When Memphis, Tenn., resident Sharon Flake received her long-anticipated bachelor’s degree in business management from WGU Tennessee this August, it represented a number of victories. The achievement of a promise made to herself and her family. The culmination of an educational and emotional journey that tested the limits of her strength and determination. What she did not know at the time, however, was that it also represented another monumental milestone: 6,000 graduates for WGU Tennessee.
WGU Tennessee opened its doors in 2013 with the mission of expanding access to higher education across the state of Tennessee, particularly for working adults. In the seven years since, the nonprofit, online university has established itself as a leader in digital learning, arming students with the skills and flexibility essential to earning a degree and achieving their educational goals.
When Sharon first set out to earn her degree, she was unfamiliar with the basics of how to operate a computer—an atypical start for students of online universities, but emblematic of Sharon’s drive. The 54-year-old mother of two had been caring full time for her ill mother and sister with a mental disability and visual impairment. She had earned an associate degree from National College in Memphis, Tenn., but knew that she needed a bachelor’s degree in order to maintain a career. On the guidance of a friend, Sharon opted to enroll in WGU’s business management program.
“At first I thought there was no way I could do online school,” Sharon said. “But I’ve always wanted to finish my degree, and my mentor said that I could do anything I put my mind to.”
With WGU’s schedule flexibility and credential-based curriculum, Sharon soon adapted to digital learning. But a wave of hardship nearly stopped her educational career as soon as it started. Over the course of two years, Sharon tragically lost her son, her stepfather, her nephew, and her best friend. Stricken with grief but determined to finish her degree, Sharon took some time off, but leaned on her mentor and leveraged the resources of WGU WellConnect’s counseling center to stay afloat and ultimately return to her education.
“It was like my whole world was ending. Everything went downhill, but my mentor was so encouraging and supportive,” Sharon said. “I’m so grateful to her because she kept me going and introduced me to WellConnect’s counseling resources, which have been amazing.”
Unfortunately, there were still obstacles in store for Sharon. This year, she temporarily assumed the role of caretaker for her grandchildren, around the time of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unique circumstances brought unprecedented challenges for students across the country, and Sharon and her family were no exception. Suddenly, finishing her education meant more than earning a degree. It meant inspiring her grandchildren to persevere through and finish their own educations amid rocky circumstances.
“The online courses take more,” Sharon said. “My grandkids have seen me through the bad things, so I wanted them to see me do the good things and be a positive influence.”
“I feel so overwhelmed and so blessed. Everything I’ve gone through has taught me that there are people who want to see you do well.”
When Sharon was set to start her final capstone, she began ongoing testing for a lung cancer scare—at the same time that her existing financial aid expired. Fortunately, her mentor was at Sharon’s side. She worked with WGU’s scholarship team to identify a form of aid for which Sharon qualified. When Sharon’s scholarship came through, it was adorned with a single note from WGU: “Make us proud.”
“I feel so overwhelmed and so blessed,” Sharon said. “Everything I’ve gone through has taught me that there are people who want to see you do well.”
Sharon fulfilled her promise, acing her capstone and graduating this fall, at the same time as her granddaughter’s graduation from high school. She now works remotely in Dick’s Sporting Goods’ customer service department and is on the fast track for a management position—an opportunity that would not have been possible without her bachelor’s degree. Ever the warrior, Sharon has set her sights on the next goal—a master’s degree. Obstacles may come and go; but her unparalleled passion, coupled with WGU’s emphasis on student success, makes her nearly unstoppable.
“When I pursue my master’s degree, I know that it’ll be at WGU,” Sharon said. “I’m doing things that I never dreamed I could do.”
In seven years, WGU Tennessee has made a difference for students across the state, providing high-quality educational access for 6,000 graduates—and counting. Ultimately, Sharon’s story was representative of the WGU Tennessee experience. As the university’s 6,000th graduate, she faced trials that were unique; but her result was the same as those that came before her: a degree and a life transformed.