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Millcreek Journal

Herriman maternity nurse honored as Western Governors University’s 300,000th graduate

Feb 03, 2023 10:07AM ● By Peri Kinder

Western Governors University recognized its 300,000th graduate at a celebration in January. The school was founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors to offer affordable higher education in all 50 states. (Photo courtesy of WGU)

When Ashley Rawlins graduated from Western Governors University in November, with a master’s degree in informatics, she was part of a cohort that included the university’s 300,000th graduate. 

WGU held a celebration in January, recognizing the 300,000 students who have received degrees at the school since its inception in 1997. The school’s mission is to expand access to quality, affordable higher education through online courses. It was founded by 19 U.S. governors and has students in all 50 states.

“Initially I got a nursing degree from WGU and because I enjoyed it so much, I went back to get my master’s in informatics,” Rawlins said. “I’d looked into WGU initially because they had the flex model where it was one of those things where you could go at your own pace. I could still be present with my kids while studying.”

Not only did the Herriman maternity nurse earn her master’s degree, but she’d given birth to her third child in September, just a couple of months before she completed her program. 

Ismar Vallecillos, WGU director of regional operations, said Rawlins is exactly the type of student the university attracts. Women make up nearly 70% of the student population at WGU and one-third of graduates earn degrees in the health industry. 

“The graduate we highlighted was a woman,” Vallecillos said. “She showed up with her 4-month-old baby. She completed her master’s while pregnant with her son. She was the example of why this works. These are career women who are supporting their households. Some of them are single and some of them aren’t but the idea is they have family obligations along with work obligations. On top of that, they’re trying to get their education. The flexibility of WGU is really inviting to a lot of these women so they don’t have to stop their lives to finish their careers.”

Reaching 300,000 graduates has been no small feat for the university that has only existed for 25 years. Vallecillos said the milestone demonstrates the need for flexible, affordable, online programs that help students achieve educational goals without the added stress of attending in-person classes.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a monumental shift in how education used online learning. Traditional enrollment for WGU used to be working adults in their mid-30s, looking to upscale or shift careers. But now, the school is seeing a trend of 18- to 24-year-olds choosing online classes over traditional education, with close to a 300% enrollment increase for that age group.

“Put together with our cultural belief of one-by-one, that’s 300,000 individual lives that have been able to change their finances or their careers through education,” Vallecillos said. “I think we’re part of the solution.”

Rawlins, who works at Riverton Hospital-Intermountain Healthcare, said the online classes were perfect for her schedule, plus her ADHD made it difficult to pay attention during in-person classes.

“Sitting in a class for two or three hours was excruciatingly difficult. Western Governors was great for me because I could focus and learn in the way I’m used to. That’s why I went back for my master’s.”

Of the 300,000 graduates of WGU, 37% are first generation, 28% are ethnically diverse and 69% are female. Learn more about the university at 

“You are capable of doing anything and everything,” Rawlins said. “Western Governors is definitely a way to pursue that. If you put your mind to something, you can accomplish it. No matter how hard it seems.”