Attending an Online MA Program
Though online degrees are sometimes regarded as a recent trend, correspondence courses and distance learning have been providing educational opportunities to students across the United States since at least the 19th century. I am one of those students, now in my fifth semester of an online master’s program in history at Sam Houston State University (SHSU)—a public university in Huntsville, Texas—and I appreciate the doors opened by online education, particularly for students with constraints that make on-campus models a poor fit.
SHSU offers an entirely online history MA program in which students choose one of three tracks: Rights and Identity, War and Violence, and Encounters and Exchanges. In the War and Violence track, I have taken classes on the experience and memory of war in a diverse array of times and places, including the Middle Ages, the Reformation, US Reconstruction, the Ottoman Empire, and the Cold War. Despite the assortment of fields, these classes have one thing in common: they are all taken virtually.
Taking classes remotely has allowed me to work toward an advanced degree without commuting or moving onto campus. I live roughly two hours from SHSU: simply attending in-person classes would present a major challenge, not to mention the difficulty of meeting with professors, accessing the library, and accounting for inclement weather. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not affected my coursework since my fellow history graduate students and I were already enrolled online.
The challenges posed by ordinary life underscore the advantages of being a remote student in a way I never expected.
Other circumstances made becoming an online student a good choice for me. My younger brother has special needs, and it is important that I be close to home to aid in his care. I work part-time as a tutor in English, history, and government at a local college, a job that requires me to work an often-changing schedule at different locations in the greater Houston area. Finally, in early 2021, my family was involved in a serious automobile accident. My father, younger brother, and I experienced only minor injuries, but my mother was hospitalized for nearly two months. This nightmarish ordeal meant that none of us could drive for some time. And yet I was able to continue my studies with minimal interruption, successfully completing both of that semester’s classes. The challenges posed by ordinary life and family—not to mention extraordinary circumstances or poor health—underscore the advantages of being a remote student in a way I never expected.
Of course, online courses pose challenges of their own. My interactions with professors are typically via Blackboard, the course management system. The purely online format and inability to visit professors during office hours accentuates the importance of communication. Fortunately, my instructors do their best to make time for students. One professor scheduled weekly Zoom meetings to discuss the week’s readings, allowing students to engage with her and with each other. Some professors posted recorded lectures and visual aids to assist with the week’s material; others took full advantage of Blackboard’s online discussion forum to interact with students and elucidate nuances in their subjects. Regardless of their individual approaches and methods, all of my professors worked to make themselves available via email or telephone to students who had questions, needed clarification about an assignment, or simply wished to discuss the class or the progress of their final papers.
Limited library access has not proved a detriment to conducting research for a variety of research papers.
Before entering the SHSU program, I had never taken a fully online class and I was apprehensive about how such a format would be executed at the graduate level, where critical thinking and personal insights are valued. I earned my history BA at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where I lived on campus, attended classes in person, and visited professors during their office hours. As a graduate student, I attend school remotely and communicate with professors and fellow graduate students electronically. If I ever visit campus in person, I will have access to the library; however, as I now study remotely, my library access is limited to books and resources that have been digitized and made available via the library website, JSTOR, and other online databases. This has not proved a detriment to conducting research for a variety of research papers; my topics have included the 1968 Miss America pageant protest, the similarities and differences between Muslim and Christian conceptions of God during the Crusades, a religious interpretation of the Mardasson Memorial in Belgium, as well as historiographical papers on the place of the Ku Klux Klan in Reconstruction and the role of the viceroys of New Spain. Digital resources will remain available to me as I work toward the completion of my MA portfolio.
I expect to graduate with my history MA in 2023. With my degree and my experience working as a tutor, I hope eventually to teach at a local community college and possibly pursue a doctorate. Given that many of the students I tutor are new to the United States, it is not uncommon for our tutoring sessions to evolve into mini-lectures on a wide array of US history subjects. Consequently, I believe that teaching is the next step and a formalization of a career in which I am already a participant. I hope an online master’s degree from Sam Houston State University is the first step in making this vision possible.
Brett Bagur is an MA student at Sam Houston State University.
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