What it came down to was that Michele Candela needed a college education-but it was going to have to come to her rather than her going to campus. When she made the trip from Bainbridge Island to Pullman for commencement last May, it was the first time she’d ever set foot on campus. Or met, face to face, the staff of the Distance Degree Program who helped her achieve a bachelor’s degree in social science (with a 4.0, it should be mentioned), working from the private classroom she shares with a husband and four children a few miles outside of Kingston.
“If you look at learning as something the teacher gives you, I don’t think you’ll make it,” she says of the experience of studying, on her own, five classes a semester, 50 hours a week, reading the same textbooks and writing the same papers as her Pullman classmates, but watching the lectures on tape or computer and discussing ideas over a live Internet connection called “Speakeasy.”
Candela’s four kids, 17, 12, 11, and 7, did pretty well with her schooling, she says, once they got over initial resentment about having to do more housework. They had their favorite-and least favorite-video lecturers. They loved Nancy McKee’s “Gender Across Cultures” class. Twelve-year-old daughter Amber took her mother’s education particularly seriously and has since fought her way into the college-track program at her school. She wants to study veterinary medicine, most likely at WSU.
The kids had a lot of pride in her achievement, says Candela. The only thing they can’t understand is why her degree hasn’t transformed magically into a 50-grand-a-year job.
“WE sacrificed,” she quotes them, laughing. “Now where’s the money?”
For now, Candela is still at the same job she’s had for years, waiting tables at the Kingston Inn, just up from the ferry dock.
“I like my work, I like people, but it’s time for something bigger.” However, she has no intention of taking her newly won degree elsewhere. “I want to stay here. To me that’s the point.”
A common response among DDP graduates, says Cliff Moore, associate director of Extended University Services, is how they put what they learned right back into the community. That’s exactly what Candela has in mind. She wants to get into counseling or some other form of social service. Not having anything lined up yet doesn’t seem to faze her a bit. She’s got some irons in the fire.
The Distance Degree Program is celebrating its 10th anniversary of serving the place-bound student who, like Candela, has no other way of getting a college education. The average age of the DDP student is 36. Seventy-three percent of its current 1,922 students are women. DDP has served not only every county in the state, but 45 states and 16 countries.
Against those figures, a question lingers. What drives a student to read computer lectures and study for exams without the companionship, and motivation, of fellow students?
Two things, says Candela. “When you work in this field, you’ll meet some waitress, maybe 60, 70 years old. And she’s bitter, and she’s hopeless, she’s miserable to be around. And I realized one day, shortly before starting this program, I could wake up one day and be that woman.”
But driving her more, she adds, is a love of learning.
“The more you learn, the more you want to learn. After I finished, I wish an education for everybody in the country. I think a lot of things would be different.”