Schenectady County

Online students excited to earn degrees (with photo gallery)

More than 340 graduates received their degrees from Excelsior College during the school's 40th comme

Laura Warner’s daughters never had a good excuse to procrastinate on their homework

For the past three years, the 39-year-old Guilderland mother made sure they set time aside for their studies. After all, she was joining them.

“I cracked down on them,” she recalled. “I’d say, ‘OK, it’s time to read.’”

For three years, Warner studied to complete her 33 credits of course work online at Excelsior College. And on Friday, she was among more than 340 graduates who received their degrees during the commencement ceremony at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

Warner, who works for the New York state court system, completed her diploma nearly two decades after earning her associate’s degree from Maria College. She put off finishing her degree until her co-workers convinced her Excelsior would give her the flexibility she needed to continue working full-time while raising three daughters.

“The biggest hurdle going back to college is you doubt yourself,” she said. “You doubt you can get back into it.”

But Warner finally convinced herself she could. She took about one course every eight weeks until earning her bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies.

In total, about 5,500 students received their degrees from Excelsior this year, but only a fraction were able to attend the commencement. About 10 percent of graduates were from New York and roughly a third of them were from the military, according to the college.

Graduates were greeted by uproarious applause from their professors, many of whom had only met them in person a few hours prior to the commencement. On stage, guest speaker Tom Joyner, a nationally syndicated radio host, gave each of the graduates a $5 bill, telling them he wanted to “subsidize” their education.

The tongue-in-cheek gesture harkened to Joyner’s foundation, which was established to provide financial assistance to students. Since 1998, the Tom Joyner Foundation has raised more than $55 million to help keep students enrolled.

U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Doris Long, 50, was among the out-of-state students to travel to Albany to receive her diploma. The partially blind and disabled active-duty veteran never got a chance to complete her degree after joining the military in 1981.

Long went to a slew of colleges: Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, the University of Maryland, and the University of Texas. After she was injured during a training exercise in Iraq 2009, she came back to California and decided to continue her course work with Excelsior.

Long’s degree has concentrations in psychology and hopes to use the course work to help fellow injured soldiers, especially the ones suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A junior soldier — a woman who suffered a bullet wound to her larynx in Iraq — attended the commencement as a tribute to Long’s work.

“My injuries are so much less,” said Long, who also attended the ceremony with her guide dog Georgie.

Rocio “Rosie” Villa of Niskayuna traveled across two continents to earn her degree. She attended college in Ukraine after leaving her native Colombia a decade ago.

But Villa never finished her course work and couldn’t find colleges that would recognize the credits she earned overseas. She started attending Excelsior four years ago and on Friday, earned her bachelor’s degree with a criminal justice major, along with a certificate in homeland security.

Now the 44-year-old mother of two — fluent in both Spanish and Russian — hopes to pursue graduate work at Excelsior. She said the college provided her with an affordable and flexible way for her to receive a degree.

Villa works at a victim services advocate in Albany, directly across the street from Excelsior’s offices. In four years attending college, she only set foot in the building to pay her tuition.

That didn’t bother Villa, who preferred studying online to being in a classroom. She said Excelsior made possible an aspiration shared by many fellow immigrants.

“I’m very proud,” she said. “For any immigrant to the United States, this is a dream.”

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