An Education Without Student Debt Has Even Olympic Champion Simone Biles Studying Online

Whether chosen for schedule flexibility, lack of a commute, affordability or just out of necessity during a global pandemic, distance learning is everywhere. From parents changing careers to workers updating skills to Olympic athletes working toward a degree, online education has never been in such a spotlight.

World Champion gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles enrolled in the nonprofit tuition-free University of the People (UoPeople) in 2018, studying business administration. She is also one of its global ambassadors, promoting the school, which is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

“I committed to UCLA when I was a senior in high school and then I decided to not go forth with a scholarship, so I could train for the Olympics,” Biles said. “After the Olympics things got a little crazy, so I couldn’t go in the following semester. So I had been holding off school for a while till University of the People.”

Tuition-free doesn’t mean without any cost, because of admission and assessment fees, but it does mean a lot less debt for students.

“There are numerous scholarships [to pay for assessment fees], and I created one myself,” Biles said. “The Simone Biles Legacy Scholarship Fund is devoted to those in foster care and others. I was in foster care when I was younger, and I know what it’s like and the challenges involved. I want to make sure other foster kids get the same opportunity to pursue their dream of higher education.

“I became a UoPeople global ambassador because I truly think that everyone should have access to high-quality higher education no matter who they are or where they are from,” Biles said. “The (accreditation) and the accessibility along with affordability help to take it wherever I go. Student loans are a lot, and once you graduate, nobody wants student debt, so it’s kind of hard for students to imagine themselves in school. So it gives everyone an opportunity to join at a low fee. Ideally, everyone deserves a chance, and higher education is helpful for everyone in life and I think that everyone needs the same opportunity as other kids.”

Founded by Israeli-born social entrepreneur Shai Reshef in 2009, UoPeople has so far had 51,322 enrolled students from more than 200 countries and territories. The programs offered by UoPeople include health science, computer science, business administration and a master’s degree in advanced teaching. It also has academic partnerships with New York University, The University of Edinburgh, and University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), should students want to transfer to those institutions. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has an initiative specifically for students displaced from their homes and living in Scotland as refugees.

UoPeople has received support from the United Nations and donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hewlett Packard, Foundation Hoffmann and Oak Foundation and has entered corporate partnerships with tech giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and ASAL Technologies.

Distance learning is booming during the COVID-19 pandemic, and students are flocking to tuition-free options. (University of the People)

Distance learning isn’t new (think correspondence courses of old), and neither are online courses, such as those that people can take to earn certificates and upgrade skills. Free massive online-only courses, known as MOOCs, may have thousands enrolled in one class and no teacher interaction, including those edX courses through schools such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, free classes like these may not always count for college credit.

Pandemic’s effect on traditional colleges and universities

The pandemic has made even well-established colleges pivot rapidly to entirely new ways for students to participate in courses.

“For example, some (staff) have used virtual-reality technology to give students an immersive experience,” said Sally Sitou, International Media Adviser at the University of Sydney, “whether to learn about the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders or dissect a virtual reality animal. Others have designed more effective systems for real-time feedback from students, allowing them to tailor their delivery during the class.”

Travel bans for international students haven’t helped enrollment.

“For semester one at the census, we had 9.9 percent fewer students enrolled than we had planned for in 2020,” said Sitou. “Our domestic student numbers remained relatively stable; however, the global pandemic and the impact of travel bans on our international students resulted in enrollments 16.8 percent below our target for 2020, which has had significant revenue implications.”

Sitou said it was increasingly unlikely that first-semester enrollments for 2021 would be back to pre-COVID levels.

The University of Sydney isn’t alone. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found an overall 13.1 percent drop overall in incoming freshmen in the United States as compared with last fall and a 21 percent drop from two-year institutions. Total postsecondary enrollment in the United States was down 2.5 percent. It could be a watershed moment for education, online and off.

“This crisis meant that we had to rapidly try new things in the online education space,” Sitou said. “We’ve enhanced our digital literacy and are discovering new ways of delivering high-quality education. However, we know how valuable the campus experience is both inside and outside the classroom. Face-to-face learning and collaboration, practical hands-on experience, as well as networking and opportunities to participate in student clubs and societies all make for an immersive and richer student experience. We can’t wait to welcome our students back as soon as it is safe to do so.”

 

Online learning challenges, stigma

Online classes have limitations, whether the school is online-only or has a physical campus. The digital divide, students with disabilities, not having a conducive environment at home for learning, and power breakdowns in developing countries all place limits on online education.

The employment prospects for online students, once they graduate, remains an issue, as there is a notion that students graduating from these universities may not have the required skills and knowledge to thrive in the workplace. If employers haven’t heard of a school, they may assume it’s a fake credential or a diploma mill. But with online education becoming more widespread, maybe that stigma is on its way out.

Separated by vast distances in the Philippines, undergraduate student Eulyces Costales considers himself fortunate to have been enrolled in an online university, as he didn’t have to halt his studies due to the pandemic.

“I started studying at UoPeople in 2017, and back then COVID-19 wasn’t even a thing,” Costales said. “I feel fortunate that I am studying at UoPeople because unlike all of these other educational institutions that are just now transitioning to an online environment, UoPeople is at an advantage because it had been designed to be online right from day one.”

In years to come, employers will welcome graduates from online schools, Costales said, and the stereotype surrounding online graduates will change for good.

“Because of the pandemic, online learning is going to be more normalized and more mainstream,” Costales said, “and because of that, students who hold their degree from online learning institutions will be received more positively when they enter the job market.”

(Edited by Cathy Jones and Kristen Butler)



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Service, dignity and devotion define Wilson Roosevelt Jerman’s legacy

WASHINGTON – The late Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, a former White House butler who served under 11 presidents, lived a life that exemplified what some may consider the most honorable attributes a human can possess: service, dignity and devotion.

Jerman served faithfully as a cleaner, doorman and butler for more than half a century; he exuded dignity in every area of his life and was devoted to bettering others’ lives within and outside of the confines of the White House. 

Jerman began his career in the White House as a cleaner under the Dwight Eisenhower Administration in 1957 and went on to work in various capacities until his retirement during Barack Obama’s presidency in 2012. 

For more than half of his life, Jerman was indeed a staple in the White House. He was a man who prided himself on delivering first-class service to White House occupants, often making them feel at home.

Encountering rough beginnings in rural North Carolina, Jerman dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help his family work on a farm. 

After starting a family with his wife Gladys, he moved north to Washington, D.C., as many other Black Americans did during the Great Migration to pursue better opportunities. In the nation’s capital, Jerman would leave his mark on society as one of the longest-serving White House employees.

According to his granddaughter, Shanta Taylor Gay, Jerman was a man of authenticity who was quiet, “very giving” and never complained. 

“When growing up, he never discussed politics,” Gay told CNN. “And never judged by the Republican or Democrat. It was all about the person independently and learning a person.”

Jerman, known by many as “Mr. Jerman,” touched countless lives and taught his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to remain faithful to self regardless of the life’s obstacles.

One of his grandchildren made it a point to further his legacy. Jamila Garrett wrote a tribute to Jerman in a poetry book she is authoring. “As nothing is permanent, I am releasing the dedication to my 3(rd) poetry book, “Slither a little early,” Garrett wrote in an Instagram post.

“This book is dedicated to Wilson Roosevelt Jerman: ‘Thank you for showing me how to live the definition of love. We are love. Rest In Peace Granddaddy. I will never stop pushing.’ Thank you.”

“With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of First Families, including ours,” Michelle Obama wrote. (Tabrez Syed/Unsplash)

As someone whose legacy is built off staying true to self, establishing relationships and building trust, it came as no surprise that former First Lady Michelle Obama included Jerman in her latest published book, “Becoming.”

“With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of First Families, including ours,” Obama wrote. 

 “His service to others — his willingness to go above and beyond for the country he loved and all those whose lives he touched — is a legacy worthy of his generous spirit. We were lucky to have known him. Barack and I send our sincerest love and prayers to his family.”

Jerman served during the Clinton administration for two terms. After Jerman died earlier this year, former First Lady Hillary Clinton took to social media to discuss how much Jerman meant to her.

“Bill [Clinton] and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Wilson Roosevelt Jerman at the age of 91 from COVID-19,” Hillary Clinton said on Twitter in May. “Jerman served as a White House butler across 11 presidencies and made generations of first families feel at home, including ours. Our warmest condolences to his loved ones.”

A recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine contains a tribute to long-serving White House staff, as told by former First Lady Laura Bush.

“Many people don’t realize that members of the White House staff often stay for decades. The doorman who greeted us each morning, Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, served 11 presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama,” Bush said.

“It must be jarring for the staffers when a new president moves in, but you’d never know it. They welcome the new family, and don’t miss a beat when a president comes home on Inauguration Day, whether it’s for the first or second time. 

 “That’s what they’re there for — to serve the president of the United States — and they’re very serious about it. They know they’re the stewards of the presidency itself.”

“Thank you for showing me how to live the definition of love. We are love. Rest In Peace Granddaddy. I will never stop pushing.” Jamila Garrett, one of Jerman’s grandchildren, wrote in tribute to him in a poetry book she is authoring. (Tina Hager, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Edited by Daniel Kucin Jr. and Stan Chrapowicki)

 



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Female CEO Steers Black Rodeo Movement 

African American cowgirls do exist.

Each year hundreds of Black women travel across the United States to compete in ladies steer wrestling, breakaway roping, bull riding, barrel racing, and other rodeo competitions — many while holding down full-time jobs.

The rise of Black women in the rodeo circuit is largely due to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), the nation’s only African American touring rodeo, which was founded by Lu Vason in Denver, Colorado, in 1984.

Named in honor of Willie M. ‘Bill’ Pickett, BPIR was an African American cowboy, actor, and ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee. He invented the bulldogging technique — a rodeo event where a rider wrestles a steer to the ground by grabbing its horns.

Today, BPIR has a woman at the helm and is run by a majority female leadership team. 

Since taking the reins in 2015, Vason’s wife Valeria Howard-Cunningham has used her position as CEO to promote women to leadership roles, effectively creating the first successful touring rodeo led by a Black woman.

Although 2020 has been a challenging rodeo year with COVID-19 forcing the cancelation of the competition season, Cunningham is confident that she and her team will continue to drive the movement forward.

Caroline Carter and Justini Carter (Courtesy Caroline Carter)

“Being CEO was an opportunity where I could get women involved to show that women can run a rodeo operation just as effective or more effective as men,” Cunningham said. “That was important to me. A woman has to do 10 times more than a counterpart to show they are capable of doing certain things.”

Women have been involved in the rodeo world at various levels for decades. However, they have been mostly underrepresented, said Krishaun Adair of Point Blank, Texas, who has been competing in rodeo since she was five years old.

“I did not realize we were like unicorns. I didn’t realize there was a lack of or underrepresentation of Black cowgirls. I grew up looking at Black cowgirls, that’s who I wanted to be. They were my role models. Then I realized how small of a group and how precious we are. People had never seen it before, never heard of it before. Their image of a cowboy or a cowgirl looks nothing like me.”

When Adair and her friend Azja Bryant travel to competitions with horses in tow, people stop and stare, she told Zenger.

“We would stop at different gas stations, and you know, people would either look at you a little funny or [for] some people it was total fascination like they just couldn’t believe,” said Bryant. “I like to be able to perform to the best of my ability, to go out and be a positive role model to others, so I can show other people, ‘Hey there are Black cowgirls out here.’”

Adair said she admires BPIR because it creates a platform for Black cowboys and cowgirls.

“Bill Pickett [represents cowgirls and cowboys] on a level so that we don’t seem inferior or not as good,” said Adair. “I want to be seen; I don’t want to be isolated. We rodeo, we just so happen to be Black.”

Vason created BPIR as a place for African Americans to hone their rodeo skills, showcase their talents, and educate the community about Pickett.

The idea came after he attended Cheyenne Frontier Days, an outdoor rodeo and western celebration in the United States, held annually since 1897 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cunningham told Zenger that he did not see Black cowboys or cowgirls in the rodeo despite knowing there were thousands in the United States.

Now, BPIR has surpassed the model of being just a rodeo — it’s a community that brings people together from across the country.

“Bill Pickett is all African American,” Cunningham said. “It gives African Americans the opportunity to display skills and develop skills and not be treated unfairly. People invited to participate in the rodeo know it’s a safe zone.”

Rodeo in the United States is not just fun; it is big business. According to ranch services company Western Ranches, more than 600 rodeos nationwide are sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and in 2015 rodeo prize money surpassed $46 million. Contestants have the opportunity to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money in just a few days.

“Seeing kids from different communities that have never seen a Black cowboy and never seen a Black cowgirl, that’s worth more than money could ever buy,” said Cunningham.

But sponsors and prize money do not come easily for Black rodeos.

“Because we are an African American rodeo association, the biggest challenge has been and continues to be obtaining the level of sponsorship of other rodeos,” said Cunningham. 

“Companies don’t want to invest. With the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), millions can be put up for added money at their finals. We sell out all of our venues across the U.S., and we don’t get the same level of sponsorship participation. It’s the biggest struggle we have, but we don’t let that hold us back.”

African American cowboys accounted for up to 25% of workers in the cattle industry in American West, although their images were primarily excluded from popular culture. And while Black cowboys and cowgirls are common in places like Texas and Oklahoma, Cunningham said it is shocking how little is known about them in other parts of the country.

With COVID-19 causing the slowdown of rodeo competition across the country, BPIR is focusing not only on gaining sponsors but on its mission of education and getting more young people involved in the sport.

Cunningham said the Bill Pickett circuit rodeo tour introduces Black cowboys and cowgirls to children across the country and provides education about African American participation in the development of the western United States.

“Seeing kids from different communities that have never seen a Black cowboy and never seen a Black cowgirl, that’s worth more than money could ever buy,” said Cunningham. “History books don’t teach certain things. What Bill Pickett rodeo has done is to bring history alive to educate them.”

Cunningham told Zenger that parents attending and learning about BPIR for the first time often want to know where their children can learn to ride a horse and learn more about cowboys and cowgirls, which passes on the interest to a new generation.

Oklahoma native and steer undecorating champion, Carolyn Carter, began competing in 1982. Now, she has four generations of family involvement in rodeo, including a grandson and great-grandson, who are both two years old.

According to Carter, new generations of Black cowboys and cowgirls have advantages her generation did not have, such as access to parents and grandparents who know how to train horses and gained exposure to Black rodeo competitions at an early age.

“They are learning at an earlier age how to do what we’ve been doing all of these years,” said Carter. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Kalyn Womack contributed to this report.

(Edited by Rebecca Bird and Mara Welty)



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VIDEO: Jackson State Coach Deion Sanders Looks To Level the Playing Field for HBCUs

Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion “Prime Time” Sanders learned the value of movement after purchasing his first “iced out” Rolex in his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. His multi-diamond timepiece wasn’t working properly — or so he thought, until the jeweler told him to move his arm.

“The Rolex works off movement,” Sanders quipped during the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Spring Football Virtual Media Days in mid-January. “I go on movement. Whenever I’m idle, I lose energy. I’m a mover and shaker who makes things happen, and that’s how my life has always been. That’s what makes me – me!”

Sanders, who left a successful career as a football analyst at NFL Network, is now shaking up the HBCU football world as head coach at Jackson State University, one of the premier programs in the SWAC and the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

“Coach Prime” has brought energy and credibility to a proud tradition that includes two fellow Hall of Famers, Lem Barney and onetime rushing leader Walter Payton.

The Jackson State program’s tradition and success position it to level the playing field in intercollegiate athletics at HBCUs. After all, Jackson State’s three Hall of Famers are more than Ole Miss and Mississippi State have combined. Sanders thinks he can change the perception that only large schools with massive resources can offer a path to the pros.

“The playing field is horrible,” Sanders said. “If these kids had the same playing field, many more would matriculate to the next level. We lit the fire that they deserve to be called on [NFL] Draft day.”

Sanders’ first order of business has been to improve the quality of his team’s campus apparel. He has already brokered deals with athletic apparel manufacturer Under Armour to outfit his team with contemporary game day gear and fashionable sweat suits that help them stand out from other students on their “yard.” He believes players’ pride in their appearance gives them a sense of hope that will carry them to success on the field and into their professional careers.

Sanders also has wielded his considerable presence and brand in the community, developing relationships with local Golden Corral franchises so his student-athletes can eat off campus. He has added a training table where players can eat in the athletic department facilities. He is working to improve the practice fields and locker rooms as well.

“It’s like back in the day when I played: If you look good, you play good,” Sanders said.

“We don’t have the best of things, but we make the best of things. We’re trying to develop, nurture and caress them in or to help them reach their goals. Either go pro [as a football player] or professional [in fields other than sports].”

Sanders already faces challenges to recruiting. Despite producing one of the top 2021 classes in America, the school self-reported a minor rules infraction. JSU lost four weeks of recruiting after being placed on probation for a tutoring infraction that happened under the previous staff.

That’s all part of a day’s work for Sanders as he strives to comply with NCAA rules that most administrators privately feel keep HBCU programs behind the eight ball. It’s one of the many institutional challenges that Sanders has discovered since taking the job.

“The new hustle is allowing kids to opt out of their scholarships but penalizing them academically,” Sanders said. “Kids are losing credits to keep them from transferring, and that’s unfortunate.”

“Coach Prime” has brought energy and credibility to the playing field in intercollegiate athletics at HBCUs.(Thomson20192/Flickr)

Sanders is having a palpable impact on Jackson State, the SWAC and HBCU sports, bringing unprecedented attention to a conference that has led its division in attendance for 42 of the last 43 years. If the spring football schedule is completed, SWAC will be the only FCS conference playing and figures to be prominently featured on ESPN. Sanders and his program will be under a bright spotlight as he lives the dream of coaching both of his sons, Shilo and Shedeur.

“I feel like I have 100 sons,” Sanders said. “I sometimes have to remind myself that my kids are on this team and this will be the first time they’ve played for a school that has a band. [We] can’t wait to see the [JSU] ‘Sonic Boom of the South.’”

On Feb. 21, America will get its first chance to see Sanders’ first edition of the Jackson State Tigers when they play the Edward Waters Tigers at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.

(Edited by Jameson O’Neal and Alex Patrick)



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