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Without Walls

Tearing down barriers to higher education

Over the past year, the concept of “flexible learning” is one that many students (and their parents) have suddenly become familiar with. But it’s not a new idea. For half a century, the UMass Amherst University Without Walls (UWW) program has been offering students of all ages and learning paths the option to learn in flexible and nontraditional ways. This year, UMass celebrates 50 years of bringing innovative educational strategies to its students, even as it continues to evolve.

Building a foundation

In 1971, a consortium of colleges and universities from around the United States came together to increase access to higher education for nontraditional students, such as working people, veterans, and older adults—a revolutionary proposition at the time. UMass Amherst was one of these institutions, and with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, these 19 colleges and universities began UWW programs across the country.

It may have been radical, but it was a welcome idea for the millions of nontraditional students who stood to benefit. When the UMass UWW program opened, first in Hampshire House and then in a farmhouse on the edge of campus, it was immediately inundated with calls from people who wanted the opportunity to get—or finally finish—their undergraduate degrees.

Meeting students where they are

In the early days, UWW consisted solely of its degree completion program and students mostly attended classes on campus. They received close advising and support to help them design their own degrees.

Over the years, UWW began offering a part-time student experience, and as online learning became possible, created blended courses and completely online degrees. Today, students can complete a bachelor’s degree, MBA, master’s degree in nursing, and other degrees entirely online.

It doesn’t matter your age. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re in.

In the last five years, the UWW degree completion program has seen a steady increase in the number of first-generation students it serves, with over 45% of current students in that group. It’s a significant marker of success in meeting UWW’s mission to remove barriers to higher education.

Erica Medina Serrano ’21 was only one semester away from graduation at the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla when Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. “I really wanted to finish what I started,” says Serrano, who was planning to get a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with certificates in music and special education. When she contacted UMass, they recommended the UWW program, which Serrano was relieved to discover would accept most of her credits. At first, she was skeptical about doing coursework online, but now she prefers it. “It’s at my own pace. Being a full-time working person, I can decide if I want to do it at 8:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning, or 11:00 at night.” Another positive surprise for Serrano was the community in the program. “There’s a large variety. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what stage you’re in. They’re very, very helpful and very positive.”

Other students come to UWW for certifications and professional development to move their careers forward. Jessica Fugaro ’20 is a dentist who graduated from the online Certificate in Professional Translation and Interpreting program. Although raised and educated in both English and Spanish, she realized there was more to translation than simply speaking two languages. “I can state, without a doubt, that studying translation and interpreting at the university level has opened my eyes to many different subjects that require a wide spectrum of knowledge.” She uses her expertise to better serve patients in her dental practice.

Moving into the future

With a half-century of history behind it, UWW has come a long way from its humble roots in the farmhouse. The interdisciplinary studies degree completion program that was once the sole focus of UWW remains at the program’s heart (and is still one of the biggest majors at UMass), but the program continues to expand and evolve to serve more types of learning.

UWW now encompasses all continuing and professional education at UMass. From pre-college programs and graduate degrees to professional development, UWW continues to expand to reach students in flexible new ways. Recent additions have included the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration program; the Exploratory Pathways Program, which lets students complete general education requirements while figuring out the degree path they wish to pursue; and the alumni Lifelong Learning Connection (see sidebar).

Troy Santulli, currently in training with the Kansas City Ballet, has started his college career with the Exploratory Pathways Program. “The ballet is my main focus right now. I’m going to get my degree, so I wanted to get a head start on that. I can’t go full-time right now, but at least I can get some of my general education requirements out of the way, so when I’m ready to go full-time I can jump right in.”

Thanks to the vision and expansion of UWW, Santulli and many others have an array of options to meet their educational needs and help them reach their dreams. “By bringing our world-class educational opportunities to new platforms, we are at the leading edge of a higher education revolution and delivering on our public education mission as a land-grant institution by helping to democratize higher education,” says Chancellor Subbaswamy. “Through UWW, the university is expanding its reach and becoming a lifelong resource for our alumni anywhere, achieving new levels of flexibility and access to a UMass education.”

A lifetime of learning

Whether alumni are looking to advance their careers by developing their professional skills in a key area, or working toward a degree, the newly launched Lifelong Learning Connection offers a variety of personally and professionally fulfilling opportunities, including:

  • Management workshops for leaders at various stages of their careers
  • Professional development certificate programs
  • Specialized postgraduate degrees and certifications
  • An online MBA program that’s ranked number one in the country
  • Resources for families and students considering colleges
  • … and much more!

UMass alumni have the option to work one-on-one with an advisor to help plan a course of action. Through the Lifelong Learning Connection, alumni are eligible for exclusive benefits, including tuition discounts, testing and application fee waivers, and priority enrollment.