When Courtney Ivey first came to the University of Virginia in 1992 as a first-year student, she was a 17-year-old from a small town in rural Virginia, away from home for the first time.
After a few tumultuous years academically, she left Grounds without a degree to start her career in technology. But she always felt like she had left something unfinished.
On Monday, nearly 29 years later, she began classes at UVA for the second time, one of a record 111 students beginning the online Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program this academic year in the University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
“I am doing this for bucket-list reasons,” Ivey said. “Not finishing my degree was one of my biggest regrets.”
The BIS program is designed for working adults and offers a UVA-quality education online to part-time adult students who have some college but no degree. The new BIS students range in age from only a few years out of high school to retirees, and they are drawn from across the commonwealth and beyond.
The 111 students starting in fall 2020 and spring 2021 make up the largest class ever for the program, which began more than 20 years ago. The class also marks progress in the University’s strategic plan, the 2030 Plan put together by President Jim Ryan, which says UVA will “scale our bachelor’s completion program and provide a high-quality, easily accessible, and affordable education.”
“The working adults in our online degree completion programs at UVA are part of the University’s strength, and I’m thrilled that the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program is making a UVA education possible for more people, wherever they are in the country or in life,” Ryan said.
Alex Hernandez, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, said the record enrollment year shows that education can transform lives, regardless of age or life circumstances.
“The bachelor’s is the mightiest of all the degrees. And our adult learners are using BIS as a pathway to opportunity, whether it is earning a promotion, starting a new venture, or attending graduate school,” Hernandez said.
About 45% of the new BIS students are first-generation college students, meaning they are the first in the families to attend college. About 10% are current or former military members. Students enter with between 45 and 60 credits from their past college experience, and they typically finish their degrees part-time in about three years, though some take more time or finish faster. Classes are online, but feature live instruction with faculty and classmates, and graduates walk the Lawn and earn a full undergraduate degree from the University.
Students in the program tend to thrive. The federal government measures whether students in part-time degree programs graduate within seven years. For the class starting in 2012-13, about 75% of UVA BIS students graduated within that time. That’s more than double the national average for similar programs.
For Ivey, the program was a perfect way to finish what she’d started while working and caring for her 11-year-old son. Completing her degree was one of the goals she set for herself during the pandemic, and she was able to take advantage of a tuition reimbursement program offered by her employer.
“There is no time like the present. You can spend your life hurrying up and waiting, or doing and figuring it out,” she said. “And I prefer the latter.”
Carla Hallman, who began the program a year before Ivey, had a somewhat different path to BIS. She joined the Army directly out of high school at 17 and served for several years, deploying three times to Afghanistan.
She worked in a detainee facility and served with explosive ordinances teams. She supported Special Forces teams as an intelligence analyst, and then ended up in Charlottesville while serving at the nearby National Ground Intelligence Center.
After leaving the military, Hallman was looking for a way to go back to school and finish her education while also working locally and raising her family.
“I hemmed and hawed about going to UVA full-time and not working, but that’s just not realistic for my life,” she said.
A year in to the BIS program, she said her advice for the new students is to take advantage of the courses, professors and classmates.
“When I combine what I learn with my experiences in life, it’s helpful,” she said. “For some of the things that I’ve already learned, I can see where some of this can sit in my world. I can translate it into the world of work.”
For Hernandez, seeing students succeed in BIS makes him hopeful that the program will continue to grow and broaden the idea of what a UVA student can be.
“The program is built for working adults and is accessible, affordable and achievable,” he said. “Our students come to BIS looking for greater opportunity and they fall in love all over again with learning.”