kansas city star logoJune 19, 2008 - Dozens of Grantham University graduates from around the country come to Kansas City to graduate with classmates they have never met.

Donning caps and gowns, these graduates — some of whom have spent years studying in virtual classrooms online to get their degrees — will walk across a stage Saturday in a ceremony at the KCI Expo Center.

It will be the first real-life commencement for Grantham since the completely online university moved to Kansas City in 2005 from Louisiana after its headquarters was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"A commencement exercise is a public ceremony of affirmation. It is about publicly marking achievements," said Vicky Phillips, chief education analyst for Geteducated.com, an online consumer resource center that rates online university degree programs.

"It is like saying, ‘I did this. Now I want everyone to clap for me,'" she said.

It doesn't matter, she said, that students may have taken their classes while sitting at home, never having formed bonds with classmates; or navigated a trek across a crowded campus; grown fond of campus landmarks; or shared in institutional traditions.

"There is research that shows that a student's feeling of belonging, feeling of academic achievement and student engagement are not based on delivery alone," Phillips said.

Joseph McHale, a retired police officer who is now the dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Grantham, agrees with Phillips.

For the past two years, every night after work McHale and his wife, Suzanne, grabbed their laptop computers and headed to class — in the kitchen of their Kansas City home.

Each spent hours working online for a master's of science degree in information technology from Grantham. For Joseph McHale, this would be his second graduate degree. He has a master's in public affairs from Park University and is working on a doctorate in business from Northcentral University, an online school in Prescott Valley, Ariz.

On Saturday morning the McHales and their son, Joseph — a Kansas City police sergeant getting his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Grantham — will flip their cap tassels at commencement.

"I believe that anytime you do a graduation it is a celebration of your accomplishments," the senior Joseph McHale said.

The McHales will be joined by about 45 other Grantham graduates. Some have fit a trip to Kansas City into a vacation. Others will make the trip just for the commencement.

It has taken Judy Stuart of Houston 12 years to earn her bachelor's degree in computer science. Stuart, a high school dropout, was raising her family and caring for an aging in-law and a sick husband while trying to study for her degree. Stuart, 42, set up a work space in her living room and clicked into a virtual classroom most mornings before work.

"It has taken forever," she said Thursday. "Life got in the way. This is a big deal for me."