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Commencement ceremony gives UWA online student 'an excuse' to finally see campus

UWA graduate student Olivia Canada

Olivia Canada is a veterinary technician in Converse, Texas.


Canada enjoyed the experience of earning her master's degree through UWA Online

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Submitted

Had she preferred, Olivia Canada could have chosen an easier path to a master’s degree at the University of West Alabama. She could have taken her time, enjoyed the process, made a few memories. But that wasn’t her choice.

Instead, she sprinted through her UWA Online program in a year by taking two courses each term, all while working 13-hour shifts as a full-time veterinary technician. Sleep was rare. And this weekend she’s rewarding herself by traveling to Livingston for the university’s commencement ceremonies.

The catch?

Canada, who lives in Converse, Texas, has never been to UWA’s campus or the city of Livingston -- or Alabama, for that matter. Louisiana is as close to UWA as she’s ever been, and that’s not next door. 

“I felt like I really pushed myself to get this degree, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing it so quickly and efficiently,” Canada said. “I even ended up with a 4.0 (grade-point average), which I was excited about.”

UWA’s fall commencement exercises will take place Saturday in three campus ceremonies: 10 a.m. for undergraduate degree candidates; 1 p.m. for master’s and doctoral degree candidates in education; and 4 p.m. for all other master’s and education specialist candidates.

Canada, who will receive a master’s degree in conservation biology, didn’t have to make the tiresome trip from her home near San Antonio. But her husband, Aaron, and parents encouraged her to don a UWA cap and gown at commencement -- because she earned it, they felt, and they wanted to enjoy the experience with her.

“While I was taking courses, I even told my husband, ‘I want to go to campus and at least see the place I just got this degree from, to actually say I've been there, and meet a couple of my professors."

Olivia Canada

UWA’s robust online degree programs often graduate students like Canada -- students outside of the university’s geographical region who are unfamiliar with campus and its surroundings.   

“I’m very humble when it comes to that kind stuff,” Canada said. “I don’t necessarily like being the center of attention. But they were like, ‘You should be proud of this,’ and I was like, ‘You know what, I should be proud of this, and I kind of want to commemorate that in some way.’ It also gave me an excuse to actually go to campus.”

Canada, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science from Texas A&M University, considered several universities -- online and on-campus -- for her graduate degree. One was Texas State University near her home, but she knew her hectic work schedule would likely mesh better with online programs that offered flexibility. Google searches for conservation and biology programs led her to notice UWA, she said.

“Initially, I was looking for any kind of master’s program that was going to help me bring my GPA up and also be something I was interested in, because I was initially going to go to veterinary school after this,” she said. “But once I actually got into the program, I really liked what I was learning more than I liked veterinary medicine.”

At first, Canada found the process tricky because of her higher-education background. Texas A&M is the United States’ largest public university -- incomparable, numbers-wise, with UWA -- and she was inexperienced with online classes. But she credits her advisors and faculty in Livingston with helping her navigate an online schedule from 750 miles away.

“I constantly got phone calls with my academic advisor prior to the start, and she was in communication with me through email, too, so I felt like I was as getting the communication I would have gotten had I been on campus,” she said. “Once I got into the courses, for the most part the professors were very open to communicating and very open to doing Zoom calls and things like that to make it easier.” 

Last Christmas, Canada’s stepmother gave her two UWA shirts, a sartorial link between a future alumna and an unseen campus. What Canada knows about Livingston is that the city is “pretty small” and the campus “doesn’t have a ton of students,” especially when compared to her mega-sized first alma mater.

This weekend, she’ll experience it all for herself. 

“While I was taking courses, I even told my husband, ‘I want to go to campus and at least see the place I just got this degree from, to actually say I've been there, and meet a couple of my professors,’” Canada said.

Fall Commencement 2021

The UWA commencement exercise is the apex of the academic year in that it marks the culmination of years of acquisition of knowledge and skills by the students. For more information about UWA's fall commencement exercises this weekend, click here