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April 3, 2008

Cancer survivor earns degree

When Bill Sparkman earned his teaching degree in February, it wasn’t the usual walk down the aisle to pick up the onion skin. Instead, Sparkman stood in front of his fellow classmates and told his story. What with going back to school at the age of 47, surviving cancer mid-degree and driving through a blizzard to get to the commencement ceremony, Sparkman’s story had the makings of a movie.

In 1993, Sparkman moved to Laurel County as part of an assignment for his job with the Boy Scouts of America. Shortly after arriving, he became a volunteer at Johnson Elementary.

“When I moved here, my son was about to enter elementary school,” he said. “He was having some difficulties.”

Sparkman enjoyed the volunteering and quickly became interested in education. He was eventually offered a position as an instructional assistant, which he accepted.

“For the nine years I did it, I loved it,” he said. “But there were some instructional assistants going back to get their degree to teach.”

Sparkman wanted to do the same but, being a single parent to son Josh, he didn’t think it would be possible.

“If I went to school at night, it would take me forever,” he said. “I also knew that I would have to student teach. I wouldn’t have any income for two or three months.”

In 2004, Sparkman discovered Utah-based Western Governor’s University, an online college that would enable him to study from home. In January 2005, Sparkman took on a part-time position with the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I realized, if I planned accordingly, I could do it,” he said.

Sparkman enrolled in WGU in the summer of 2005. But going to university online presented a unique set of challenges.

“Everything you did you had to write,” Sparkman said. “They score you on your language. Here I was having to write real papers, learn formatting, put together bibliographies. I was scared about that.”

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