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Kathleen Gervase homeschools her 10-year-old daughter, cares for her disabled wife who has required repeated cancer surgeries, acts as a medical advocate for elderly and sick neighbors, volunteers with the Girl Scouts, and runs a small, environmentally friendly landscaping business.

So, what does Gervase, 42, do with her free time?

She’s completing a UMUC master’s program in environmental management with a dual MBA.

For all that, she won the National University Technology Network (NUTN) Student Learner Award. She was nominated by one of her UMUC professors who was amazed by how much Gervase packs into her life to help others.

NUTN is a consortium of higher education institutions providing professional development for the advancement of teaching and learning.  Its Student Learner Award honors students who have shown the grit to use technology to overcome obstacles in the way of their academic goals.

To accept the award, Gervase packed her wife and daughter into the car and drove 25 hours in two days to the ceremony in San Antonio, Texas—and back. That could be an example of grit. For Gervase and for UMUC Professor Betty Jensen, who nominated her for the award, what she has accomplished is a testament to the power of online learning.

“I have gotten a better education from distance learning than I would have sitting in a classroom,” Gervase said. “The professors I have had have been beyond amazing—Betty Jensen, Sabrina Fu, Mimi Bres, even TA Deborah Wakrat. They have given me their time, their knowledge and their effort to make sure I succeeded.”

Jensen said she nominated Gervase for her relentless work in the face of huge obstacles.

“In spite of personal challenges, Ms. Gervase would always demonstrate a can-do attitude, doing schoolwork during the night whenever necessary, and going above and beyond what was expected from her,” Jensen said. “She made the most of the program by making enduring friendships even while distance-learning.”

When her wife had to spend five weeks in Tennessee for surgery, Gervase just packed up her computer and kept working on her classes as part of her bedside routine.

“The professors said if it’s late, that’s okay,” Gervase said. “But I wanted to get my stuff in on time.  I wanted to have some integrity.”

Gervase, like so many UMUC students, came to higher education late in life.  Her parents sent her two older brothers to college, but had no money for her, she said.  She waited until her first daughter was grown and her second ready for school. Looking around at the possibilities, she decided UMUC would be the best fit. She enrolled in 2012 to complete the undergraduate education she had started at Anne Arundel Community College.

Now that she is coming to the end of her master’s degrees, Gervase said she is torn about her plans.

She has a great love of the Chesapeake Bay and would like to work for its preservation, she said. But as a medical advocate, not only for her wife but also for her neighbors, she realizes the tremendous need in health care.

“A lot of patients are not treated right, as I have seen with my wife and neighbors,” she said. “So, becoming a health care administrator might be the best bet for me. But I love being outside. I love being on the water.  I want to keep the bay healthy. Maybe there’s a way to incorporate both.  I have a lot to chew on.”