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The morning of graduation, a group of distance learning students gathered from Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, and beyond to meet face to face with each other as well as faculty and staff for the first time during an annual brunch at Erikson Institute.

For many of the students, who completed Erikson’s online M.S. in Early Childhood Education program, the gathering was a chance to see classmates they only knew through virtual conversations and to explore a campus they had only experienced in bits and pieces through videos they observed online.

“You took a leap in the virtual world and became our partner in exploring something powerful and unusual,” said Gillian McNamee, Ph.D., director of teacher education at Erikson.

Despite the distance, students developed close relationships with each other and with faculty, a hallmark of Erikson’s program said Chip Donohue, Ph.D., dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education. During the brunch, faculty invited students and their loved ones to share their experiences throughout the program. Many students spoke of the challenges juggling academic work with jobs and family obligations and thanked their loved ones for their support and encouragement.

“My family sacrificed so much,” said graduate Jeanne Williams, who attended with her family from Ft. Myers, Florida. “But I don’t think all of us in this group could have made such sacrifices if we didn’t love what we were learning.”

Graduates included early childhood professionals who entered Erikson’s program to deepen their knowledge as well as others looking to change careers. Five students from New Mexico enrolled with the encouragement of their local chapter of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood®, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the early childhood workforce by addressing issues of professional development.

For one of those students from New Mexico, Heidi Roibal, the experience was valuable from both professional and personal perspectives. During the program, she worked with Jon Korfmacher, Ph.D., director of Erikson’s doctoral program and a world-renowned leader in home visiting research, to apply a home visiting quality rating tool he developed to programs in her home state. With a $3 million grant from the Zero to Three Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, she hopes to implement use of the tool statewide.

But it was the birth of her grandchild that inspired her to keep at her coursework when it became challenging.

“I thought, this is why we do this — for the babies,” she said.

It wasn’t just the graduates who spoke about what the program meant to them. Spouses, children, and other relatives also made passionate remarks to the group about how inspiring it was to watch their loved ones pursue their goals.

“While my mom has been studying at Erikson, I’ve been attending the University of New Mexico for elementary education,” said Dennis Quintana, who graduated the same week as his mother. “When I was having trouble, I would just think of her — she’s going to school and working. I’m so very proud of her.”

Additional stories from Erikson’s graduation week: