From Underground To the Top of the World

When Mackington Joseph came to New Jersey in 2000 he carried a bachelor’s degree in economics from his native Haiti, but no grasp at all on the English language — he grew up speaking French and learned English from the radio and watching the news.

So how did an immigrant, working as a valet and unable to fully communicate, get to be an engineering teacher at Mercer County Community College and a trainer of engineering technicians for PSE&G in less than eight years? Easy — he started at ground level.

Actually, he started below ground level. Despite a rudimentary grasp of English, Joseph was a natural at math and science. He enrolled in Mercer’s electrical engineering program and soon landed a paid internship with PSE&G’s ground crew. There he laid cable while he finished his associate’s degree in electrical engineering and then a second in energy and utilities technology. Before long he was helping teach crewmen to do the job.

Joseph enrolled in NJIT’s electrical engineering degree program only to find the commute from Trenton to Newark, on top of his job, was just too much. An advisor at PSE&G suggested Thomas Edison State College. Joseph soon signed up — and was immediately jarred by the process of online learning. “I was afraid in my first term,” Joseph says. Computerized distance learning was as foreign to him as anything he had encountered since leaving Haiti to join his father — who himself had been here for 25 years. He wanted to meet his safety management instructor in person. The teacher was more than happy to do so — except that he was in India.

But Joseph adapted quickly to the virtual environment. “It’s as close as you can get to face-to-face instruction,” he says. Soon he found he preferred distance learning because his mentors made themselves available to him at all hours (one called him back after her 10 p.m. shower) and because it forced him to understand an important paradox — though the school and its instructors were there for him, Joseph was largely on his own.

“My first term was hard,” Joseph says. “It takes a lot of self- discipline. You think you can just get to it later, but then you realize, ‘Oh, my God, I really have to do this.’”

With increasing familiarity of the online world came a second paradox he wasn’t expecting. “When you’re going to school you find that the more you learn the more you feel weak in other areas,” he says. Simply plowing through what comes easy does not remain an option. He had to put his head down and do everything he could to get the most out of his education.

With a lot of self-discipline and some guidance from PSE&G Joseph completed his bachelor’s degree from TESC in 2007. He is now in charge of training all of PSE&G’s engineering technicians and is an adjunct professor of engineering at Mercer, where he also serves on the department’s advisory committee. He is already taking courses for an engineering master’s through TESC because, he says, “I’m just warming up.”

Joseph says his immersion in college here and his experience as a trainer have given him a taste for teaching, which he now wants to make his career. A goal is to be a mentor at TESC so that he might help others longing to better themselves. Part of his decision is rooted in a strong appreciation for opportunities he has found in America. Remember, in Haiti he had an economics degree but could do little with it. “It’s hard to find work in Haiti,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who are willing to help you because they’re afraid you know more than they do. Here it is so much better. There is just so much that is pretty much given away. You have to take it.”

Distance Education: An Editor’s Story

I left college in 1991 after two years of studying criminal justice. I didn’t return for six-and-a-half years. When I did go back I followed the traditional path — back to a classroom full of people, desks, chalk, and blackboards. I resumed my studies at Mercer County Community College, chasing a degree in communications with hopes of being in journalism. But I knew that though it was a valuable start, I could not get a bachelor’s degree here.

By 2000 I had finished my associates degree. Thanks to changing majors I had numerous liberal arts credits to transfer to a four-year school. I just didn’t know where to go. Now in my late-20s and married, I no longer had the luxury of living rent-free at home without a job. Time and money were tight and the dream of finishing college was becoming a sick joke.

I stumbled across Thomas Edison State College in my travels through a Peterson’s guide. TESC appealed to me because I could afford it and because I could earn a college degree — a real one — from home while I tended to the business of being a married man with a full-time job making $6.50 an hour. I transferred as many credits as I could and took distance courses in every semester over the following 20 months. I earned my bachelor’s in humanities in the last week of 2001 and finally started my career in journalism.

Even after the death of the Analog Age, distance learning for me involved a lot of mail. Course materials were recorded on videotape; assignments were written on actual paper. Online learning was just beginning its stride. I stayed in touch with my teachers through E-mail, but that was about it. I didn’t get to experience what is happening with online learning right now — and I’m a little jealous.

In researching distance education for this edition I was delighted to discover how much things have changed. Not just in how distance learning is conducted — although it is staggering to realize that technology allows students to stay connected with education literally as it evolves — but in how vital a component it is now.

Distance education is allowing working family people to maintain their lives precisely as they are trying to better them. And it is becoming less important to concentrate on where we learn than on what we learn.

Distance education has been good to me — and to my paycheck. But like the army, I’m not sure it’s for everyone. Distance learning is a demanding mistress and no amount of technological wizardry will change that. It takes an huge amount of self-motivation and self-discipline.

I am an independent sort who does best when left to himself and still I was shocked to find how tough it distance learning is. My teachers were always there if I needed them, but by and large, what I learned was all up to me. I think it made me a better learner. It certainly prepared me for life in the real world, where no one is going to hold your hand.

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