Joint speech program between UNCG, WCU gives students a way to earn their doctorate

Summer McMurry runs a full-time business she started in Asheville in addition to being a wife and mother of three children. Pursuing her doctorate, without a nearby program, wasn’t an option for her –until now.

McMurry is one of three doctoral students comprising the first class in a joint doctoral program in speech communication and disorders between the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Western Carolina University. The program is called the Inter-institutional Distance Education Agreement for Learning and Leadership in Communication Sciences and Disorders, or IDEALL CSD, and is unique in that students take classes from faculty at both campuses, mainly online.

“Getting my Ph.D. was something I always wanted to do once I was established and settled,” said McMurry, who established Carolina Pediatric Therapy 15 years ago and now employs about 100 people who serve 18 counties. “There wasn’t a program that I could connect to. But when I found out about IDEALL, it was a good fit for me. Most of what we do in the program is distance learning, so I’m not traveling to either of the campuses very often.”

Celia Hooper, dean of the School of Health and Sciences at UNCG, said IDEALL came about through conversations between her and her counterpart at Western Carolina, Bill Ogletree.

“We wanted to have a doctoral program, and we wanted to see if anyone had an interest in collaborating,” Ogletree said. “We began discussions with UNCG, but the approval process took seven years. We were approved and admitted the first class in 2015. They began classes that fall and have taken, on average, two courses per term. All three of our students are western North Carolinians, and all three are practicing speech pathologists. I’ve been very pleased and think we have three really bright students.”

Both universities benefit from the partnership. For UNCG, having access to all of the Western Carolina faculty, essentially doubles the size of the department without increases to its budget. Students who graduate from IDEALL will receive their degrees from UNCG.

“Western has outstanding faculty, but they didn’t have a doctoral program and didn’t want to lose these star faculty members because of that,” Hooper said. “To establish a program like this, it takes a lot of cooperation between faculties and registrars and administration. We had a lot of enthusiastic people who didn’t give up.”

The partnership touches on two important aspects to the Board of Governors’ Strategic Plan – access and efficiency. Students like McMurry now have access to a doctoral program through two UNC system campuses and online learning and thus have the option to continue their education. Meanwhile, the universities are able to increase their offerings without any budgetary increases.

“The beauty of the program is that it allows for both campuses’ strengths in terms of offering programs and faculty, and offers us the opportunity to work collaboratively,” Ogletree said. “There’s no reason why you can’t do something differently.”

The two faculties crafted IDEALL to fit in with UNCG’s existing doctoral program, relying more on technology.

Hooper joked that she can understand why students would be hesitant to leave the western part of the state.

“I tease Billy Ogletree all the time,” she said with a laugh. “I tell him ‘there’s something about you mountain people that you never want to move.’  ”

McMurry said she enjoys being part of the first cohort to go through the IDEALL program.

“I like being a pioneer,” said McMurry, who attended Appalachian State University as an undergrad and Western Carolina for her master’s degree. “That’s how I felt when I opened my practice in Asheville – there was no practice in the area before I came along. When I discovered I could take these classes online, it was just really exciting. I’m really getting so much out of the experience. IDEALL is about leadership, and I’m responsible for the development of my staff, so it’s applicable to my work life. I never would have been able to uproot and get my doctorate otherwise.”