NACOGDOCHES, Texas — You don’t have to be on campus to take advantage of a high-quality, affordable education at Stephen F. Austin State University. You also don’t have to be available to attend classes between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

“Most of our online students are nontraditional,” said Megan Weatherly, executive director of the Lumberjack Learning Commons at SFA. “From caregivers to full-time workers to students who are constantly on the move, online programs provide them the flexibility and access to reach their educational goals.”

Three SFA alumni — a working mom of four, an SFA student now advising other SFA students, and a high schooler moving frequently to follow her family’s ministry work — know this firsthand and share their experiences for National Distance Learning Week, Nov. 6-10.

Ashley Esquivel, Bachelor of Business Administration in general business, 2021
Family obligations required Esquivel to take a 14-year hiatus from college, but she returned to SFA virtually in 2018 to earn her BBA in general business in 2021. She learned about the fully online degree offered by SFA’s Nelson Rusche College of Business from a fortuitous trip to a mall in Corpus Christi, which was hosting a college fair.

“To my surprise, there was a recruiter from SFA there, and the teenager in me came out in front of my embarrassed kids as I approached the booth to say ‘Hi!’ and share my love for the school,” Esquivel said. “I learned that SFA had an online program where I could continue my education in the comfort of my own home and still finish what I started many years ago. In all honesty, I hated knowing that I did not complete my education and did not have the heart to finish anywhere else.”

As a full-time working mom of four in Robstown, Esquivel struck a new balance between home life, schoolwork and kids.  

“My kids always knew if I had something important coming up because I would not leave my desk area, and they would leave Post-it notes of encouragement for me,” she said. “The most rewarding part of my online education was sharing it with my children, knowing that they made sacrifices as well to help me around the house and with each other. My success was theirs.”

Support from her children and SFA professors ensured Esquivel’s success as an online student.

“I had amazing professors who completely understood home life and the glitches and mishaps that go along with that,” she said. “If there was any service interruption or issues, they got me the help I needed.”

After earning her bachelor’s from SFA, Esquivel leveraged her online learning skills to earn a Master of Business Administration through the online program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Now she’s looking for the perfect opportunity to put her degrees to work and stick close to her family as a substitute teacher for business education courses in the local school district.

“There are so many young adults that could benefit from business education as far as the programs and how to use those tools in the world,” Esquivel said. “I would love to be an ambassador for SFA to promote the learning I gained from the school and educate others in their future.”

Esquivel encourages those like her to continue their education.

“If you are unsure of pursuing your degree because you have a family, take that chance and do it,” she said. “I met some great classmates along the way who were from all over the state of Texas and had families with careers of their own and still managed to graduate from SFA’s online program.”

In addition to new career possibilities to help her family, the sense of accomplishment made all the work worthwhile, Esquivel added.

“I am glad I finished what I started all those years ago and was able to walk the stage with my children in the audience and my family there with me by my side,” she said. “It was the most amazing feeling of accomplishment I had ever had, and I will forever be grateful for the staff, fellow peers and my family for supporting me the entire time.”

Deanna McCollum, Bachelor of Science in human sciences, 2022
Despite working on campus, McCollum chose the online BS in human sciences with an emphasis in human development and family studies — the first online undergraduate degree program SFA ever launched — to ensure her classes would not interfere with her job.

The degree program, which is offered in the James I. Perkins College of Education’s School of Human Sciences, provides an in-depth understanding of growth, change and development of children, adults and families that is essential for professional careers and service-oriented professions.

By fall 2019, McCollum had just completed about seven years as a dispatcher for SFA’s University Police Department and was beginning an administrative assistant position in the School of Human Sciences.

“I was actually a multidiscipline major at the time,” she said. “Still, after a semester of working in the School of Human Sciences, I realized that human development and family studies was something that I took a great liking to.”

McCollum’s degree path led her to the next step in her career — an academic advising position in the Perkins College of Education.

“This major is so varied in career options, and the list is truly endless,” she said. “The HDFS program has a practicum in the degree, and I was able to secure mine in the advising office, where I eventually secured my current position.”

In December, McCollum will graduate with a Master of Science in human sciences degree, which she’s also earning online from SFA.

“I love how I get to apply my degree every day with students, and the ability to continue with my master's degree is an added bonus that has also helped in advising,” she said.

Brianna West, Bachelor of Science in human sciences, 2022
West, a youth services librarian at the Riter C. Hulsey Public Library in Terrell, was drawn to the BS in human sciences with an emphasis in human development and family studies because she has always been interested in families, sociology, psychology and anthropology.

“The way that the mind works, how we are all interconnected and independent from one another has been a lifelong topic of interest to me,” West said. “I think this came from a combination of being extremely close to my family and going to counseling at a young age to help me in my personal journey with being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.”

West’s father is a minister, which required her family to move frequently, so she was homeschooled for middle and high school. SFA’s dual-credit program for high school students offered classes that she could take online wherever her family might be living. In addition, SFA provided the human sciences degree, a completely online undergraduate option that fit her interests.  

“The online option was also very affordable for my parents’ ministry budget,” West said. “And it allowed me to begin working on my undergraduate degree right after completing high school at the age of 15.”

Despite her college career coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, West maintained a 3.9 GPA; served as secretary and interim president of Phi Upsilon Omicron, the family and consumer sciences honor society; and was inducted in Omicron Delta Kappa, a multi-generational honor society that excels in recognizing and connecting collaborative and inclusive leaders. She attended meetings remotely and traveled to campus for special occasions that required her in-person assistance.

“Even though I wasn’t in the classroom with my classmates and professors, I never felt alone,” West said. “The professors are amazing and dedicated to helping students excel, and the staff at SFA was extremely supportive in helping me achieve my goals. I always knew they were an email or a Zoom meeting away to help answer questions, lend advice or assist in helping me get to where I needed to go.”

West’s college career also coincided with SFA’s launching of eight-week courses, which helped her finish her degree faster.

“I finished my degree far faster than I otherwise would have been able to because of mini-mesters,” West said. “I had extra study time with fewer distractions, which I think was beneficial to my graduating with summa cum laude honors.”

In addition to her degree, West has earned her Certified Family Life Educator designation through the National Council of Family Relations.

“I am able to assess, assist and advocate for my community in ways that I never would have been able to without the education and experience I gained at SFA,” West said. “I would 100% recommend SFA’s online programs to anyone interested in earning their degree.”

From communications studies to nursing to sustainability, SFA’s more than 30 online bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs offer flexibility and an opportunity to continue a degree or try a new career path. For more information, visit SFA Online.

Stephen F. Austin State University, the newest member of The University of Texas System, began a century ago as a teachers’ college in Texas’ oldest town, Nacogdoches. Today, it has grown into a regional institution comprising six colleges — business, education, fine arts, forestry and agriculture, liberal and applied arts, and sciences and mathematics. Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, SFA enrolls approximately 11,000 students while providing the academic breadth of a state university with the personalized attention of a private school. The main campus encompasses 421 acres that include 37 academic facilities, nine residence halls, and 68 acres of recreational trails that wind through its six gardens. The university offers more than 80 bachelor’s degrees, more than 40 master’s degrees and four doctoral degrees covering more than 120 areas of study. Learn more at the SFA website.