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UC Commencement is the Latest Achievement for Immigrant from Costa Rica

Maria Saulness says she grew up in a dirt-floor home in Costa Rica and walked through the jungle to get to school. Now at age 43, this distance learner is a recent U.S. citizen and is achieving her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Date: 5/31/2012
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Provided
Commencement is the latest milestone in a whirlwind of events for Maria Saulness of Mt. Vernon, Wash., a distance learner who will see the physical campus for the first time when she marches at UC’s Commencement Ceremony at 2 p.m., Friday, June 8.
Maria Saulness
Maria Saulness

Over the past 12 years, Saulness says she moved from Costa Rica to Washington, changed her residency to the U.S., got married and was teaching herself English as she first went back to school.

Saulness, a transfer student from Skagit Valley College in Washington State, earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education through UC’s online Early Childhood Learning Community. She says an ECLC American government instructor inspired her to successfully pursue her U.S. citizenship.

Now in its 12th year at UC, the ECLC is providing associate and bachelor degrees in birth-to-age-five early childhood education, with the first group of bachelor’s degree recipients graduating in 2007. It is reaching learners around the United States and around the world.

Saulness says her journey to this milestone began in 1999, when she came to the United States to visit friends and ended up meeting her future husband, Cory. “We were dating by telephone and by letters and I married him nine months later in 2000.

“It was difficult in the beginning,” says Saulness, who did not know English when she first moved to the U.S. “My husband kept telling me, ‘you need to learn how to drive and you need to go to school.’”

She began pursuing her associate degree at Skagit Valley College in 2004, began working with middle school children in 2006 and, after finding out about the UC distance learning bachelor’s degree program from Skagit Valley College, transferred into the ECLC in 2007, when she was hired as an infant/toddler specialist at Early Head Start. The position provides in-home instruction to small children and their parents, and in-classroom instruction to young children.

“I love what I’m doing,” she says. “All my life, I wanted to be a teacher. I used to pretend to be a teacher when I was a little girl.”

Saulness says it was through the encouragement of her former ECLC American government instructor, Richard Lang, that she considered becoming a U.S. citizen. “I would talk with him through BlackBoard (UC’s online learning community) and he kept encouraging me to achieve my education and get my citizenship. He said his mother was an immigrant from Europe and that when she passed her history exam to become a U.S. citizen, she said she felt so much smarter. As I was taking the class, I told him that I felt smarter, too, so I was going to take the citizenship exam. I felt like I was prepared for everything on that exam because of what I had learned at UC,” says Saulness.

“In my home country, I grew up in a dirt-floor home. I had to walk an hour to school through the jungle, and now I’m graduating from the University of Cincinnati in the United States. This is a big change!

“All I can say about the United States is that it is a land of opportunity, and I am so proud to have become a citizen,” says Saulness.

Pam Luttmers, senior academic advisor for the ECLC, says a total of 114 winter and spring graduates earned either their bachelor or associate degrees through the ECLC this year.

Before she marches at Commencement, Saulness will get to spend some face-to-face time with her fellow students, faculty and advisors at a special graduation brunch for ECLC students. The brunch will be held from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Friday, June 8, in suite 2150 of Edwards I.

She says she’s also interested in eventually earning her master’s degree, but would first like to take a “little break.”

Distance Learning at UC

Students enrolled in distance learning programs at UC have rocketed from 213 at the start of this decade to 3,952 students reported last fall.

Last fall, the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH) launched 11 new, online certificate programs for teachers who wanted to gain experience in numerous fields of education.

UC’s first distance learning program dates back to 1984, with correspondence courses provided by the Open Learning Fire Science Program. A total of 10 UC colleges now offer distance learning opportunities through courses, certificates or programs.

Statistics on Distance Learning at UC

Distance Learning and Outreach at UC

Distance Learning & Outreach Degree Programs

Early Childhood Learning Community