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First college visit and graduation, all in one trip for St. Scholastica online students

Gerlie Matahum traveled nine hours from Hawaii to receive her doctorate, setting foot on the College of St. Scholastica's Duluth campus for the first time before commencement on Saturday.

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Gerlie Matahum of Hawaii (left), Mujeeb Kandy of Qatar and Jeanie Scott of New York get acquainted prior to graduation ceremonies for the College of St. Scholastica at the DECC on Saturday afternoon. All three are online students who had never seen the college or been to Duluth before. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Gerlie Matahum traveled nine hours from Hawaii to receive her doctorate, setting foot on the College of St. Scholastica's Duluth campus for the first time before commencement on Saturday.

"I always check Minnesota, what's the weather like there. We brought our jackets because, you know, in Hawaii we always wear sandals and shorts," she said with a laugh.

Participating in online class discussions in the middle of the night from his home in Qatar, Mujeeb Kandy had heard about Duluth's climate and Lake Superior during the discussions, giving him an idea of what to expect when he arrived to receive his master's degree from St. Scholastica on Saturday.

And St. Scholastica made such an impression on Jeanie Scott during her time studying for her master's degree that she wanted to travel to Duluth from her home in Albany, N.Y., to attend commencement on Saturday.

This weekend marked the inaugural visit to the Duluth campus for many of St. Scholastica's online graduates. About 120 online students were among the 915 St. Scholastica graduates this spring, according to college spokesman Bob Ashenmacher.

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Non-traditional enrollment is growing at St. Scholastica, Ashenmacher said. During the spring semester this year, St. Scholastica enrolled 1,050 graduate and extended campus students, 1,328 online students and 1,759 traditional undergraduates.

While the college experience is different for online students, Scott said "the school was so friendly with just making you welcome even if you're miles and a time zone away."

The online classes felt inclusive because people were attending from all over the world, she said.

"You get a broader perspective in the online program. Duluth, Minnesota, isn't the same as Washington, D.C., or a place in Maine and so, by having the online environment, you get to learn from many different experiences," she said.

Inclusive community

The first few online classes took some introductions and icebreakers to get to know each other and by the third time, Scott said, she could begin recognizing people on the classes' online discussion boards.

Two of her professors also did Google chats and video chats that allowed students to put a face and voice to the other students in their class, she said. Completing group projects also let students get to know each other better. It was that connectedness that impressed Scott.

"What (St. Scholastica) stands for in its teaching beliefs and its learning beliefs made me want to come and see it. Maybe in another school, I would have felt like one of 10,000, but the small personalization here makes you definitely want to come be a part of the inclusive community," she said.

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Health informatics is an emerging field and Scott said she's among the first three people graduating with a master's degree with that focus from St. Scholastica. The college was offering only a certificate in health informatics when she was researching programs, but expanded it to a degree program at the start of her time at St. Scholastica.

None of the colleges around her home in New York offered that type of degree, causing her to seek a degree online - and her coworkers suggested St. Scholastica.

Health informatics uses information to improve health care, and incorporates other disciplines such as computer science. Scott has worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 20 years and works in an health informatics department, but her background is in information technology. Studying for her master's degree allowed her to gain more depth of knowledge in the subject, she said.

The curriculum was relevant to her job from the start and she's found her coursework embedded in many of the problems or situations she encounters at work, she said.

Class discussions at 2 a.m.

Health care information management in Qatar has been undergoing changes to adopt U.S. standards over the past two decades, Kandy explained. As the project manager of medical records and data abstraction for Primary Health Care Corporation in Qatar, he's overseeing the transferring of medical records from paper files to an electronic system for 23 PHCC health centers and six hospitals managed by Hamad Medical Corporation.

He received his master's degree in health information management from St. Scholastica on Saturday.

His colleagues have experience in those U.S. standards and a coworker told him about St. Scholastica. But at the time, he was busy living and working in the United Arab Emirates.

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"I moved from UAE to Qatar ... I thought I should not wait anymore," he said.

Juggling work and his family with his college studies meant that he did most of his coursework at night. It also meant that when a live class discussion was going to take place midday in Duluth, he was awake at 2 or 3 a.m. to participate in the discussion from Qatar.

"You feel like it's a real college and not only that, there's a lot of discussions and interactions," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity for interaction between classmates."

He found his professors to be supportive, providing encouragement to students to finish their work and their degrees. His adviser was supportive when he said his wife and two children wanted to travel to Duluth for commencement - their first time in the United States - by giving him pointers on things to do for a family vacation.

"Once-in-a-lifetime" moment

St. Scholastica's responsiveness is what hooked Matahum while she was researching colleges for her doctorate of physical therapy.

"This is actually the first school that returned my call," she said.

Additionally, St. Scholastica's program worked around her schedule of raising two children and working as a physical therapist at the Department of Veteran Affairs.

The time zone difference between Minnesota and Hawaii provided some challenges, but she said she was impressed with how quickly professors responded to her questions about the coursework.

Completing an online degree takes self-discipline, she said, and she formed the habit of always checking in on her St. Scholastica classes immediately after her workday was over.

St. Scholastica provided her with seasoned professionals as professors and she was in classes with other students who already were working as physical therapists, she said.

It had been 15 years since she received her bachelor's degree in physical therapy and she was seeking a higher degree that could provide professional growth. Matahum said she loves her job at the VA, but she was noticing that people filling entry-level positions were coming in with doctorates.

"I don't want to be left out and I still have, what, 30 years before I retire," she said.

Graduating with her doctorate is a "once-in-a-lifetime" moment and her entire family traveled with her from Hawaii to see her graduate in Minnesota. Seeing the campus for the first time, she said she was impressed with how much nicer it looked in person.

"We took pictures yesterday. It's different than just looking on the Internet, when you're actually here," she said.

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