Jeffrey Fleming of Cumming, Georgia, has never been to Southeast Missouri State University’s campus. He’s never walked the steps of Academic Hall, labored up Cardiac Hill or cheered for the Redhawks in Houck Stadium; but Southeast is where he completed a lifelong dream.
Fleming will graduate this May magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in technology management 30 years after he graduated from high school.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could fulfill a lifelong dream in spite of all the setbacks in my life,” he said. “I know my diploma will be insignificant to most people, but for me it will be a symbol of perseverance, diligence and sacrifice.”
After he graduated high school in 1986, Fleming joined the U.S. Air Force. During his four-year service, he earned an Associate degree in applied science. In 1990, he retired from the military and spent the next 15 years working as a switch technician for multiple long distance and cellular telephone companies.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family’s home and he transferred with his company to Atlanta, Georgia. Three years later his dream was still calling him. When he realized not all his hard work and credits until then would transfer to any of the local institutions ,he decided to research online degree programs.
Between the demands of work as a telecommunications engineer and family with three children, Fleming needed an online program that would give him the flexibility to achieve his goal without the restrictions of a formal classroom setting.
“I knew I would never be able to attend school as a traditional student working in an industry that requires me to be on-call, put in extraordinary amounts of overtime, work nights, weekends and holidays,” he said.
In his search for the perfect program, he found Southeast Online. Southeast’s history and reputation coupled with the University’s recognition of and credit for his military experience and his prior college coursework, made his decision easy, Fleming said.
“I wanted to earn my degree from an institution that was fully accredited and had a physical presence, as opposed to school that is strictly online,” he said. “When I evaluated cost with flexibility, Southeast came out on top, and I made my decision without any hesitation.”
From 2008 until this spring, Fleming took one or two classes a semester, allowing his class load to be manageable and not intrude on the demands of his career or family. However, pursuing his degree took commitment, self-discipline and diligence, he said.
“You have to be committed to the entire process and understand that success hinges on your ability to plan well,” said Fleming. “Regulate yourself, push forward and be willing to accept the consequences of failing to do so.”
The relationships and respect he developed with his online professors and instructors were important to the success of his journey. No one was more instrumental in helping him achieve his goal than his academic advisor , Amanda Eller.
“She always made me feel as though I was truly a part of the University even though I lived over 500 miles away from the campus,” said Fleming. “I feel as though she took this long journey with me.”
Over the years, Fleming and Eller became good friends, sharing family stories about their kids, their highs and lows of every day life.
“I feel like I know him more than any of my other students, and I haven’t even actually met him,” she said.
Eller says she feels it’s her job to do more than just tell Southeast’s online students which courses to take, but to help guide them on their educational path. Unlike many traditional students, online students like Fleming have more to juggle between families, full-time jobs and class. She tries to connect with every student and take away their worries about school and classes.
“I’d tell her what I needed, and she’d get me on the right path,” said Fleming. “I am indebted to her for all she has done for me.”
Since his first day eight years ago, Fleming was always a good communicator and so appreciative, Eller said, that she’s going to miss him.
“We didn’t get to meet each other, but it’s nice to know more about his background and who he is. I feel like I connected with him and created a great friendship,” she said. “I’m really happy, and so proud for him. He was awesome to work with.”
As his final semester comes to an end, Fleming has a feeling of accomplishment as well as relief.
“It’s been a long journey, but giving up was never an option,” he said. “I am now looking forward to spending more time with my fiancée, Erica, her two sons and my children, as we plan our future together.”
With his oldest son a junior in high school, Fleming is researching colleges again and contemplating a new path.
“I needed to get this degree before he does,” Fleming joked.
He’s been asked many times over the years why he’s so committed to getting his degree even though his professional aspirations are already fulfilled and loves what he does for a living.
“This is something I’ve always wanted,” said Fleming. “I truly hope that my passion will inspire my children to always push forward and fight for the things in their lives that matter most.”