El Dorado, AR
M.Ed. in HRWD
“I met some amazing fellow students, and we are still in contact today and I will stay in contact with those four to five individuals and that’s been my highlight throughout the entire program.”
If you think it's difficult to develop strong relationships with people while studying in an online degree program, you would be wrong.
Sure, you're busy with homework and papers and tests. And, you're busy with your job and your family and other aspects of life. And, people may start out as names or email addresses or avatars on a computer or other screen. But, you can get to know your fellow classmates really well because you learn from each other and become friends through your shared experiences. That's according to Keri Reynolds, who completed a master's degree in human resource and workforce development from the University of Arkansas this spring.
In particular, she built strong ties through a committee experience, Reynolds said.
"I met some amazing fellow students, and we are still in contact today and I will stay in contact with those four to five individuals and that's been my highlight throughout the entire program," Reynolds said. "I was not expecting that. I'm the kind of person who gets tunnel vision and stays focused with my head down and then comes out at the end and says, 'OK, now what?' Instead, I ended up completely networking in an unexpected way."
Reynolds recounted this experience when she was interviewed by the editor of the El Dorado News-Times for a story about the Razorbug Diploma Tour, during which Reynolds was presented her framed diploma on June 22. U of A staff and faculty traveled for two weeks in June through northern and southern Arkansas celebrating graduates of online degree programs.
"She said it seems like it would be harder to network and talk to fellow students and stuff like that," Reynolds said about the editor's questions. "And, I said, 'Well, actually, I feel like I got to know them more.'"
Reynolds described a practice common in online classes. The professor or instructor requires students to comment on other students' work in the online environment, which is Blackboard Learn at the U of A. In a traditional classroom, only a few students raise their hands to join in classroom discussion.
"I would regularly open all of my classmates' materials and then go look for something that was relevant or close to my interest that I could respond to," Reynolds said. "So, as classes went on, I would see more familiar names, people that I could reach out to."
She and another classmate still brainstorm now about who in their classes they could reach out to with a specific HR question.
Reynolds is a graduate of two online degree programs at the U of A — a bachelor's degree in communications delivered online by the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and a master's degree in HRWD delivered online by the College of Education and Health Professions. When the U of A Razorbug Diploma Tour took a pass through south Arkansas for the second summer in a row, Reynolds was on the list of stops.
After earning an associate's degree from a local community college, Reynolds graduated for the first time from the U of A in May 2021 with "highest distinctions" from the Fulbright College, signifying a cumulative GPA of 3.9 or higher. For her graduate degree, she was named HRWD Master's Student of the Year. She works as operations coordinator for FACT Inc., which stands for Families and Children Together, a Head Start and state-funded preschool agency that covers eight counties in south Arkansas. She supports multiple directors, managers and coordinators, and, among many other duties, she supervises and trains about 175 employees for assurances of financial compliance within non-federal matching, a requirement of government grants.
During a presentation June 22, Keri Reynolds of El Dorado received her framed diploma for a Master of Education in Human Resource and Workforce Development from Mandel Samuels, teaching assistant professor in the program in the College of Education and Health Professions on the Razorbug Diploma Tour.
Reynolds' co-workers really got into the Razorbug Diploma Tour experience. Their enthusiasm shined from the moment the 2005 Volkswagen Beetle converted to look like a Razorback turned the corner to the workplace, followed by a large vehicle loaded with gear and the video production crew's truck.
The crew was delighted to see a display of signs in red, white, silver, gold and black celebrating Reynolds and the tour planted in the green lawn. The Razorback fight song blaring from speakers greeted U of A staff when they entered the building. Spudnuts, a local pastry made with potato flour, were offered along with other refreshments in a conference room to one side.
And FACT was not merely celebrating Reynolds at the end of her educational journey. The nonprofit places strong emphasis on professional development and provides funds to cover 100% of tuition, books and other equipment, allowing employees to further their education.
Mandel Samuels, teaching assistant professor in the program, presented Reynolds her framed diploma in front of family, friends and co-workers - and the sign display and Razorbug. Ed Pohl, new dean of the Graduate School and International Education, sent a congratulatory letter and GSIE swag for Reynolds.
And, although she didn't walk at May commencement in Fayetteville, she had already met Samuels in person because online degree programs lead to all sorts of valuable experiences.
The previous summer, Jim Maddox, another teaching assistant professor and the graduate program adviser, was looking for volunteers to help with a somewhat amorphous idea he had for a gathering of alumni. Reynolds raised her virtual hand. Turns out she was the only one of a small group of students in this planning committee who had any event-organizing experience. By the time more than 80 people, including Samuels, attended the Human Resource Development Summit in Fayetteville this past March, Reynolds built what she describes as lifelong friendships.
The student committee spent the next eight months planning the summit.
"Rachel (Jessen) and I just … we clicked," Reynolds said of her co-chair. "We'd never really met before, never interacted outside of classwork. For four to six weeks, I would pick up and take the lead on things and then I would have to drop back and catch up, and then she would take the lead and so on."
Reynolds stayed at Jessen's house in Springdale during the summit, and Reynolds will return the hospitality when Jessen visits family in El Dorado.
"I could reach out to any of the ones in our core group at any time, and I know they would respond," Reynolds said. "I could ask them anything, whether it's to proofread something, ask for advice on something, ask for resources I thought they might have, ask for information about something going on in their area, ask for moral support."
A third student, Eric Zenor, arranged all the speakers, recruiters, sponsor and was the event's emcee; another, Selena Hriz, took care of the technology needs. Leanne Hall Collins and Veronica Nieto handled myriad tasks. The students also wrote a grant to secure funding from the College of Education and Health Professions' WE CARE initiative, which stands for Wellness and Education Commitment to Arkansas Excellence.
"We had meetings (online) every two weeks for a while, then dropped back to monthly," Reynolds said. "We were constantly emailing and text messaging back and forth, and this was around all of our schoolwork and everything else."
Thinking ahead to a possible event next year, the committee members also documented all the work they did and saved information as a template, or guidebook, for next year's committee to follow. They included everything from passwords for various programs to financial processes to contact information for seeking permissions such as reserving rooms on campus.
"A lot of our time was invested in finding out who we needed to ask for this or that information," Reynolds said. "We pretty much flew by the seat of our pants, and I think we did pretty good."