I turned down a graduate assistantship, TA position, and enrollment in a very strong on-campus graduate program to attend graduate school on the Internet.
In this post, I am certainly not going to try to rationalize this choice for you — I did enough of that when I shared my decision with my family — because in the end, opinions from both sides will still exist, and the people who want to call me a fucking idiot will still want to call me a fucking idiot.
I was immensely lucky to be accepted into not one, not two, but five excellent master’s degree programs in my chosen field, public health, and the fact that I “settled for” (people generally use the phrase condescendingly in this case, hence the quotes) an online program does not mean I was happy enough to be accepted anywhere and decided to take some magical easy road through my next two years.
Sure, I don’t have to physically go to classes. True, I will probably have little face-to-face contact with my professors and peers (though Skype seems to be heavily used in this program). Indeed, I spent three-and-a-half years of my time as an undergraduate studying on-campus enjoying the amenities that came with it. Yet I chose to work toward my entire master’s degree online.
Instead of citing my personal reasons for choosing this program, and the benefits I feel it will have on my own education and future career, I’d instead like to talk about a few experiences I had upon telling others I would be attending school online. Again, you take take these with a grain of salt — it’s my education, not yours.
When I told people I was accepted into this particular degree program, I was met with a certain disappointment. As soon as the words “distance learning” or “online degree” exited my mouth, I’m sure visions of for-profit mega-universities like Devry and University of Phoenix entered their minds. Never mind that my program is offered through a very well-known state university, had more stringent admission requirements than any other program to which I applied, and offers many of the same connections that a student in the on-campus version of the program would be afforded. Instead, “Internet classes” is the person’s sole fixation, rendering any of the program’s strengths invalid (and makes its perceived weaknesses appear much larger).
Among my friends accepted into graduate programs around the same time as me, who chose to attend school in the “traditional” manner, the reaction was much the same, but with more concrete examples. Several of them had taken classes online as part of their bachelor’s degrees (as did I), but these were taken concurrently with their on-campus classes. And as they tell me about their cohorts, meetings at professors’ homes, and the multitude of on-campus clubs and organizations of which they are a part, it seems like they are trying to remind me of all of the things they believe I am missing out on by attending school from the “confines” of my own home. Some are outwardly condescending, often bringing up “the life I could have had” by choosing a different program at another school, and telling me how much easier it would make my life if I were more like them. They can’t wrap their head around spending two years sitting behind a computer, watching lectures on Quicktime, and communicating with classmates on online discussion boards.
Which brings me to my final experience, one that I rarely discuss with people because the nature of it is that, no, there isn’t a reason that they should understand. Simply put, online classes are not for everyone. Some people — especially individuals who went to college before the Internet was a thing, who have little or no experience with this medium of learning — can talk for years about how wholesome and real their education was because of the method they employed to earn their equally worthless piece of paper that signifies that they went to class and earned decent enough grades to be called a graduate. And that’s just fine. Like I said, I’ve been there, too. I know how valuable attending classes on campus can be, and I certainly reaped both the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits. But while many saw their undergraduate experiences as specific training for further schooling, I saw it as my preparation for life as an independent worker. Don’t get me wrong, both are equally valid; the only difference I’m trying to express here is that one is yours and the other is mine. You may see me as weaker than you, lazier, less self-motivated, but that’s not how I see myself. Just like you, where I am today is the result of my own choices, mistakes, and the opportunities to succeed provided by my environment and society.
Truly, I am disinterested in anyone’s criticism of where my life has taken me. I had to learn that early on when I committed to this program. And now that the semester has started and I am officially a full-time (online) graduate student, I would really rather focus on earning my master’s degree. I may not be where you are, but I am damn happy where I am.
Also published at Medium.