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The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has three campuses—all within a stretch of about 40 miles in north-central Wisconsin. But its reach is truly worldwide.

Consider the small town of San Pedro, located on an island off the east coast of mainland Belize. This month, a group of five students completed a six-year program to earn bachelor’s degrees in education from UW Oshkosh.

The five students—Ingri Aguirre, Amanda Burgos, Viani Carrillo, Estephany Pott and Yareli Tzul—celebrated their landmark achievement with a commencement ceremony June 11, featuring some University faculty who helped make it all happen.

The students, all citizens of Belize who’ve never visited the U.S., made up a single cohort that progressed through an online program launched in spring 2016. Made possible by a single generous donor, the program had the teachers set up to work at Ambergris Caye Elementary School, the only school in the country that practices full inclusion of all students with and without disabilities. The program focused on inclusive education.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to support inclusive practice anywhere in the world, so we put our heads together and developed this program,” said Stacey Skoning, chair of the special and early childhood education department. “It started as professional development opportunities, built into classes to provide some college credits and support, then became a bachelor’s degree program.”

Ingri Aguirre, now a UWO graduate, with students at Ambergris Caye Elementary School in Belize.

Earning these degrees is likely to lift the teachers above the poverty line, Skoning said. Even getting an opportunity to enroll in the program was a rare opportunity. Aside from an online program like UWO offered, students in Belize would have to leave their island of Ambergris Caye to study education. And for many, that’s not feasible.

“These women come from backgrounds of poverty and abuse, most were single mothers at some point in their lives and they had been told repeatedly that they could not do something like this,” Skoning said. “To see them all accomplish their degree program with us—and all with honors—to know what it took to get to this point, to see the pride in themselves and their family members, I just don’t have the words to describe it.”

Burgos, who became the principal at the elementary school in 2014, said the journey to her bachelor’s degree was long and challenging.

“This was an amazing feeling,” she said. “It was exciting and very emotional at the same time. … This program has made a big impact on my life and my job. I have gained so much knowledge from UWO and applied it in my school.”

Burgos and her fellow graduates will be able to provide professional development for teachers in their schools and likely beyond. They’ll also help colleagues adapt to the school’s culture and the inclusive climate. Burgos also said she is looking forward to being able to improve the school’s curriculum.

As an indicator of the obstacles in front of many of these students, when the cohort began in 2016 there were 11 students taking part. By the end these five remained. With the unique nature of the program, University faculty had to work with the Ministry of Education in Belize to create a clear pathway to licensing requirements as the students were progressing. The pandemic then hit and created a few bumps along the way.

Skoning traveled to Belize for the commencement celebration and was joined by College of Education and Human Services Dean Linda Haling, special and early childhood education professor Tom Fischer, and special and early childhood education department administrative assistant Becky Thorson-Randall. A small commencement ceremony was put on for the graduates at a San Pedro resort, complete with caps and gowns, black and gold décor and Haling handing out diplomas. The group also gathered for dinner after.

“Conducting a commencement ceremony in Belize for the teachers and their families was a genuine way to acknowledge the dedication and hard work it took from each of them to earn their degree,” Haling said. “It was a true pleasure to be able to celebrate their accomplishment and welcome them in person to the Titan family. Our hope is to find a way to continue this programming in Belize.”

“The pride I saw on their faces and those of their families, to have mothers come and ask us to take pictures with them too because they have never met university professors before, I guess that is part of why it was so important to give them this kind of commencement opportunity,” Skoning said. “ … We included all the pomp and circumstance that we always do on campus and gave them what they deserved.”

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