Famous Distance Learners

Famous Distance Learners
Beth Dumbauld

To succeed at distance learning, you need to be self-motivated and highly disciplined. Many distance learners are taking college courses online at the same time that they are doing something else, and in the case of the famous distance learners below, doing that something else incredibly well.

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The Director: Steven Spielberg

Director of over 50 movies and TV shows. Screenwriter. Producer. Video Game designer. Co-Founder of the DreamWorks movie studio. Founder of Amblin Entertainment. Founder of The Starbrite Foundation (now the Starlight Children’s Foundation). Founder of The Shoah Foundation. 2-Time Academy Award Winner for Best Director (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). Three of his movies set box office records (Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park) and the worldwide, unadjusted gross of films he directed exceeds $8.5 billion worldwide.

He has won over 120 awards and been nominated for 79 more. He’s been knighted in England, France and Italy, awarded the Order of Merit by Germany, and received the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service and the Liberty Medal here in the U.S. He even received honorary degrees from Brown University and Boston University.

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But did you know that in 1968 he dropped out of California State University Long Beach to concentrate on making movies? It wasn’t until 2002 that Spielberg finally graduated from CSULB, with a BA in Film Production and Electronic Arts, after completing his remaining requirements via independent projects and distance learning courses. The school graciously waived the requirement that film majors must submit a completed 12-minute short film, accepting Schindler’s List in its place.

The Center: Shaquille O’Neal

One of the greatest basketball players of all time. 4 NBA Championship rings. 2 Olympic Gold Medals. Rookie of the Year in 1992-93. 2 scoring titles, 15 All-Star game selections, 3 All-Star Game MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, 14 All-NBA Selections. A rap music star with 5 studio albums, one of them Platinum. Star of 2 reality TV shows. Mixed Martial Artist. Graduate of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy and Reserve Police Officer in both the Los Angeles Port Police and Miami Beach, credited with 2 arrests.

When Shaq dropped out of Louisiana State his junior year to play in the NBA, he promised his mother that he would return one day to finish his degree. And he did exactly that, earning his BA through distance learning courses at LSU in 2000. (Phil Jackson let him miss a Lakers home game to attend his graduation.) Then he went on to earn his MBA through online courses at University of Phoenix in 2005. He later undertook a PhD in Leadership and Education at Barry University.

Retired Chief Cyber Spook: Howard A Schmidt

3 tours of duty in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Police Officer (SWAT Team). Supervisory Special Agent and Director of Air Force Office of Special Investigations Computer Forensic Lab and Computer Crime and Information Warfare Division. Special Agent, Criminal Investigation Division, US Army Reserves. Director of Information Security, Chief Information Security Officer and Chief Security Officer of Microsoft. Appointed by President Bush as Special Advisor for Cyberspace Security for The White House after 9/11. Retired from public service to become VP Chief Information Security Officer and Chief Security Strategist for eBay. Called back after retirement by President Obama to serve as Cyber-Security Coordinator of the Obama Administration, part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Schmidt has taught courses for the FBI and the DEA. He is a professor of research at Idaho State University, adjunct distinguished fellow with Carnegie Mellon's CyLab, and professor of practice at the Georgia Institute of Technology's GTISC. And where did he get his degrees? He got his BS Business Administration in 1994 and his Master of Arts in Organizational Management from University of Phoenix, both while running the Computer Exploitation Team at the FBI’s National Drug Intelligence Center.

Hollywood’s Renaissance Man: James Franco

If anyone on our list seems to fit the negative perception some have of distance learners, it’s James Franco. He’s had his brushes with the law and admitted to drug use. He dropped out of UCLA after his freshman year rather than wait 2 years to audition for the prestigious UCLA acting program.

And what about Franco’s education? In 2006 Franco re-enrolled at UCLA, getting special permission to take up to 62 credits per quarter (compared to the normal limit of 19) and received his BA in 2008. He then attended grad school at both Columbia (MFA Writing Program), NYU Tisch School of the Arts (Filmmaking), and Brooklyn College (Fiction Writing). He’s also attending Warren Wilson College in North Carolina (Poetry). Oh yea, and he’s studying for his Ph.D. in English at Yale University.

Just how, you may wonder, has he managed to rack up the diplomas while simultaneously appearing in 32 movies and short films, writing books and hosting the Oscars? How else? He completed his BA at UCLA with online classes and his Masters at Columbia in 2010 via their Distance Learning Program.

Before Distance Learning, There Was Correspondence School

Long before the existence of the Internet, people did their distance learning through correspondence schools. And although correspondence schools were universally regarded as even less desirable than today’s online education providers, the reality is that correspondence schools had a few illustrious graduates of their own:

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Walter Cronkite (former CBS News Anchor)
  • Walter P. Chrysler (Founder of Chrysler Motors)
  • Senator Barry Goldwater
  • Captain Eddie Rickenbacker (WWI Ace and founder of Eastern Airlines)
  • Cartoonist Charles Schultz (Peanuts)
  • South African President Nelson Mandela
  • Playwright Clifford Odets

Distance Learning Is Not for Everyone

Of course distance learning has had its share of people who didn’t make it. People who underestimated the rigor of distance learning. It turns out that quite the opposite is true: distance learning is for highly motivated individuals who are prepared to use the right resources at the right time to affordably, and flexibly, earn their degree.

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