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It’s a small world after all

Continents apart, students turn thirst for learning into ‘dynamic’ friendship

Trying to explain the impossible friendship of April Albers, Sarah Benjamin, Jessica Graziano and Emily Sliman is like telling a riddle. It goes something like this:

“Four students walk into a European café. One is from Oregon, one lives in Germany, another is from Alaska and the fourth lives in Amsterdam. They’ve never met before, but they’re best friends. How did they do it?”

Dynamic Beaver Chicks

The self-proclaimed “Dynamic Beaver Chicks” are (from left to right) Jessica Graziano, Emily Sliman, Sarah Benjamin and April Albers. Graziano crocheted the hats in the photo on her flight from Alaska to Germany.

The answer: Oregon State University Ecampus shrank the world, allowing the quartet to combine their collective thirst for education and make their academic experience even more enriching.

Despite being as much as 5,000 miles apart from one another, the four women – all math teachers who call themselves the “Dynamic Beaver Chicks” – formed a close bond as students in OSU’s M.S. in K-12 Science and Mathematics Education online program.

Graziano and Sliman graduated in June, Benjamin completed her studies during summer term and Albers will finish next month and receive her diploma next spring.

On a daily basis, the four women chatted via email, Skype, Blackboard or Google Docs. The conversations mostly were about schoolwork and often deviated into other topics that help turn strangers into friends.

But there was one missing ingredient: They’d never seen one another in person, so they devised a plan to meet in Germany in October to celebrate their academic accomplishments and unlikely friendship. And they already have plans to assemble in Alaska in 2014.

“We have developed a unique ‘community of learners’ approach throughout all of the courses in our program,” said program director and instructor Maggie Niess, who also became close to the foursome. “These ladies clearly were supported by the power of shared knowledge and demonstrated how sharing enhanced their individual knowledge in mathematics education.”

Even though they share common interests, jobs and senses of humor, their experiences as Ecampus students were fairly unique en route to graduation. Here’s a look at how they did it and developed a lifelong friendship at the same time.

April Albers – Oregon City, Oregon

Job: Elementary/middle school math coach
Favorite place to study: The island in my kitchen
Favorite way to interact with classmates: Skype while relaxing in sweats
Biggest study distraction: My kids!
Best escape from classwork: Cycle-touring with the family
Go-to study snack food: Anything chocolate
Strangest place you did homework: The state capitol building where my son was playing in a chess tournament
Most beneficial course to your teaching job: Mathematical discourse elective
Emotion you felt upon graduating: Ask me again in December
One word to describe Jessica: Superwoman
One word to describe Emily: Spontaneous
One word to describe Sarah: Wordsmith-extraordinaire
The Ecampus experience in 10 words or less: Convenient but rigorous
Seven words of encouragement to distance students: Lean on your colleagues and don’t quit!

Sarah Benjamin – Wiesbaden, Germany

Job: Math coach, grades K-5
Favorite place to study: In my study at home early in the morning
Favorite way to interact with classmates: Skype chats and Google Docs, though we had some pretty funny emails too.
Biggest study distraction: My daughter
Best escape from classwork: Travel. I took a trip at the end of every quarter. Skiing in the Alps was a favorite.
Go-to study snack food: Whatever my husband brought me that was edible.
Strangest place you did homework: The lowest moment in graduate school was sitting on top of a dryer in a resort at Disney World studying while everyone else was at the pool.
Most beneficial course to your teaching job: I liked the whole capstone process (all three courses) as they were directly related to action research in my context
Emotion you felt upon graduating: Relief and disbelief!
One word to describe April: Exacting
One word to describe Jessica: Balanced
One word to describe Emily: Straightforward
The Ecampus experience in 10 words or less: Challenging, exhausting, invigorating, thought provoking, complex, individualized, mind-opening, transforming, collaborative, rewarding.
Seven words of encouragement to distance students: Embrace peer review; organize your references; BELIEVE.

Jessica Graziano – Anchorage, Alaska

Job: Middle school math coach
Favorite place to study: Anywhere with a glass of wine or beer.
Favorite way to interact with classmates: Sarah = video and Skype; Emily = IM; and April = email and Skype
Biggest study distraction: Survivor and my beautiful family
Best escape from classwork: Camping, skiing
Go-to study snack food: It’s hard to eat while studying in an online program
Strangest place you did homework: A rustic cabin (no water or electricity) in Girdwood, Alaska. I used a generator to power the computer and always had to submit my papers as soon as I got home.
Most beneficial course to your teaching job: Dynamic Spreadsheets (hence the “Dynamic Beavers”).
Emotion you felt upon graduating: This is what I posted on Facebook: “Finally! I have the signatures to prove my graduate work is complete. Now on to bigger endeavors (or smaller. I do start summer vacation tomorrow.)”
One word to describe Emily: Awesome
One word to describe Sarah: Connector
One word to describe April: Survivor
The Ecampus experience in 10 words or less: Dynamic experience that made me accountable for my own learning.
Seven words of encouragement to distance students: Make friends to talk you off the ledge. (Eight words is close enough, right?)

Emily Sliman – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Job: Math teacher, grades 8-12
Favorite place to study: Le Pain Quotidien (a Belgian cafe chain)
Favorite way to interact with classmates: Over a glass of wine!
Biggest study distraction: Skype
Best escape from classwork: Science fiction
Go-to study snack food: Nuts
Strangest place you did homework: Bangladesh
Most beneficial course to your teaching job: Mathematical Discourse Elective
Emotion you felt upon graduating: Relief
One word to describe Sarah: MamaBeaver
One word to describe April: AdministratorBeaver
One word to describe Jessica: HomesteaderBeaver
The Ecampus experience in 10 words or less: A dynamic, worthwhile community experience that is at times frustrating.
Seven words of encouragement to distance students:
Skype with each other often! Keep going!