Bettina Pope got the motivation to return to college once she was stuck in idle.
"I don't do well with free time because I feel like I am being unproductive and not taking advantage of the time afforded me," she said. "The pandemic pushed me to make the move. I thought, 'Now that I've got all of this free time, let me use it to my advantage.'"
So, Pope enrolled in the online Master of Education in School Counseling program at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
"Getting the master's degree is something that I have wanted to do for a long time, but I kept putting it off," she said. "I am a single mom, so I wanted to make sure that my son, Isaiah, had everything that he needed. He's been out of college for five years now."
With 26 years of teaching experience under her belt, primarily in her current role as an English teacher at Wake Forest High School in North Carolina, Pope hopes to take on a new role once she has a graduate degree under her belt.
"I always wanted to be a teacher," she said. "Because I am so close to retirement, I see myself finishing out in the classroom in three years and transitioning into counseling as a second career."
Pope found the online master's degree at Southeastern Oklahoma State University while searching for top 10 counseling programs.
"It was one of multiple schools that came up, so I reached out," she said. "In less than 12 hours, I had a phone call from the school, and then someone was walking me through the process. Within three days, I enrolled."
Pope grew up in Rich Square, North Carolina, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in secondary English education from North Carolina State University in 1994.
"I am definitely a non-traditional student," she said. "It's been 30 years since I had been in college. It was an adjustment, but it wasn't a hard one. Everybody has been good about answering questions, and I love the Blackboard platform."
The online format helps Pope plan her schedule of schoolwork around her career without missing a beat.
"I love the flexibility," she said. "I have been able to build my schedule around being a student and a teacher at the same time."
So far, Counseling Children and Adolescents is Pope's favorite course in the curriculum, but she also looks forward to Social and Cultural Diversity Issues in Counseling. Her areas of focus are World and African-American literature.
She found the science-based Human Growth and Development in Counseling course valuable, even if it challenged her to stretch outside her comfort zone.
"I have a 5-month-old niece, Kendall, and being able to watch her stages of development — just like they were described in the course — has been awesome."
In fact, Pope has recognized real-world experiences of information she learned in the program.
"I am able to not just see it but understand when I see it elsewhere," she said. "Research in Counseling was hard, but now that I got through it, I see it applied everywhere. I can't unsee it."
Pope has a strong support system in place as she earns a master's degree after a long hiatus from higher education.
"My family and friends are excited," she said. "They miss me. I am not as available as I have been. I have had to say 'no' a lot.
"They're ready for me to be done so they can have me back, but they know this is something I have wanted to do for a while. My son has become my biggest cheerleader."
Although it's a long trek from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Durant, Oklahoma, Pope plans to be present on graduation day in May 2022. She will be the first person in her immediate family to earn a master's degree.
"I have never been to Oklahoma," she said. "I want to meet some of my professors, who have been tremendous. I want to meet some of my classmates face to face. It's going to be the culminating reward for my hard work to walk across the stage."
Pope believes that the online M.Ed. in School Counseling will lead to a job in the field when she's ready to make the leap.
"Going back to the pandemic, the need for counselors has grown tremendously," she said. "It's no longer just the academic counselor. Now, it's the overarching school counselor.
"These children need so much more assistance than just in their academic lives — emotional support and social. It's the social piece I am watching these children struggle with now."
The decision to take advantage of her free time has already paid dividends for Pope, who also enjoys working with her church and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
"So far, I have absolutely received solid value out of the master's program," she said. "The cost, comparatively speaking, can't be beat — especially for being out of state. I am paying for courses out of pocket because I can. It is an affordable master's degree."
Now that Pope has some experience as an online student, she believes that the right attitude is the key to success in the program.
"You should be excited to reach your goals," she said. "I have not met anyone — professor or classmate — who is not willing to help. If that's what you really want, they're going to make sure it will happen."
She's right. Drive trumps idle any day.
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