Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Ngozika Ughanze of Abilene, Texas, is congratulated after the graduationceremony for Western Governors University held at Abravanel Hall Saturday.

After years of using the library computer to access her online course work, a 44-year-old mother of seven received a bachelor's degree in elementary education Saturday.

Ngozika Ughanze of Texas migrated from Nigeria with her husband to America in 1997 "to get our own piece of the cake," she said. "I believe if you work hard, then you are able to live here."

She was primarily after a formal education for herself and for her children because her father instilled in her at a young age the importance of learning. During a time when only males were heading to school, Ughanze's father sent all 10 of his children to school to learn English in Nigeria, including the girls.

"I have continued in the vision my parents had for me to obtain an education," she said. "The more I learn, the more I want to learn."

Finding the time to accomplish her dreams of a college education and becoming a teacher, however, was difficult. She said she had to give up some of her favorite things, including television and shopping, but she also used a lot of family time to study with her children, three of whom are attending college as well.

Ughanze's story of commitment and time management in order to achieve a degree in higher education mimics that of many of Saturday's 420 graduates of Western Governors University — an accredited online, competency-based university founded in Salt Lake City. Nearly 90 graduates were in attendance at Abravanel Hall, representing 29 states. In all, WGU's summer graduates hailed from 42 states and two countries. The average age of Saturday's graduates was 38, with the youngest being 21 and the oldest 63.

Keynote speaker Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., told them to keep on the path of achievement by continuously updating a list of 100 things to do.

"This list will heighten your reception of opportunities in life," he said. Receiving a university degree, he said, marks the beginning of a new adventure. "You have laid the groundwork for a great life, and you are to be congratulated."

WGU President Bob Mendenhall emphasized that the university's students have to demonstrate competency to achieve a degree, which means that even though the online participants can "do their homework in their jammies," they still have to adhere to rigorous course work, report to a mentor and follow community message boards on their own in order to finish.

In addition to Ughanze, three other students spoke of their troubles and triumphs while pursuing their degrees. Randy Potts of Herriman told the crowd that the end result was worth everything he put into achieving it, while Texan Joy Pendleton said, "If I can do it, anyone can."

Speaker Lori Williamson, of Memphis, Tenn., encouraged fellow graduates to go out into the world and use their hard-earned gifts and talents for good.

"Let us imagine, dream and believe in the hope for tomorrow," she said.

For most non-traditional students, like Ughanze and Williamson, who has a husband and young son at home, WGU's online course offerings fit nicely into their busy schedule. Ughanze said it was the only option for her if she wanted to accomplish her goals of getting a degree.

A typical day for her included raising seven children between the ages of 4 and 21, working two jobs, selling Avon out of her home, and the additional responsibilities of maintaining a home. In the midst of all that, Ughanze was also required to relocate her home and family four times within Texas in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

"It was not easy and I had to remind myself that a better job, an improved financial situation for my family and a better me awaits at the end of the tunnel," Ughanze said. She has accepted a job with the school district in Texas where she completed her student teaching experience.

Next year, she plans to return to WGU to complete a master's degree and after that will consider obtaining a doctorate.

The private, non-profit university was founded and is supported by 19 governors and several leading corporations and foundations. The school offers degree programs in business, information technology, teacher education and health care.