Online Degrees Blog Making Connections and Friendships in Graduate School Online

Making Connections and Friendships in Graduate School Online

30 June

We recently enjoyed a spirited talk with Meagan David and Lindsey Stewart, MSE ’20, who met in their first term in the School of Education and Human Sciences. They spoke with us about the connections, collaboration, and life-enriching friendships that grew from their online experience at KU. Excerpts of our conversation follow here.

Meagan David
MSE, Autism Spectrum Disorder
Graduate Certificate, Autism Spectrum Disorder
Graduate Certificate, Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education
Occupational Therapist
Rhode Island

Lindsey Stewart
MSE, Autism Spectrum Disorder
Graduate Certificate, Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education
Early Childhood Special Education Teacher
South Dakota

You live halfway across the country from each other and met in an online graduate program. That’s an unlikely beginning to a friendship. How similar are you to each other?

Meagan: Lindsey and I could not be more different yet more alike. I'm married with two children. I love to shop and I love the beach. I don't like camping and I don't like the outdoors.

Lindsey loves to camp and has a camper. She hooks it up to her large vehicle herself and hauls it every weekend. And she has two adopted beautiful girls and she's so independent. I'm independent, but in a very different way.

We couldn't be more different, except for the fact that we have passion for education and children and public education … but Lindsey likes to camp and she lives in South Dakota!

Lindsey: She nailed it. I have two kids, I’m a single parent. Our hobbies are so different, but we do have the same passions, the same interest in our jobs.

Our job requirements are extremely different. Meagan is an occupational therapist and I teach early childhood special education.

How did you both end up choosing KU?

Lindsey: I applied to seven grad school programs and was accepted into all of them. I sat down and considered what I really wanted. I loved the autism program at KU. I talked to the other schools and Kansas really sold it. I had a lot of phone conversations. I had a lot of questions and KU answered all of them.

My dad was a KU graduate, so that is one of the reasons I applied here. The leadership and the autism all-in-one program was everything I wanted in a program and nowhere else had it.

Meagan: I applied to three. I looked up the three best for education and I was a little sassy about it. ‘If I’m doing this, I’m going to the best one.’

What really did it was the quick turnover of eight weeks [in each course]. I feel like, at my age, 16 weeks would have driven me crazy. I really like the setup. The autism concentration was really nice because it's a passion of mine. The leadership, the choices … and the reputation of the program was what sold it on top of everything—that KU is ranked really, really high.

In starting an online program, people often worry that it will feel impersonal and isolating. What were your expectations and how did things turn out?

Meagan: I didn't have expectations for making connections with other students, professors, or the actual program. It didn't even enter my thoughts that I would leave with forever friends. I'm 40 years old, I work full time, I was going into a master's program, and it was condensed so I barely knew how I was going to get through life, never mind meet these amazing people. I started to immerse myself in the discussion groups, and you see which students are really dedicated and like-minded, and you’re drawn to them.

Lindsey: My expectation was getting through the program alive! Making those connections with professors was going to be the big thing for me, to do what I could to best succeed in the program. And then, you really get to meet and know people and you’re able to pick out the learners that are most like you. And I learned so much more in the verbal discussions, being able to ask and answer questions and get the immediate feedback.

Some of the faculty really promoted us working together. In our leadership classes, she had us group together with what she called ‘thought partners.’ If we had questions about an assignment, we could bounce those off of a peer before going to the professor, or we would review each other's assignments. ‘Can you read this report and make sure I don't have any grammatical errors?’ Things like that.

When you reflect on your KU experience, what comes to mind?

Meagan: It was so high-tech. Kansas was amazing. I was always thinking, ‘They are spot-on with this technology.’

I don't need to use a Google classroom. I'm an occupational therapist; I am hands-on with these kids. When COVID hit, it was not going to stop me. I was not going to let my kids suffer because they were going to be online. They all had tote bags on their doorsteps, full of their materials for OT. Half an hour and my Google classroom was set up.

I felt like this is going to be okay. I'm going to be okay. I'm still going to finish this program. Technology is our friend here. And if I can learn online in a master's program, then these kids can learn online with me, and I think that's what the professors made quite evident.

I feel like I couldn't have gotten a better experience, even if I was in person. And I did it all from the comfort of my own home because I really couldn't have done it in person. I don't think I could have gotten the quality of education in person in Rhode Island, because I would have had to take time to find sitters for my kids and work around my schedule, but I was able to do everything with a computer.

I would do it all again. I'm so happy that this is what we chose to do.

Lindsey: I honestly feel I couldn't have gotten what I got out of the program anywhere else. I have two kids and a full-time job. I could do this at midnight if I had to, and that flexibility was a piece that I needed in my life. That was one of the key factors in where I was going to go to school.

We hope other people take the jump that we did, because you couldn't get a better education anywhere else.

You completed your final projects together and graduated early, which is remarkable. How did you do that?

Meagan: Well, we were crazy

Lindsey: We might have been done a full eight weeks early.

Meagan: We are. We're crazy.

We started the project the December before it was due. We said, ‘For our winter break, we are going to start the big project.’ Every day, we met, and we got through a section. There were eight sections and it took us six days. And then we decided that, in the summer, we were going to finish the website, which is what we did. Because why wouldn't I take the opportunity to finish the website when I'm not working as much?

So I would be sitting at the beach and Lindsey would be sitting in her camper at her campsite and our kids would be playing and we'd be doing this. It was really a matter of us creating this plan.

I needed to get it done to keep myself sane. Lindsey is so driven and likes to be done early. I just needed to know that it was going to be done in a very timely manner in case the ball dropped somewhere else.

And I lost my grandmother during the program. Lindsey lost her grandmother. We had those major issues to deal with and the professors were so sensitive and wonderful, but I also knew that I still had to get my work done. That’s a reality for an adult. We wanted it done, and when we had the opportunity to work on the final project together, we were like high school girls. We were so excited because I've seen her work, she's seen my work, and we knew we could make it doubly great.

And let's not kid ourselves: None of us wants to be in a group project with anyone, because you know that if you hold yourself in some high regard, nobody else is working as hard as you in that group. Lindsey and I met, we were both busy, and we both wanted to tackle this project together.

What was the project?

Meagan: The project was looking at Rhode Island versus South Dakota, and how we are able to incorporate cultural inclusion into our schools.

In terms of cultural differences, Lindsey has a lot of Native American students and I don't have any. I have more of a Latino, Laotian, and Black community here. It was the one big difference, but it was really nice to see that the center of the country and the east coast did so many things similarly. We also did things differently, and how could we take what we've learned back to our districts?

Lindsey: It was so much fun to work together and see the similarities and the differences. In that project, we looked at everything from school calendars to how our school provides trainings, where they're lacking, how staff in our two schools feel about what trainings are offered, about how much planning they get, do they get meaningful planning time or do they feel like everything's shoved together, do they get time to build in for those different cultures, to teach and meet the inclusive needs of the students, or do they feel like they really don't have the time?

It was interesting to see, on my own, what my staff felt, and then to compare that and see the similarities and differences.

You mentioned making connections with faculty and classmates. How has that turned out?

Lindsey: I work with occupational therapists and speech therapists, but there are a lot of times where, in our friendship, I call Meagan and say, ‘I have this situation with a kiddo. What would you do? Can you give me some feedback on this?’ Just to get an outside perspective. ‘How does your district handle this?’

I made some great friends, and it's not just us. You can make friends in the program and that's something that I hope other students are capable of.

Meagan: We promised the professors we’ll be sending them a picture of us meeting in Chicago. Lindsey is going to have to put up with my shopping and I promised her good food. The professors are all on us to come and get our doctorate and—

Lindsey: Not doing it!

Meagan: They all said, ‘If you ever need anything, please reach out. I will give you the best recommendation. I'm not going to forget. Don't worry. You are memorable.’ I really feel like I could contact any of them if I had a question that I didn't feel comfortable asking my own administration. I know they would respond to me the way they did when I was their student.

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