Senior citizen achieves three WGU degrees in less than three years
At 65 years old, Dena Royal is set to make a little history herself this coming weekend as she walks in Western Governors University’s (WGU) biggest Seattle commencement event in the school’s 25-year history. The former resident of both Whidbey Island and Friday Harbor will celebrate earning three degrees in just two and a half years.
Royal’s extraordinary accomplishments as an adult learner mirror WGU’s tradition of breaking traditions by creating more attainable pathways to education. She started college in the 1970s but like so many others, life got in the way, and she never completed her degree. After raising her children as a single mom, Royal decided it was time to prioritize her education.
“After extensively researching universities, WGU became the obvious choice due to affordability and flexibility,” she said.
With WGU’s flat-rate tuition being about half that of most other online colleges, there is a built-in incentive for students like Royal to accelerate their learning to make it even more affordable to earn their degree. Because the tuition per term is fixed, it doesn’t matter how many courses students complete—they’ll still pay the same rate. Nearly half of WGU students can complete their degrees without taking on any new student debt and among those who do borrow, the average student debt at graduation is less than half the national average.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, WGU is giving away $125,000 in scholarships to 25 people. (WGU 25th Anniversary Next Generation Scholarship) They will be awarded throughout 2022 and each is worth $5,000 in tuition.
The road to earning three degrees—one bachelor’s and two masters—came to fruition after Royal made some major life changes at 63 years old.
“I sold my yarn shop on Whidbey Island and moved aboard a vintage houseboat in Friday Harbor, Washington. I began working part-time as a paraeducator at the local elementary school and decided it was time to check off the first item on my bucket list: completing my college degree,” she said.
Royal started in the Elementary Education program in 2019 and completed 91 CUs in less than six months. She was accepted for student teaching in the fall of 2020, but the school district cancelled Demonstration Teaching (DT) due to Covid and remote learning. Royal would not give up, though.
“I would not be deterred. I had worked too hard,” she said.
Royal persevered and achieved her BA in Educational Studies in October of 2020 and immediately started her Master’s in Learning and Technology. She graduated with her masters in May 2021 and then began her Master’s in Elementary Education on June 1, 2021.
“I only had six weeks to complete my DT prerequisites, but I did it! I completed my student teaching in November 2021, graduating with my teaching certification in December 2021,” she said.
But then life happened, again, and threw even more obstacles in Royal’s path.
On December 26, 2021, her beloved houseboat sank in a storm along with all her possessions. Royal says she strongly believes that it was a sign from the Universe to try something new. So, she applied for remote teaching jobs in Alaska. In mid-March of this year, she was hired to teach in a remote, indigenous community in the Aleutian Islands. The school district asked her to finish out the school year, and she moved to Alaska with just five days’ notice.
“I absolutely love teaching a multi-grade classroom of K-5 students. WGU prepared me well in differentiated instruction and teaching in a culturally rich, diverse environment,” she said. “The superintendent wrote to me: ‘You have finished this year strong for our kids and community in a way I never thought we would!’”
Royal is back in her hometown on San Juan Island for the summer to visit family and attend the commencement for her three WGU degrees. She’ll return to the Aleutians in August, and she’s already halfway through her fourth degree. That’s right: nearly four degrees, in four years.
“I highly recommend completing your college degree, no matter what your age, and WGU will be your partner and biggest cheerleader in reaching your goals. I’m proud to be a Night Owl!”