Some people go back to school later in life to fulfill a dream of earning a college degree, some to be a role model for their children, and still others to facilitate a career change.

All great reasons to enroll in an online degree program. But none of them really apply to Theresa Malky.

The fact is Malky had not planned on starting an online degree program in her early fifties.

A successful career in real estate

Earning her real estate broker's license immediately after high school, Malky enjoyed a successful career in commercial real estate for 25 years.

During that time, she was one of a handful of women who had worked her way to elite levels in the field of real estate investment trusts (REITs). She bought and sold commercial properties, helping build shopping malls and leasing retail space across the country. At one point, Malky was managing 30 deals a month, at 20 different malls, in seven states. She flew on private planes and stayed at luxury hotels. She moved from her home in Pennsylvania, to California and then Florida.

Yet, Malky enrolled in Saint Leo's online psychology program as a first step toward earning a doctorate – and her reason why is powerful in more ways than one.

First, a doctoral degree is a credential she has come to realize is essential to helping her grow the not-for-profit she founded six years ago.

Called The Trinity Equine Ranch, Malky's organization works with families, children, groups and individuals to treat psychological and behavioral problems through a relatively new type of therapy known as equine-assisted psychotherapy.

But even more important than putting her on the path to a Ph.D, Malky believes that earning a bachelor's degree is part of her response to a higher calling for her life.

Responding to God's call

Raised in an Irish Catholic family strongly connected to faith and church, Malky is deeply religious. What started as her mother's way to keep her teenage daughter busy and out of trouble – helping the nuns at her local parish teach Sunday school – became a commitment to service and volunteerism that has remained with her throughout her life.

"I have continued to teach Sunday school ever since I was a teen, and it's the greatest joy of my life," she says, adding that no matter where her career had taken her in the country, she would always head home to be with her class on Sunday mornings.

It was a strong commitment to service, but not enough, she says.

In 2007, she felt a tugging at her heart that wouldn't go away.

"It was a call from God that I kept sending to voicemail," she says with a laugh. "But the Lord is persistent. Slowly, it became clear to me what that call was about. He wanted me to help the neediest in our society – children who have been abandoned, abused and neglected."

Married and living in Tampa at the time, Malky became involved in Guardian Ad Litem, applying the same skills and enthusiasm she had employed in her professional life.

"I dove into it full time," she says. For four years, she managed up to six cases at a time, travelled to Tallahassee to rally on the organization's behalf with state officials, and even helped to start a foundation to increase and support more volunteers.

And then a chance connection with a woman involved in equine-assisted therapy inspired Malky to move in a new direction to serve children.

"The Holy Spirit said it's time to learn about horses and horsemanship," she says.

In her typical style, Malky dove in.

She bought the woman's horses and moved back to Pennsylvania. She started learning equine-assisted therapy through one of the leading equine therapy organizations in the world, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) becoming an EGALA-certified equine specialist. With her husband, she founded Little Shepherd Ranch and recently cleared 25 acres for the organization's permanent home.

The healing power of horses

Unlike traditional closed door therapy sessions, Malky says horse therapy takes place outdoors "in the beauty and splendor" of nature.

And its healing power is real.

"I can't say why it works," says Malky. "I'm just the facilitator. I put children and horses together and it happens."

Malky can tell dozens of stories about the incredible things she has witnessed between horses and children.

She has seen children who won't talk to anyone start whispering to a horse within minutes.

She has watched horses turn and walk away from aggressive people as well as walk up to and nudge those who are withdrawn.

She witnessed horses corral an abused child and, innately knowing which parent is the offender, turn their backsides to him or her.

One time, she saw a horse leave its hay to approach a teenager who refused to remove her hoodie despite 100-degree heat. Even though the girl's injuries were covered, the horse knew she suffered from cutting and remained with her the entire day.

"Horses are majestic creatures," says Malky. "They do not judge, ask or tell. They simply live in and for each moment. They are incredibly intuitive and social animals and they can sense things human beings simply cannot."

Returning to the classroom 30 years later

While the healing properties of being in an animal's presence has been known for a long time, the term equine-facilitated psychotherapy came into existence relatively recently and is still defined as experiential. The EGALA model is based on a team approach consisting of an equine specialist and a mental health professional.

For Malky, even though psychologists often refer clients to her, one of the challenges has been finding licensed psychologists willing to come to the ranch. That's why she decided she would earn the credential herself.

Familiar with Saint Leo and attracted to its Catholic heritage and Benedictine-inspired core values, Malky enrolled in the university's online psychology degree program as the first step toward a Ph.D.

Now just a few terms from completing her bachelor's degree in psychology, Malky may extend her undergraduate studies to add a second major in religion.

Benefits of online learning

For Malky, an online degree program has been an ideal fit for her busy life.

"You'd be foolish to sit in a classroom today," she says referring to numerous advantages of an online degree program. "You can control your own work environment so you can get more done. As you study, you can instantly dip into vast pools of information online to expand on the syllabus and take your learning to whole new levels."

Plus it gives her the time she needs to "wipe runny noses at Sunday school and shovel horse poo."

It's a far cry from elaborate grand openings at malls and luxury hotels.

"But I believe that the only reason we are on this earth is to do what God wants us to do. And this is what He wants me to do."

What is your reason for wanting to earn a college degree?

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Image Credits: Courtesy Theresa Malky; hrnick and cynoclub on Shutterstock