve never been one to sleep a lot,” she said.

Stewart, a fifth degree black belt in taekwondo, also stays physically active.

Ongoing interests

Stewart also continues her work St. Leonard. There she was instrumental in facilitating the nonprofit organization’s certification as the first Vital Life Community in the nation. As part of her doctorate degree, she is developing the Learning Styles Inventory Tool to help caregivers communicate with individuals who have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, Stewart is a part-time adjunct for Sinclair Community College and an associate professor for Ashford University, where she teaches online.

Stewart said that as an online teacher she comes in contact with adult learners, many who are pursuing second careers.

“They have such incredible stories of triumph,” she said. “They want every second of learning to count.”

Stewart said that she expects to complete her doctorate degree in about 18 months.

Then, in addition to work, she may pursue another lifelong interest: painting murals. She has painted murals in the past and still has a passion and interest in painting.


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PSCUs open doors to many of the 9 million unemployed and 90 million undereducated Americans by providing a skills-based education. To remain competitive over the next decade, we must identify between 8 and 23 million new workers with postsecondary skills. PSCUs are a necessary part of that solution, having produced over 800,000 degrees last year alone.