By Joe Garvey

Terri White faced challenges on her way to earning her Master of Science Degree (MSED) in Special Education from Old Dominion University's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies. But she persevered, and she credits the faculty for helping her every step of the way.

"To Dr. (Steve) Tonelson, Dr. (Robert) Gable, Dr. (Ann Marie) Horn, Professor (C.J.) Butler and Dr. (Jonna) Bobzien, I thank you immensely for my experience here at Old Dominion University and I am forever grateful to each of you for showing me how to be the best educator to my students!" she wrote in an email to President John R. Broderick, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Austin Agho, Vice Provost and Graduate School Dean Robert Wojtowicz, College of Education and Professional Studies Dean Jane Bray and Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders & Special Education Stacie Raymer.

White, a full-time teacher at Fairfax County Schools, enrolled in the master's program at ODU in the spring of 2019. She planned to graduate in December 2019.

Toward the middle of the spring semester, she and her husband, Jamel, found out she was pregnant with their first child. Her due date was in October.

White let Gable, who taught her first course in the master's program, Effective Interventions for Challenging Behaviors, know about her pregnancy.

"I wasn't sure if my health would affect my completing and submitting assignments," she said. "Therefore, I wanted to be as upfront as possible in case I began to lag. Dr. Gable was nothing but thoughtful and expressed to me his understanding and willingness to work with me. While I didn't need additional time to submit any assignments, I cannot tell you how much Dr. Gable's kindness meant to me."

By the start of the fall semester, though, White's anxiety increased.

"With the stress of teaching, her upcoming delivery and her graduate coursework load, Terri started to become very anxious about taking the MSED comprehensive examination in October," said Bobzien, her advisor and an associate professor communications and special education. "She reached out to me with her concerns in early September and we spent quite a bit of time discussing her options and she left advising feeling 'relieved' that she was back on track."

White also spoke with Horn, who taught Curriculum and Instruction: Research into Practice that semester.

"At this point, I was seven months pregnant and I wanted to ensure that Dr. Horn was aware that I would be giving birth around the time that our midterm was due," White said. "This was important information in case I was unable to submit assignments due around October. Again, another welcoming and warm response that made me feel so much better about proceeding with my education."

However, White was put on bed rest in late September.

"I spoke with her professors, who eagerly agreed to work with her if she needed any assignment or testing extensions," Bobzien said. "Additionally, I worked with Terri to postpone taking the comprehensive exam until as late in the fall 2019 semester as possible to allow her more time to prepare."

White's daughter, Taylor, was born in the last week in September. Shortly thereafter, White and Bobzien agreed that the best option was to postpone taking the MSED exam until this spring.

"Despite all of the uncertainty caused by COVD-19, which increased Terri's anxiety, she successfully completed the SPED MSED comprehensive exam the third week in April," Bobzien said.

The flexibility and help she received from the college's faculty didn't come as a surprise to White. As part of the Commonwealth Special Education Endorsement Program (CSEEP), she had taken Butler's Foundation of Special Education course, making her eligible to start teaching on a provisional license, in 2012. And in the fall of 2018, as she was set to start at Fairfax County Schools, confusion over classes she had taken caused a hang-up in verifying her CSEEP certifications. She contacted Tonnelson, a communication disorders and special education professor who is the grant director of CSEEP.

"Due to Dr. Tonelson's quick reply and prompt assistance, I was able to start my new job in the nick of time," White said. "It was after this positive exchange that I applied to ODU for graduate school."

Bray praised the faculty who worked with White.

"They represent many of the reasons why this program is a good one for our University as well as for those we serve in our surrounding communities," Bray said.

This month White gets her degree, even if it's a little later than planned.

"Overall, she represents a student who truly persevered to finish her degree even when faced with major life challenges and blessings," Bobzien said.

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