Two Tri-City graduates will don caps and gowns today for the first commencement ceremony for WGU Washington.
And the women never attended a class at the university.
That's because the online university has no classrooms.
Yet Jenny Gatherer, a Richland High School math teacher, and Ruth Melissa, who works for Lockheed Martin at Hanford, have each earned a master's degree from the university.
The nonprofit university, which receives no state funding, was established last year by the state Legislature in partnership with the nationally recognized and accredited Western Governors University.
Gatherer said earning a master's degree in math education was not required for her job, but it was a personal decision.
"I think my students deserve the best educator possible, and I want to be that person," Gatherer said.
Gatherer said she'd checked into other online universities, but most only offered a master's in education, not math education. Then, she discovered WGU Washington while attending the 49th Northwest Math Conference in Spokane.
"I enrolled the next month," she said. "My only other option was to enroll at Central (Washington University), where I earned my bachelor's, for three summers in a row and live on campus," Gatherer said. "This way, there was no travel."
Studying online also has another advantage over a traditional brick-and-mortar university.
"There's no waiting for a class to be offered. When you're ready for a course, the course is ready for you. This way, I was able to complete my master's in one year," Gatherer said.
It took Melissa longer to finish her master's degree in business administration in information technology management. She began working on her degree in 2009 with WGU while living in Salt Lake City. Later that year, when she and her family moved to the Tri-Cities, but Melissa was able to transfer to WGU Washington and completed her degree last year.
"I'm a mother of three, married, work full-time, am active in church and the president of the Southeastern Washington Service Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing," she said. "I could not have finished my degree any other way."
Students with WGU Washington can take as many courses as they can fit into a semester. Tuition is $3,000 per six-month semester -- a fraction of the cost associated with most four-year colleges.
Scholarships also are available. Gatherer received a scholarship from WGU Washington, which shaved a third off her tuition for each term.
WGU Washington has no full-time instructors, but it does employ about 250 full-time faculty members who work as mentors, checking in with students by phone or email every few weeks.
Course work for its four degree programs -- education, information technology, business and health care -- is developed and licensed by outside vendors. Tests can be either monitored via webcam or administered at a learning center such as Sylvan.
"As you approach the end of your degree, you're also assigned a coach who discusses with you just what you want to do in life -- how to use the value of your degree," Melissa said.
Before enrolling in WGU Washington, Melissa said her career mindset was that she'd be happy at almost any job meeting certain minimum requirements.
"Now it's all about doing what I love and picking what I want," Melissa said. "My coach helped me think about picking the right job, one where I fit -- which, for me, is the one I'm doing at Lockheed. I'll just be able to do it better."
For more information on WGU Washington, go to http://washington.wgu.edu.