Green Forest, AR
B.S.B.A. in General Business
“If you don’t think you have time to go to college and there’s an online degree option, you could try it. I was able to earn my degree online because it was more flexible, you have time to do your homework whenever you’re free and it was just more flexible with your schedule.”
Jose Gonzalez and Gary Peters had never met before June 26.
As the 24-year-old from Green Forest started telling the story of his path to a bachelor's degree, Peters leaned in. The senior associate dean in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the U of A pictured himself in what Gonzalez was saying.
The meeting occurred on a hot summer day in the yard of a house on a street bordering Green Forest High School. A worker on a tractor passing by every 10 minutes or so transporting a load of sod from one place to another on the school grounds created about the only traffic noise on the sultry air.
The occasion was a stop on the Razorbug Diploma Tour, a nearly two-week trip covering 1,850 miles by U of A staff and faculty to celebrate graduates of online degree programs who continued living and working in their rural hometowns throughout northern and southern Arkansas while studying. Peters donned his commencement gown, cap and other regalia to present a framed diploma to Gonzalez for his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in general business.
Behind the Razorbug, a 2005 Volkswagen Beetle converted to look like a Razorback, a huge tree trunk gurgled with clear water flowing from a fountain created in the stump by Gonzalez's father, Victor Gonzalez Castro. The two share the home in the little town in Carroll County. The Razorbug, sporting a razor-edged spine, hooves, snout and curly tail, symbolizes the U of A and its land-grant mission to serve the entire state of Arkansas. To serve students like Gonzalez, the U of A offers more than 90 online degree, certificate, microcertificate and licensure programs that can be viewed at U of A ONLINE.
Path to Degree
Gonzalez explained that after high school, he first attended North Arkansas College in Harrison to earn an associate's degree. Peters told of how he grew up in Mulberry, another small Arkansas town, this one on the west side of the state. Both started their educational journeys at small community colleges before moving to larger, four-year institutions.
"I wanted to get my basics (at North Arkansas College) before I transferred over to the U of A," Gonzalez said. "I was able to go full time at U of A to finish in two years. Here we are today."
Both share the status of first-generation college graduates. His family — his dad in Green Forest and his mom in Mexico — wanted him to go to college, Gonzalez said. His older brother advised Gonzalez to start at NAC because it was less expensive. He drove to the campus in Harrison four days a week during some semesters and later had some online classes so he didn't have to make the 23-mile winding trip through the hills as often.
After earning an associate's degree, Gonzalez took a year off during the COVID-19 pandemic to earn money for tuition and then transferred to the U of A. In his last semester before graduating in May, he took a full courseload — 15 hours — while working.
"If you don't think you have time to go to college, and there's an online degree option, you could try it," Gonzalez said. "I was able to earn my degree online because it was more flexible; you have time to do your homework whenever you're free, and it was just more flexible with your schedule."
Gonzalez works three jobs now as he plans for his future.
"I have been working in construction," Gonzalez said. "Before the first day of classes, I ended up changing my major to business. I feel like I have more opportunities, more doors open than with an associate's degree. It's the U of A. It's the Razorbacks. Who wouldn't want to go there?"
Peters, attending high school a few generations earlier, didn't really know what it meant to go to college, he said. Similar to Gonzalez's situation, Peters chose to attend Westark Community College, now the U of A at Fort Smith, because it offered a good entry point from several perspectives; he could commute from home and keep working, too.
"It was a good way to start the journey from where I was and where my family was," Peters said. "It was not a consolation prize for me to go to community college. That part served me in ways that I distinctly needed."
Receiving a good scholarship helped Peters attend Arkansas Tech University in Russellville for his bachelor's degree in accounting.
"I saw it as, this will serve me well," he said. "I can continue pursuing my education. That's part of what I was hearing from Jose, where an online degree really helps. People need access to continue their journey. Tuition may not be different with an online program, but the extra living cost of attending on campus may be prohibitive. That's another similarity between Jose and me."
Students in online degree programs at the U of A pay the same tuition as those in on-campus programs, and, additionally, they pay the lower in-state tuition regardless of where they live. The U of A also has formal articulation agreements with some community colleges, sometimes called 2+2 programs, to assist in the transition from a two-year associate's degree to a four-year bachelor's degree with assurances that specific college courses will be accepted. In addition, the U of A Transfer Achievement Scholarship Program allows qualifying graduates of the seven community colleges in the U of A System to enroll in a U of A Fayetteville degree program at the same base tuition rate as the two-year institution.
Because Gonzalez attended North Arkansas College, which is not part of the U of A System, that policy did not apply to him, but he proved he was willing to work to finance his degree.
Peters said the community college experience made him more confident when he got to Tech.
"Academically, I felt, 'Hey, I can do this.' I'm comfortable with higher education and the rigors of university coursework," he said. "The community college experience helped me figure out how university courses work, what study habits I needed and what expectations were going to be set."
The reasons people choose to start on the community college path haven't changed much in the intervening years between Peters' and Gonzalez's experiences. Peters explained that often those reasons include the inexperience of first-generation students, access, financial ability and family responsibilities.
"I always like sharing the fact that I am a product of something other than a four-year traditional path," Peters said. "We don't get to talk about those things very much. It benefited me personally, and I like to think it benefits the university roles I now serve. As soon as the opportunity to fly that flag comes up, I take it."
Peters went on to a master's degree at the University of Missouri and doctorate at the University of Oregon, both in accounting.
Gonzalez's work ethic shows he has a bright future ahead of him, too.