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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell gives the commencement address at the Western Governors University summer commencement ceremony at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 12, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gena Brower is the first member of her large, extended family to get a college degree.

And she did it at age 45, while working full-time and as a single mother to three disabled children.

"She's so awesome," said her 22-year-old son Kyle, who is blind. He recalls trying to help his mom with homework during the past six years she was enrolled at Western Governors University and realizing her math assignments were "way over my head."

"It's just incredible what she's done," said Brower's sister-in-law, Laura Bird, of Ogden. "And she's an incredible mother. It's awesome. I'm so proud of her. She inspires me."

Interestingly enough, Brower is not a non-traditional exception to the rule. She's one of hundreds, if not thousands of working, parenting, and otherwise incredibly busy self-motivated students who became part of WGU's nationwide alumni on Saturday.

During its summer commencement ceremony, the online, competency-based institution conferred 5,541 bachelor's and master's degrees. About 850 of them — hailing from 45 states — were delivered in-person at the Energy Solutions Arena and others watched online via live webcast.

"The competencies and knowledge developed and displayed here today promise an exciting future," said United States Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell, WGU's commencement speaker. He called the new grads "pioneers … someone who goes ahead into uncharted territory and prepares the way for others to follow."

"The pioneer spirit — that urge to meet and master the tremendous challenges and opportunities in our world — that's always been a part of our American character," Mitchell said, adding that their work will take them places they couldn't have gone before.

"These are times of tremendous opportunity," he told the graduating class and thousands of spectating family and friends. "Every American needs some form of post-secondary education to thrive."

After being made undersecretary of education in May, Mitchell chose WGU from a flurry of commencement invitations.

"I thought it would be very important for me to make a symbolic statement with some of my 'firsts,'" he told about 1,000 WGU faculty and staff on Friday afternoon. "I thought about where I should give my first commencement address, and it was a pretty easy decision. This is the right place for me to be."

As undersecretary of education, Mitchell oversees policies and programs for postsecondary education; adult, career and technical education; and federal student aid, as well as White House initiatives focused on minority students.

Mitchell called WGU a "heroic performer" when it comes to President Barack Obama's focus on making college accessible and affordable, providing alternatives to highly structured, traditional postsecondary education.

"It's high time we disrupt the model, it's high time we break the rules, and that's what you're doing here," he said.

The latest class of graduates joins more than 36,000 Americans who have completed online courses at their own pace in the 17 years that WGU has been in existence.

"I think the first several graduation ceremonies were held in the back yard at the governor's mansion," WGU President Robert Mendenhall recalled.

He said WGU is now the 17th largest university in the country.

The average age of Saturday's graduates is 39, with the youngest being 20 and the oldest, 75 years old, according to Mendenhall. He said 40 percent of the degrees conferred went to first-generation graduates, who had an average completion time of about two years, six months for an undergraduate degree, and one year, 10 months for a graduate degree.

Mitchell said the experiences and memories of WGU students are likely "radically different" than those of students attending traditional "brick and mortar" higher education institutions, but no less valuable.

WGU offers courses in business, health professions, information technology and teacher education. It was founded by 19 governors of western states, led by Utah's then-governor, Mike Leavitt. The school is based in Salt Lake City, but enrolls more than 46,000 students from across the country.

The school doesn't boast a campus of multiple buildings, doesn't have a football team or dining hall, but Mitchell told students that WGU is one of the only universities in the country that has figured out how to serve students who are employed full-time, live in rural areas or are minorities, or are first-generation college students.

WGU, he said, has also been "innovative" with the cost of higher education. The school charges a flat rate — less than $3,000 — for each 6-month term.

"This is the future," Mitchell said. He encouraged graduates to push others to participate in higher education.

"Your success is a powerful example of what is possible," he said. "May there be no boundaries to your achievement and no limits to your dreams. You are pioneers of the 21st Century."