Every Thursday, Cynthia McLellan logs 230 miles on her Mustang on her weekly drive from Mena to UA Little Rock and back home. It’s six hours round-trip, but McLellan doesn’t mind too much. Every mile puts her closer to her goal to competing her college degree.McLellan takes online and hybrid classes in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program. The hybrid class requires her to come to campus once a week.
“This is my dream, and there’s not a sacrifice I won’t make to make this happen for myself,” she said of the weekly drive.
McLellan lives in Mena, a rural community on the state’s western edge, where she has worked in social services for more than 20 years. For the past 10 years, she has been the social services director at Rich Mountain Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
“I wanted to help others to face their challenges,” she said. “It’s my love. Even if I wanted to leave it, it would follow me.”
McLellan earned an associate degree in 1999 from a two-year community college in her native New Jersey. She’s always known that she needed to complete a four-year degree for her career field, but accessibility has hampered her from doing so up until now.
With a job she loves, and a husband, a stepson, and grandchildren all rooted in Mena, moving wasn’t an option, and educational opportunities in her community are limited.
“I am unable to relocate,” she said. “I have to work and meet my responsibilities here.”
McLellan, 45, had been searching for an online program when she discovered UA Little Rock’s Bachelor of Social Work was the perfect fit. Her previous college credits transferred to UA Little Rock, and she started the program in fall 2018 as a junior. She received a lottery scholarship, which helps offset tuition costs.
At the time she was accepted, the online program was at maximum capacity, but there was a slot in the hybrid program, which allows students to complete courses mostly online with periodic meetings on campus.
“Without this online program, I would be unable to attend college. There is no other program available to me,” she said. “With this online program, I’m able to continue working and attend the college and take courses I need, and it plugs right into what I’m doing for a living. The courses I’m taking help strengthen what I do at the nursing home, and the nursing home will benefit from me getting a degree.”
Right now, she’s taking five courses – 15 credit hours – while working full-time. Thursdays are the only days she spends on campus, but her Thursday class isn’t the same week after week. The courses rotate, so that on one Thursday, she’ll have Human Behavior in Social Environments with Professor Tina Paxton. The next week, she takes Policy I with Kathleen Logan, and the next week, Diversity with Kent Wolf.
She takes advantage of the weekly trips, arriving early to meet with her academic advisors or professors.
Beginning in January, she’ll have all online classes, which will mean less drive time and more study time. Right now, she’s holding four As and one B.
UA Little Rock’s online BSW program began inFall 2018 and has 17 students. Dr. Stephen Kapp, director of UA Little Rock’s School of Social Work, says online programs are particularly helpful for training workers in high-demand areas.
“In rural areas, there’s an absolute shortage of social workers,” Kapp said. “Through online programs, we’re able to build capacity in those areas.”
Online classes can be challenge, McLellan said.
“You have to be self motivated and stay on top of deadlines,” she said. “I have to do that in the workforce anyway.”
For the most part, though McLellan has been impressed with the way technology provides ways for meaningful interaction between her and her professors and other students.
On the first day of her first Persuasive Writing class, she logged on and watched a video of professor Melvin Beavers welcoming her to class.
In her Diversity class, she’s working on a small group project. One of her classmates lives in Hot Springs and two live in Little Rock. With Google Docs and Google Slides, the group often works on projects simultaneously.
“Distance learning is no longer just reading and writing,” she said. “I’m interacting with my professors and other students. We’re chatting and collaborating.”
On a recent night, she was working on a group project for Behavior Class and a fellow student needed help.
“We exchanged phone numbers, and worked on paper online together,” she said.
It is a profession to which McLellan feels a strong calling – perhaps because at one point she was on the receiving end of social services.
In 1995, as a mother of four children, trying to go to college in New Jersey, McLellan struggled with poverty – even experiencing homelessness at one point. She got enough money together to stay in a motel where she could take public transportation to a community college.
“After getting that degree, I was able to provide for my family,” she said. “With an education, you have power to make choices. I got myself out of poverty and broke the cycle.”
Her daughter graduated from SAU last year with a 4.0 GPA and is now a kindergarten teacher. Her son joined the U.S. Army and is working toward a college degree in computer science.
“It’s my turn now,” she said. “I really want that BSW for myself. It will be the icing on the cake for me.”