When you’re searching for a fully online program, you want it to be just that – 100% online. You want to continue your education, but work and responsibilities are keeping you from being able to come to a college campus during the week. So, when you’re looking for an online program, you want a program that is flexible enough to fit your busy schedule + one that means you never have to come to campus.
That’s what Heather Hildreth from Montana was searching for in an online degree. She is a stay-at-home mom of three with a jam-packed schedule. She was ready to earn her Child and Family Studies Master’s Degree, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to go to a physical campus to earn that degree. She needed her “campus” to be in her own living room.
Heather found that through Southern Miss! We’ll let her tell you a little bit more about how she was a rockstar and earned her master’s degree while balancing all of her responsibilities – and how you can, too!
1. Out of all the schools that you could have chosen for your field of study, what made you choose Online at Southern Miss?
Initially, what brought me to Southern Miss was that it had a fully online Child and Families Master’s program. I knew from the very beginning that I could only do school if it was from my own home. I had found several programs at other schools, but most of them were not fully online programs. Many of the other programs required some portion of in-class courses. I also like that Southern Miss offered a program that allowed either a thesis or practicum route because I was unsure at the time of registration which route I wanted to take. Many of the other programs I looked at were programs that were not going to set me up for obtaining my PhD in the future. I needed a program that was going to provide me with an at-home experience, as well as one that would propel me to a PhD; that program was at Southern Miss.
2. Why did you choose online learning instead of going to traditional classrooms to earn your degree?
I chose an online learning experience because a traditional classroom experience was just not possible at this stage of my life. Being a stay-at-home mom to three, and one of them requiring multiple weekly therapy sessions, going to a physical classroom was just not doable. Online learning allowed me to balance my education around my children and the other responsibilities I have. I was able to plan my week in a way that worked best for me and still manage to meet all the due dates.
3. For someone that is considering online learning but is a little apprehensive about it, what advice would you give them?
One of the biggest things I would suggest is treating the online program just like you would a regular classroom. It is really easy to get distracted by other things in your life when you are doing schooling at home. The best thing I did was obtain a planner that I wrote all my assignments in, as well as all my other responsibilities in life. I set a weekly schedule that worked for me, making sure that everything I had to get done that week was done on time. When doing this, I would strongly suggest picking a time of the day that works best for you. I quickly realized that my best time was in the evening after the kids went to bed, as well as on the weekends. I did my reading and weekly discussion throughout the week. The big assignments I worked on when my husband was off of work and able to watch the kids. Again, finding your balance right at the beginning is incredibly important for the success of an online learning experience.
4. If you were going to earn another degree, would you choose to earn it online? Why or why not?
If I were to earn another degree, I would definitely do it online again. The online program really allowed me to shape school around my previously set life, instead of the other way around. Online schooling was more realistic for my busy lifestyle and made going back doable. So, I would not hesitate to do an online program again because I am positive my life isn’t getting less busy in the near future.
5. Do you feel that earning your degree through Online at Southern Miss helped – and will continue to help advance yourself in your career?
I absolutely feel that earning my degree online at Southern Miss has helped me advance my career and will continue to do so. The program provided me with an in-depth understanding of the field I am interested in working in. The professors gave me the tools and feedback needed to be successful. The program also helped me connect with organizations that are important to my field. I joined several national organizations and spoke with several other organizations over the course of my schooling at Southern Miss. One of my final class projects even landed me a speaking spot at a national conference that is being held in San Diego in November 2018. Without the help of my professors and the connections that the school has provided me, I would never have gained an opportunity to speak to other professionals in my field about a topic I feel passionate about.
6. What do you feel made your Child and Family Studies program unique?
There are several things that made my Child and Family Studies program unique. One of the biggest things was the overall management of the online program. Over the course of my schooling, I generally found myself in classes with the same students. A group of us started at the same time and went through the program together. This allowed me to get to know my classmates and make connections with them. Another thing that made this program unique was the weekly discussions and often weekly group meetings. In many of my classes, we were required to meet weekly in an online, video chat. This allowed us to hear and see each other, just like a regular classroom experience would do. This weekly experience really helped me feel like I was attending a real school, with real people. The practicum experience I had also made this program unique. I was able to work alongside professors of mine from the comfort of my own home. I was an assistant teacher for two different online undergraduate courses and I loved it. It provided me a very realistic idea of what my teaching profession will eventually be like.
7. What do you feel were the strengths of your program?
One of the biggest strengths to the online program I was in was the ability it had to mimic an in-person classroom experience. I honestly did not feel like it was any different from when I did my bachelor’s degree. I got to know my teachers and classmates pretty well, and I was always aware I was in school. I also think that the course materials and requirements were well focused and useful. I never got the feeling that I was doing an assignment that was more meant to be filler grades, or quick assignments. I always felt that each one of my assignments were meant to educate me, guide me in the right direction, and provide me with experience. The nature of a good online program really requires a hawk-like focus in order to get the most out of the program and I absolutely feel like the online Child and Family Studies Master’s program did that.
8. What was one of your favorite aspects about the program?
There were two aspects of my program that I really loved and felt I got the most value from. The first was the online, video chats that I had to do in many of my classes. This was a simple, yet very effective way, to create the illusion of an in-class experience. It is really hard to stay focused on schooling when you never really have any personal connections with the teachers or students. These online, video meetings allowed me to really connect with my program, my professors, and my classmates. The second aspect I really enjoyed about this program was the weekly discussions. These discussions allowed us to mimic in-class discussions. Although the conversation wasn’t an instant back-and-forth response, it was still equally effective. I absolutely enjoyed them and I felt the professors did a great job of moderating the discussions, but allowing us to speak freely.
9. How was juggling working full-time as a stay-at-home mom and earning your degree online?
Juggling school and being a full-time stay-at-home mom was difficult, but very doable. It took me a little bit of time at the start of each semester to get into the flow of things, but my professors were very understanding. I had to learn how to manage my time very wisely so that I wasn’t taking important time away from my family or turning in assignments late. I also had to be very realistic and honest with myself. There were times that I would have rather been watching a good Hulu or Netflix show while my kids were sleeping, than doing a homework assignment. However, I eventually found my balance between kids, spouse, school, and me time.
10. What is a fun fact about yourself?
One fun fact about me is that I am a huge volunteer nut. I love being a part of non-profits and giving my time to an important cause. When I applied for the online Child and Family Studies program at Southern Miss, I was actually incredibly nervous about even being accepted into the program. I hadn’t had a paying job since I was getting my Bachelor’s 8 years before. How was I supposed to fill out a resume and convince the graduate program that I was worth accepting? Luckily, all the volunteering I did over the years really paid off for me. The program liked that I served on several non-profit boards and felt like that was important experience as well. In the last 6 years, I have served as president of the PTA at my daughter’s elementary school, was a part of a non-profit that helped employ adults with disabilities, and initially helped develop an all-inclusive program at Montana State University- Bozeman for individuals with disabilities. I currently serve on the board for D.R.E.A.M, a local Down Syndrome non-profit in the Bozeman, MT area. I got connected with this program because of my son, who has Down Syndrome. My son, Kaden, and I are also ambassadors for Nothing Down, a national Down Syndrome non-profit organization based out of New Jersey. Kaden’s picture is on both of these non-profit websites.
Heather, thank you so much for sharing your experience with our fully online Child and Family Studies MS! We hope this gives confidence to other mom’s with jam-packed schedules to know they can earn their degree just like you did!