By Katharine Webster
It took Abby Koljonen and her husband four days to drive 2,367 miles from their home in Montana to Lowell for commencement. Then they had to do it all over again, in reverse.
But Koljonen, who earned her Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree entirely online, says it was worth it.
“As I got closer to graduation, it began to feel incredibly important to come and walk. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and miraculously, we actually had the time to come,” she said on her cellphone during their return trip (her husband was driving).
“I thought, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity now, I’ll never get it back and I’ll probably regret it.’ I wanted to see the fulfillment and the recognition of all the work I’ve done and all that I’ve put into this.”
All that hard work earned her special recognition. Koljonen, who earned a perfect 4.0 GPA while studying through the Division of Online and Continuing Education (OCE), was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal for Academic Achievement at a special ceremony on commencement eve.
That was the icing on the cake, Koljonen says. It was also a little surreal to meet Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and OCE staff face-to-face.
“It was so weird, but it was awesome,” she says. “I’ve read these names over and over again in e-mails or announcements, but to actually see the faces and realize, ‘This is real. This is actually happening,’ was incredible.”
Koljonen, like many OCE students, started college elsewhere. She earned her associate’s degree at a Christian junior college in Minneapolis, Minn., where she met her future husband. After working at the college, she decided she wanted to finish her bachelor’s degree. She also knew she wanted to study online, because the newlyweds weren’t yet settled.
“I needed something part-time and flexible,” she says. “In all my searching, I ran across UMass Lowell, which was really exciting because the variety of offerings was something I hadn’t found anywhere else—lots of humanities classes, including art history, no less.”
As she and her husband moved from Minneapolis to Hawaii and then back to Great Falls, Montana, her hometown, she took courses in art history and English literature and creative writing. She found great professors, starting with Kevin Petersen, a full-time lecturer in English; she took Shakespeare I with him and loved it so much that she signed up for Shakespeare II.
“He was so personable, both in e-mails and on Blackboard,” she says. “He had commented on one of my first papers, ‘Abby, I have comments for you, but I want you to know that you’re a great writer. I’m going to push you as hard as I can and I’m going to nitpick so you get even better.’
“I thought, ‘This is crazy. I’ve never even met you before, but you’re here for me and you’re willing to help me get the most out of my education and be the best writer I can be.’ He exemplified that heartfelt desire to encourage and challenge students.”
Another favorite was Assoc. Prof. Marie Frank, in art history. Frank says Koljonen was an exemplary student.
“Abigail always wrote the most informed, thoughtful responses to the class discussion posts, and she always posted early in the week, thereby setting the bar high for all of the other students,” Frank says. “Not only did she demonstrate her own mastery of the material, but she helped the other students understand it better, too. More than one student said that she should pursue a career in art history.”
Koljonen is looking for a job in copy editing or publishing. Eventually, she hopes to pursue an advanced degree in either art history or women’s studies in religion.
But for now, she’s just happy she came to Lowell.
“You do so much online work on your own," she says. "Walking for the commencement ceremony and just sitting there as all these degrees were being conferred, it began to sink in that this was really happening, that this is a real university I’m graduating from, and that I was a part of this incredible educational community and school.”