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Ashley Esposito is a typical University of Maryland University College student who did an unusual thing.

As a member of UMUC’s Student Advisory Committee, she was asked to speak at the Nov. 15 White House Symposium on Higher Education Innovation that Reduces Costs and Strengthens Quality to explain why she believes UMUC’s online programs are revolutionary.

At the daylong Symposium, held in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center just a couple of blocks from the White House, participants discussed educational program innovation that has led to greater equity and student success.

Esposito, who spoke during  the event’s leadoff panel on the student experience, said she calmed her nerves by taking off her glasses so that she couldn't see the audience of more than 200 White House staff members, Department of Education officials, college presidents, higher-education advocates and grant funders, industry leaders and a smattering of students. She added that it was a good thing President Obama wasn’t there because, if he had been, she might very well have fainted!

She described her own path toward a college education and how UMUC’s model of open admissions and online classes is essential to adult learners like herself–those juggling school, jobs and family responsibilities who can’t relocate to attend classes and often require more scheduling flexibility than a traditional campus-based education can typically provide.

Her back story caught the audience’s attention. Esposito was raised in a military family that bounced around the country and the world. She graduated from high school in Delaware, and even though she had a great interest in furthering her studies in art and history, she said her first couple of shots at getting a college education didn’t last long.

After getting laid off during the economic downturn from her last in a string of entry-level jobs, she moved to Baltimore and a clerk’s post at the Maryland Bureau of Long-Term Care Eligibility—a post that would open her up to a whole new career in information technology.

“I was literally date stamping applications and putting them in boxes,” she recalled. “I said, ‘this is crazy.’”

But she had learned how to use the Microsoft Access program in one of her previous jobs. So, on her own initiative, Esposito built Access databases that not only helped the Bureau track applications but also helped case managers with their caseloads.

She got promoted, moved to different agencies and, along the way, realized that she needed a college degree if she wanted to get ahead.

In 2013, Esposito enrolled at UMUC as a software development major.  But as she progressed through her coursework, the self-described people person came to realize that as much as she likes IT, the idea of spending her professional life in front of a computer screen didn’t appeal to her.

“I decided I should go into teaching,” she said.  Esposito has switched her major to pursue her love of African-American and women’s history and has set her sights on earning a UMUC Master of Arts in Teaching degree.

“I can teach computers or history in high school,” she added.  “People think I am crazy, but I would really like to work in a Baltimore City high school because I remember how important my high school teachers were in shaping me.”

And in every way, Esposito told Symposium participants, UMUC supports her ambitions and is helping to make her revised professional dream a reality.

She cited UMUC’s switch from using traditional publisher textbooks to no-cost digital resources embedded in courses, giving students greater access to knowledge and information while making college more affordable.

She touted UMUC’s online courses. They engaged her more than on-site lecture-based courses that she experienced elsewhere, Esposito said, because they require her to have greater interaction with her professors and fellow students, who are taking part from places all over the world.

“When people hear online college, not only do they think it’s easier but they think it is not real,” she told Symposium. Attendees.  “But it is more real to me than being in a lecture hall.  As far as work difficulty, it is probably [greater.] Not only is [the coursework] accelerated but [professors] don't cut you any slack at all.  It’s been tough. You have to be self-sufficient and self-motivated.”

UMUC’s online learning platform makes coursework easy to follow and personal progress easy to control and track.

“I can go onto [the platform] and know how many hours I have accessed, how many hours I have spent in my classroom, how many times I have replied to [posts], how many times I have posted, whether I have submitted my assignment correctly, what grade I received and what feedback I got from the professor.”

While, today, most universities offer online courses, Esposito said that in her estimation the most important thing about UMUC is that students can take all of their classes online, giving them a career path to all sorts of degrees.

“A lot of us are older, so we are not going to move across the country to go to a certain school. Some of us have families, so we are not going to uproot everyone,” she said.  “But we do know which schools are good in which fields. So if everyone had an online degree path, not only [would] it provide flexibility, but it [would give] you an opportunity to attend a school when you can’t physically be there.”