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(May 3, 2001, Gazette)

Long distance dedication

Geraldine Kelly (L) and Julie ByrneBy Mary Elizabeth Archer Special to the Gazette

Geraldine Kelly (L) and Julie Byrne are real road warriors

Once some people set their mind to furthering their education, they are willing to go through fire and brimstone to get there. That seems to be the case for Geraldine Kelly and Julie Byrne. Since 1996, the two Memorial University students have forged a strong bond in their quest for bachelor degrees.

What is exceptional about Ms. Kelly and Ms. Byrne is that they have undertaken university careers while still tending family responsibilities in communities hundreds of miles from the St. John’s campus they attend. Their friendship began when they first met as mature students taking transfer credits for university through the Grand Falls-Windsor community college campus. The friendship was cemented when they became roommates and travelling companions on long weekend treks to and from Grand Falls-Windsor, Bay d’Espoir and St. John’s.

Picture this scene: At the wheel of her camper van/student mobile is Ms. Kelly. As passenger, moose alert and, sometimes windshield wiper, we have Ms. Byrne. A five-hour drive from St. John’s brings the twosome to Ms. Byrne’s home. And what is the first thing she does when she gets in the door? She puts on a load of laundry, even at 2 a.m., with her son Andrew perched on the dryer in an attempt to catch up on mom’s news and stay up past his bedtime. Two more hours and Ms. Kelly reaches her home in Conne River – to a not-infrequent reproach from her worried son about driving in treacherous road conditions.

The above scenario plays out once a week (although this past semester Ms. Byrne has been back at the Grand Falls-Windsor campus). In addition to her studies, Ms. Byrne has to think of her three children, her husband and her live-in aunt. Ms. Kelly has her son, husband, ailing mother, and (at one point) band council responsibilities to accompany her academic life. Fortunately, in both families, everyone pitches in.

Ms. Byrne reports that her youngest son Evan, at 10 years of age, is the best housekeeper and cook imaginable. In fact, she feels that all three children have grown to appreciate her more since she started university. And this makes them better prepared for their own forays into higher education – as evidenced by her daughter Amy’s pending graduation from university.

One can imagine that, with lives like these, Ms. Byrne and Ms. Kelly must have been exceptionally motivated to tackle four-year degree programs.

Ms. Kelly, a former band council chief for two years and youth care worker for many more, encountered her epiphany with a client in a courtroom. She recounts that she was challenged by the judge, “...and what are your credentials?” That incident spurred her to embark on her university career, with the aim of securing a social work degree.

Over the years Ms. Byrne has tried her hand at an assortment of training (secretarial, computer) and jobs (cake decorating, babysitting) on top of raising a family, but could never land anything one might call a paid career. Finally, one day she simply looked in the mirror and said, “Hey! Now, I’m going to do something for me!” Thus began her academic journey – moving in the same direction, coincidentally, as Ms. Kelly.

These decisions brought the two women into a very different world – one of ideas, debates, theories, textbooks, assignments and exams – whirling within the more familiar (and just as demanding) world of family, home and job. This is a common theme for nontraditional students. For all the support their families provide they still have to manage timetables that would make the most organized student faint-of-heart. How do they cope with such dizzying schedules?

They laugh a lot, for one thing, chuckles Ms. Byrne. Ms. Kelly concurs that a sense of humour helps. They’ve also stood by one another through trials and tribulations.

“There’s times I wanted to pack it in, and would cry and want to come home, and she would drag me out of it,” said Ms. Byrne. “There’s times she’d want to pack it in; the bags would be by the door, ‘Let’s go! I can’t handle this no more,’ and I’d talk her back out of it!”

Of, perhaps, even more value to the women has been the option to do university courses at a distance. Although the two women have taken many courses in the face-to-face format, distance education has allowed them to complete their programs in a timely fashion without unduly sacrificing family needs. This is underscored by the fact that, following their graduation this coming May, they both wish to continue their studies – by distance.

Ms. Kelly speaks about her desire to see the entire social work undergraduate program accessible by distance. Ms. Byrne talks about a social work diploma program she’s heard the university now offers. And both declare that their educational experience has been well worth all the hard work and discipline.

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