After starting and stopping his college journey twice, Brazilian immigrant and working father achieves success with a Saint Leo online degree program.
It's more common than most adult college students think.
You start taking courses toward a college degree either right out of high school or soon after, but life intervenes. You place the degree on hold so you can put other priorities first –work or maybe caring for a growing family.
After a few years, the time seems right and you go back. You take a few courses with the best of intentions. But a family member becomes ill, your job too demanding, or your spouse's duty station changes, and you're forced to postpone the degree once again.
Before you know it, you've attended multiple colleges or taken courses in more than one major.
The story of Gus Felipak's educational journey has a similar theme.
From São Paulo to Saint Leo
A native of São Paulo, Brazil, Gus Felipak immigrated to the United States when he was 16.
After finishing high school in New York, he attended a state university for two years. When he moved to Florida, he attended another university for three years, studying communications, advertising and French, but did not complete the degree program.
Family life intervened for the next decade or so. Gus married and his family grew. During this time, he worked in customer relations for a sales and marketing company. Five years ago, Gus took a job in the Human Resources Department at Coca-Cola where he works as an HR advisor handling employee concerns and serving as a point-of-contact for external individuals, companies and governmental agencies.
Always wanting to complete what he had started, in 2013, Gus learned about Saint Leo's online degree programs. He started back to college a third time.
And this time, the story has an ending – a happy ending – when Gus comes to University Campus to participate in the Center for Online Learning's commencement ceremonies.
"My online experience with Saint Leo has taught me that it does not matter when someone initiates something as long as that person pushes through and arrives at whatever goal was set," says Gus. "Even if there are delays in the process, it honestly does not matter."
Here Gus shares details about his journey to a bachelor's degree in psychology and what the online learning experience was like.
Why was completing a degree important to you?
Gus: Getting a college degree means the completion of a journey. For years, God's "still and small voice" would constantly remind me that there was something missing. No, I did not need to have a college degree to make me who I am nor to make me feel better about myself; yet, if I decided to go back to school and get my bachelor's, I would show and prove to myself that—in spite of all the difficulties and obstacles—I can do anything in the Lord that strengthens me.
Why was an online program the right fit?
Gus: After deciding that I would go back to school, I needed to choose a program and a school that fit my life and my needs. Because of physical difficulties, I started with the premise that the classes had to be online. In addition, I was working full-time and, thus, it would not be very easy for me to go to a campus. With the convenience of being able to take classes from anywhere in the world, it wasn't a hard decision at all to choose an online program.
Why did you choose Saint Leo University?
Gus: The years I procrastinated before returning to school were partly due to, frankly, not knowing what I wanted to study. I had already been working at Coca-Cola in human resources for two years and I really enjoyed what I was doing; plus, I had exceled at it, was promoted in a short period of time, and received constant recognition for doing my job well. So I decided that I would study human resource management. I searched online for the best online human resources management programs and came across an article from "U.S. News & World Report" putting Saint Leo's program as one of the best in the country; I applied immediately.
Why did you switch to psychology?
Gus: I initially enrolled into the online human resource management program; however, I saw that the online psychology degree would be applicable in human resources as well. Corroborating my decision, I remembered taking (back at State University of New York) a sports psychology course and becoming fascinated with the subject.
How would you describe the learning experience?
Gus: Ask my parents and they both would tell you that I love the Internet. From the early years of this technological advancement, I was there: Windows 3.1, AOL, Netscape, ICQ, rudimentary chat rooms — all on dial-up and pay-per-minute connections. Therefore, it was a no-brainer for me to go to school online; computers have always been my friend and I theirs.
With that said, however, I had never had the experience of studying online. I remember my initial classes and logging in the first time: I felt overwhelmed with all of the icons, links, and the information on the screen. In truth, it was not so bad after I started clicking on everything to learn what each area was designated for.
Was there any sense of community online?
Gus: Through the years, I have seen some of the same students in certain classes that I take. Personally, I have not met them, but because of the constant (virtual) interaction, I feel like I know some of them as if we were in a real brick-and-mortar classroom, notably because the weekly discussions encourage amicable conversations and exchange of ideas.
I can't wait until the graduation ceremony to meet some of the classmates and staff at Saint Leo, especially my advisor— Veronika Meyer—who has been instrumental in my success.
Who supported and inspired you to reach your goal?
Gus: God and my Savior Jesus Christ were my number one supporters, and to Him goes all the glory, first and foremost. My parents, my sisters, my wife and my daughters were also critical in their involvement. On certain weekends, the daddy, the son, the brother, and the husband was just not "there" at all; he was confined to a room, studying or taking tests until late hours of the night or early hours of the following day. To them, I say thank you very much.
I also am very appreciative of all of the support I received from each and every Saint Leo professor along with the staff members I got the pleasure to (virtually) meet.
What did you learn about yourself from this experience?
Gus: I learned that—with God—there is no impossible. Certainly, it was not always easy, fun, and celebration, but I demonstrated to myself that when I put my faith, my determination, and my desire together, I can achieve everything. I wish I would have come to this realization a lot earlier in life; however, with God, there are no mistakes and His timing is perfect.
What advice do you have for someone considering an online program?
Gus: An online degree program is demanding and rewarding at the same time. It provides the opportunity and the comfort of studying anywhere and whenever you want, but with these perks also come great personal responsibility and diligence. Since it is the student who picks when he or she will study, and for how long, it takes self-determination and plenty of motivation to "keep the energy going. " Time management is key also, especially if you have a "life" — work, family, and other things going on all at the same time.
What was your proudest moment?
Gus: My proudest moment was when I received an email from my counselor with graduation information. I felt proud of myself for not giving up! All the hard work and the effort paid off, indeed. Moreover, because of my dedication, I made the Dean's List and was invited to join the Internal Honor Society in Psychology (Psi Chi) — finishing up on the 92 percentile grade (or higher) will be icing on the cake.
Image credits: Renee Gerstein, Saint Leo University Communications and courtesy Gus Felipak