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Graduate School for the Career Professional

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A Distance Student's Advice
Cecilia Zoltanski Ross

Graduate School for the Career Professional

From left: Cecilia Zoltanski Ross of NAU; Barbara, an English teacher from Switzerland; and Katrine, a biologist from Germany join Marit Miner of Misool Eco Resort for an afternoon dive in Papua, New Guinea. Zoltanski Ross collaborated with Miner to launch a literacy program for girls at Misool Island.
Diving in Papua, New Guinea

To live the life I never had, I had to learn the things I never knew.

This fall, I will visit Micronesia while completing another semester at NAU. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such a possibility without the dedicated faculty, research resources, and online course offerings at NAU’s Extended Campuses.

Many years had passed since my bachelor’s degree. With a full-time career and the demands of raising children, I was too busy for graduate school. Business courses and securities licensing exams had been my only exposure to online courses. Moreover, I was not sure if professional achievements would hold merit for a graduate application.

Nevertheless, I wanted to continue my education, model an example for my college-age children who face their own struggles, and polish my personal brand by completing a solid graduate program. So I began to investigate.

Graduate school—a serious investment
Over the summer, I gathered facts and evaluated graduate programs, faculty quality, admissions requirements, tuition cost, and comparative rankings. In today’s economy, I wanted to insure a strong yield before investing my time and money in a graduate program.

Let quality and value drive decisions
It is true that many universities offer online courses; it is also true that recent reports point to a few online programs notorious for leaving students debt-ridden with non-marketable degrees. I consulted and discovered that, like most things in life, not all online programs are equal. As a careful shopper, I wanted the finest quality and the strongest credentials at a reasonable cost. I liked NAU's Forbes ranking, quality of faculty, vast online technical and research tools, easy website navigation, and classroom portability.

Build a strong application
I requested letters of recommendation from business colleagues and civic associates. Generally, colleges require letters from professors and academic advisors, but in my case this was nearly impossible as so much time had passed. When I took the initiative, NAU’s Extended Campuses staff guided me through admissions, and when I needed more information, faculty and department heads responded to my e-mail. I felt encouraged and devoted my time to building a solid application.

Get a headstart
When NAU’s acceptance letter came in November, I scarcely had time to celebrate. I jumped into learning more about dedicated resources for distance students, including 24/7 computing support. I constantly communicated with technical advisors, even at 2 a.m., because I needed them so much!

Before classes began, I reserved several hours each week to learn more about the extensive research sources at Cline Library, ordering textbooks from NAU's bookstore, Live Chat at Extended Campuses, setting up my academic e-mail, working through a simulated online classroom, navigating the virtual lecture hall, and linking to my academic calendar. I learned that each tool I needed to succeed was readily available through NAU’s distance programs.

Building blocks for academic success
Often, graduate students are both career professionals and parents, and we enter the university prepared to surmount obstacles. Helpful suggestions from my experience include the following:

1) Clear your calendar. Online courses are rigorous, and students are evaluated by their contributions to the group and individual assignments. Consequently, I limited outside engagements and focused on work and graduate courses.

2) Contact professors with questions. Although I peppered my professors with e-mail, I quickly learned that constant communication was encouraged in online courses. No question was too trivial to merit a response.

3) Enroll in challenging courses and work hard to master content. I wanted to push my academic boundaries. Benefits appeared immediately as my writing improved and I became confident in new software applications and research tools.

4) Create a Do Not Disturb Zone at home. I installed good lighting and a large folding table for my computer, calendar, and textbooks.

5) Create a backup plan. Just in case my Do Not Disturb Zone and technology failed, I applied business skills and created emergency backup plans, including saving assignments to NAU’s e-mail archives and locating internet cafes and rental computers at corporate business hotels or copy centers.

Seize opportunities
I am grateful to NAU’s faculty and staff, who continually responded to questions and supported my transition to graduate college. Once I began my courses, I found that I did not have to wait to apply my new skills. As I’ve gained knowledge through my master’s program, the boundaries of my life have exploded. Fresh skills open doors of opportunity.

In Papua, I used my technical skills to plant seeds of literacy for girls in a tiny fishing village who have no means to attend school. During a 2009 visit to Raja Ampat, island elders asked visitors to avoid using plastic bottled water. Consequently, last semester I worked on a technical editing project examining the economic and environmental costs of drinking bottled water. My document will be used to garner funding for a water filtration system for the community. 

NAU distance courses travel far from home
I am excited to get going this year; I just shipped my books to Guam where I will visit during the fall semester. NAU enrolls graduate students throughout the world: I have made new friends through my courses, expanded my professional and global contacts, and participated in a water conservation project in Micronesia.

If not now, when?
Regardless of workplace achievements and career recognition, graduate college brings a fresh edge to the most seasoned professional. Business skills translate naturally to meeting academic deadlines under extreme pressure, working alone from distant locations, and delivering results for the team, all contributing to a strong foundation for an advanced degree.

Whenever I feel I’m too far out living my dreams, I’ll ask myself, “If not now, then when?”

If you are a serious professional ready to expand your world and eager to learn the things you’ve never known, then NAU’s Graduate College is a wonderful choice for you.

—Cecilia Zoltanski Ross is a master's student in Literacy, Technology, and Technical Writing and a registered financial adviser for a Fortune 500 firm in Phoenix. She travels regularly in southeastern Asia pursuing her interests in diving and underwater photography.

On the dock in Raja Ampat, Papua, New Guinea. Zoltanski Ross travels with small gifts of coloring books, beaded bracelets, and alphabet games to help make new friends. (Photos courtesy of Zoltanski Ross)
In Raja Ampat, Papua New Guinea