Story by Alice Sachs & Dwight Woodward
Illustration by Jon Shoemaker

Carl Van Dyk e is just 40 credit hours shy of an Ohio University bachelor’s degree. But he has never seen the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio or walked across the College Green. He has never even met his professors.

Yet as he approaches his 87th birthday, Van Dyke is discovering the literary worlds of Homer, Milton and Shakespeare. He talks enthusiastically about a 36-page research paper on Machiavelli that he recently mailed to his professor.

“This literature is a big challenge, but I love it,” Van D yke says. “I find I can really identify with the characters in these works. I worked 56 years of my life and I always wanted to find out what it means ‘to be.’ ”

The Californian is among thousands of students who have enrolled in Ohio University’s Independent Study Program, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. The program, one of the oldest in the country, was developed to give students who could not attend college the opportunity to take courses by correspondence. Today, some of those courses are taught electronically via the World Wide Web.

The Independent Study Program is part of the university’s Division of Lifelong Learning, which — as the name implies — is committed to providing educational services and programs to students throughout their lives. In addition to correspondence and Internet-based courses, the division oversees the university’s summer session offerings and organizes workshops, conferences and noncredit courses ranging from salsa dancing to first aid.

“The prim ary aim of Lifelong Learning is to serve nontraditional students,” says Thomas Shostak, dean of the division. “Independent study is the oldest part of the division. Many people think that distance learning is a relatively new phenomena. At Ohio University, we’ve been working for 75 years to help people continue learning, even if they haven’t been able to come to campus.”

The majority of students enrolled in the Independent Study Program take correspondence courses and submit their assignments to an i nstructor by mail. A growing number of classes are taught through the Web, and students also can complete an independent study project under the guidance of a professor. Another option, course credit by exam, allows students to take Ohio University-supervised tests at other accredited colleges, universities or high schools.

The credit students earn through these distance-learning courses can be used toward a degree at Ohio University or another institution. Students also take classes to fulfill prere quisites for advanced degrees, earn professional certification or further their careers. Others enroll for no credit simply because they enjoy learning.

Students who decide to pursue an Ohio University degree through independent study courses enroll in the External Student Program. Academic counselors help students plan their degree program and evaluate any previous college-level study. They also can award credit for other educational and work experiences. The student advisory service, started in 197 8 to complement the Independent Study Program, is provided by the Office of Adult Learning Services, also part of the Division of Lifelong Learning.

The university’s distance-learning programs have given Van Dyke the chance to pursue a dream. He finished two years of college in California in the 1930s, but dropped out during the Depression to help support his family. He worked for 20 years as a meat cutter before joining the Santa Fe Railroad, where he was employed as a mechanic until retiring at a ge 67.

“All my life I’ve wanted a degree,” he says. “There are times when my family wishes I was doing more exercise instead of sitting around reading Shakespeare, but I love it. I’m studying Hamlet right now, and I can see the play in my head. I believe it’s my studies that have kept me alive.”

When the Independent Study Program started in 1924, the university offered 41 correspondence courses taught by 15 faculty members. The 124 students enrolled paid $6 per credit hour.

Today, m ore than 2,300 students enroll annually, and about half of these are working toward an Ohio University degree. Students can choose from some 250 courses — ranging from financial accounting to business law, creative writing to abnormal psychology — taught by 180 faculty members. At $64 per credit hour, it is one of the most affordable distance-learning programs in the country.

Most independent study students have jobs, families or other commitments that make it hard to attend classes on a regular ba sis. Students may enroll in a class at any time and then finish the coursework at their own pace. No on-campus attendance is required of the student, even if he or she is pursuing a degree.

“In most years we have students enrolled from each of the 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and Guam,” says Richard Moffitt, director of Independent Study. “We also have students enrolled from between 20 and 30 foreign countries during any year, representing five continents.”

Christine Thorsrud complete d three years of college on the West Coast in the early 1970s, but moved to Alaska and never finished her degree. She heard about the Ohio University program for external students from a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

“Living in rural Alaska, 200 miles from the nearest traffic light, did present some challenges,” says Thorsrud, who now lives in Homer, Alaska, and works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The mother of two teenage daughters, she realized the only way to comple te her degree was by correspondence.

A variety of unique learning opportunities, including independent study courses, are available to students wishing to complete a bachelor of specialized studies degree through the External Student Program. Working with an adviser, each student designs an individualized degree program based on his or her interests.

“The quality of the courses I took through the program, the expectations and requirements I had to meet, and the quality and commitment of the pr ofessors are equal to top-notch, on-campus programs and coursework,” says Thorsrud, who completed her bachelor’s degree in 1997. “The program is a vital method of giving educational options to many, many individuals from all walks of life and circumstances.”

Vaughn Copestick has taken mathematics, English and anthropology classes as he works toward his bachelor’s degree. The 21-year-old student, who lives with his family in East Liverpool, suffered severe damage to his motor nerves as an infant and r equires a ventilator to breathe. Special arrangements have been made so he can take the supervised exams at his own home.

“The Ohio University program offered Vaughn the flexibility he needs to complete a degree,” says his mother, Andrea Copestick. “The amount of work for each course is phenomenal, and he often jokes that it will take him 10 years to finish. But he really enjoys it.”

The program also offers three associate degrees. The associate of arts and the associate of science degrees bot h are based on a general liberal arts education. The associate of individualized studies is a self-designed degree program requiring students to submit a proposed course of study and indicate an area of concentration.

Mary D’Attore followed a basic liberal arts program with an emphasis on Latin and philosophy while pursuing an associate of arts degree. A cloistered nun, Sister Mary had completed a year of study at New York University before joining a Dominican monastery in upstate New York. Her moth er superior suggested she complete her degree so she could instruct other nuns.

Lifelong Learning
at a glance

     The Division of Lifelong Learning, which can be reached toll-free at 1-877-685-3276, offers a variety of non-traditional educational options that may or may not lead to a degree. Here’s a description of each and information on how to learn more about them:

Adult Learning Services

     Associate of arts, science or individuals studies degrees, and a bachelor of specialized studies degree, are available to students through the External Student Program. Students consult with academic advisers on a course of study and can enroll in a variety of distance-learning courses. Students also can attend Institutes for Adu lt Learners and compile a portfolio of work or life experience that may merit college credit.

  • To contact Adult Learning Services, call 1-800-444-2420 or check out the Web site at

    Independent study

         Students can choose from some 250 courses. The credits they earn can be used toward a degree at Ohio University or another institution . Students also can enroll on a noncredit basis.

  • For more information on specific independent study courses, call 1-800-444-2910 or go to

    Summer Sessions

         This option includes two five-week sessions held in June through August. The university offers a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses. These include more than 100 summe r-only special programs and unique course opportunities, such as online, weekend, evening and intensive-format classes.

  • For more information or to obtain course listings, call toll-free 1-888-551-6446, send an e-mail to or go to

    Continuing Education,
    conferences & workshops

      &nbs p;  Continuing education courses are taught year-round with new offerings each quarter. A range of credit and noncredit programs are available for academic advancement, professional development and personal growth.

  • For more information, call (740) 593-1776 or go to
  • When students enroll in a correspondence course, they receive a package of course materials and the titles of required t extbooks. A study guide contains information on course lessons. Students then complete each lesson and mail the assignment to their professor for evaluation and comments.

    Some classes require access to an audiocassette player, videocassette player or computer. The courses are specially designed so students do not need access to a library, laboratories or other facilities that are available to on-campus students. But working independently can present some challenges.

    “I found pursuing a degree by correspondence quite difficult because I did not have the benefit of lectures and could not immediately get answers to questions as I imagine a student within a classroom situation could,” Sister Mary says. “However, whenever I wrote to my professors, they sent me as complete an answer as possible. In fact, I have been able to keep in contact by letter with two of my former professors.”

    Sister Mary completed her degree in 1994 with a 3.9 grade point average. She later earned a bachelor’s degree i n philosophy from Empire State College in New York and now is pursuing a double master’s degree in philosophy and theology at Oxford University in England.

    “My experience at Ohio did indeed provide me with a strong basis for my later studies,” Sister Mary says. “My having to write essays for most of my correspondence coursework helped me prepare for the tutorial work I did at Empire State and the weekly tutorials I am doing now at Oxford.”

    Independent study also is popular with prison inmates, according to Ken Armstrong, who coordinates that aspect of the program. Most of these students do not complete an Ohio University degree, but they earn credit that can be applied toward a degree at another university once they are released. The program, which is the only one of its kind that targets prisoners, currently enrolls about 500 students in prisons throughout the country.

    “I feel we are providing a valuable service for people who can not attend the Athens campus,” says Art Marinelli, a prof essor of management systems who has taught independent study courses for 32 years. “We are helping them to advance their careers with needed coursework or to a complete degree. I have enjoyed teaching a lot of prisoners, and it is interesting to see the range of people who are taking courses for self-enrichment. I get a lot of thank-you notes.”

    While the majority of the independent study lessons still are submitted by mail, technology is changing the way some classes are taught. Some instructors acce pt assignments and correspondence by e-mail. The program also offers seven Internet-based courses, and an additional 15 to 25 new courses should be online in the next 18 months.

    “The use of new electronic technologies, namely the World Wide Web, has added new options for the delivery of distance-learning courses over the previously print-based learning material,” Moffitt says. “Our goal is to continue to develop additional Web-based courses and Web-enhanced courses.”

    Lifelong Learning also p lans to increase its electronic offerings, particularly to graduate students who can obtain an advanced degree through a combination of on-site classes and alternative distance-learning options.

    “With the increase in the use of technology to deliver educational programs and activities, the nature of learning is changing,” Shostak says. “We must adapt to these changes, and it is our intention to be on the leading edge in utilizing new technologies. We want to bring more learning opportunities to st udents all over the world.” While technology is extending the reach of the classroom, some external students still choose to spend time on campus. The Division of Lifelong Learning offers Institutes for Adult Learners that allow students to come to campus for one to three weeks to earn credit and meet their classmates. A few students also spend time on campus during the school year and take regular classes.

    Arthur Pickens, who lives in Fredericktown, chose aviation as his area of specialization and spent the fall quarter on campus in 1996. Although in his 70s, he walked around campus with a backpack, losing 17 pounds during his stay.

    “I was treated like any other student,” says Pickens, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1997. “My 8-year-old grandson was very interested in the fact that I was in college and would telephone to find out if I got any 100’s on my tests.”

    Pickens originally enrolled at Ohio University in 1946 after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He s pent two years in Athens in a pre-veterinary program, then left to pursue a business career. It was not until 1980, when he was refueling his company aircraft at the Ohio University Airport, that he was told about the External Student Program by a faculty member and decided to enroll.

    “I was dealing with a lot of young men who had marketing and business degrees who would keep asking me about my academic background,” he says. “I wanted to keep my mind active with something productive.”

    Des pite the independent nature of their studies, Ohio University is very much the alma mater of these nontraditional students. Sister Mary, Thorsrud and Pickens talk about the friendships they formed with their professors and advisers. Copestick has given his family Bobcat sweatshirts and mugs as Christmas presents, and Van Dyke is looking forward to being an Ohio University graduate.

    “External students do feel a strong affiliation with Ohio University,” Moffitt says. “Many will come to graduation, so me students have made donations to the Independent Study Program and one has even started a scholarship fund for the External Student Program. We also receive calls from students to find out how they can order The Post to keep up with events in Athens or where they can buy Bobcat sweatshirts.”

    Alice Sachs is a writer for University News Services and Periodicals and Dwight Woodward, BA ’81, MAIA ’89, MSJ ’89, is the office’s national media liaison. Jon Shoemaker is a senior majoring in public relations and graphic design.

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