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A long, short, digital, literal journey to graduation

It took him one year to go 1,800 miles. But when Alberto Banuelos arrived in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the trip was well worth it.

Alberto was an online student at Arkansas State University. Now he is a proud alumnus. Alberto completed his Master of Public Administration (MPA) in about a year – all from his home in Tulare County, California.

But how did he decide to go to Arkansas State while living in California? A clerical error and a bit of serendipity.

Alberto Banuelos & A-State professors

Alberto and some of his professors meet at graduation

First, a bit of background

Alberto has almost always been a non-traditional student. He completed his basics at a local junior college, College of the Sequoias, about 10 years after high school. He then went straight to his bachelor’s program at Fresno Pacific University.

“They had an adult learners program for my degree,” he explains. “I was taking one class at a time and the classes ran for six weeks. It was kind of a hybrid because I still had to go to lectures on Tuesdays, but there was also an online component.”

Alberto was working for County of Tulare at the time, where he was involved with welfare and overseeing the Medicaid program. This was also around the time the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was passed into law. Alberto was responsible for overseeing the implementation in his county, which meant he was quite busy at work.

“When I finished my bachelor’s I knew that I couldn’t wait, that I had to keep on going if I was going to pursue the next degree, so I started looking at non-traditional schools because I knew that I had this project coming up,” he explains. “Online was my only option.”

Here’s where that serendipitous clerical error comes in

Alberto had to travel frequently for work. That travel sometimes called for the use of a company credit card, which required some paperwork that had to be signed by the accounting department.

“It just happened that on one of those days, I made a clerical error. I didn’t complete the appropriate form correctly, and I needed a department head’s signature – his name was Jason – and he was the only person there who could sign my form.”

While chatting with Jason, Alberto just happened to mention that he was going to speak with an enrollment counselor at a for-profit online university the next day.

“Basically, he said ‘don’t do it’,” says Alberto. “He wrote down the web address to A-State and told me they are NASPAA accredited. I really wanted the MPA program, and NASPAA is one of the highest levels of accreditation for the program. It’s the same degree that I wanted at a much lower cost.”

Alberto called Arkansas State that same day and was enrolled within two days.

Alberto and his parents at graduation

Alberto and his parents at graduation

A family affair – and road trip

Earning a degree may seem like a personal achievement, and it is; but for Alberto, it was also a point of pride for his family. His parents are immigrants, and he’s a first-generation American. He’s also the oldest of his parents’ three children.

“I would have been fine with the school mailing me my degree, but I decided to attend graduation for my parents’ sake,” he explains. “Just to say, ‘Look, this is what you, as immigrants, have accomplished.’”

Alberto and his family made a vacation out of graduation. They rented a 15-passenger van and drove from California. In addition to the family of five, three of Alberto’s coworkers tagged along.

“We went from Tulare County to Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, and from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque to Oklahoma. Then it was graduation day,” Alberto says.

It took the group about four days to reach Arkansas, and the road trip continued after graduation. They went to Graceland and then Amarillo, Texas, then made one final stop in Las Vegas before heading home.

It was Alberto’s first trip to A-State, but not his last. He plans to attend the homecoming football game in October with his sister Yolanda, who also graduated from the same program in August. He recommended the program to her, and she enrolled. Alberto took an accelerated path and shortened his degree program to around a year. Yolanda took the more traditional path of completing one course at a time to complete the degree in 18 months.

Moving up with an advanced degree

Alberto began working for the County of Tulare the day after his high school graduation. He was there for 16 years and gradually moved up within that organization. After graduating with his MPA, Alberto was promoted again within his county, but recently an opportunity came up for him to take on a new role in a new county. Alberto is now a regional manager for Welfare Client Data Systems (WCDS) in Sacramento. He represents five counties.

“I fully understand that it’s the degree that opened the door for me,” he says. “It made me a better candidate because not only did I come in with 16 years of experience, but I also had this education that backed me up.”

Some of the highlights of the program

Though the program was demanding, Alberto says it was worth it. He says that a couple of things helped him get through the online MPA program.

One of these highlights for Alberto was being able to apply the learnings almost immediately at work. He says, “It was awesome for me because I was able to apply certain things that I learned right away.” Being able to apply the learnings to his real-life work helped cement the course learnings.

“The support I received was top-notch,” he says. “The first time I sent an email [to a professor] and got a response back within the timeframe they said they would reply, that just made me feel comfortable. Even though we’re in our 30s and didn’t go the traditional route, even though we’re out here in California, the instructors have really made me feel, and same with my sister too, part of Arkansas State.”


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