By Roger McKinney
LIBERAL, Mo. —
When Whitlea Ulrich received her Liberal High School diploma from the school board president on Sunday, she wasn’t finished.
She remained on stage as Glenn Coltharp, vice president of academic affairs at Crowder College, handed Ulrich her Crowder diploma.
In doing so, Ulrich, 18, became the first high school student to receive an associate degree from Crowder College upon graduation from high school. She also is the first in her family to have graduated from college.
Oh, and she also was co-salutatorian.
“It’s insane,” Ulrich said by phone on Tuesday. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. Wow. I’m a college graduate.”
Ulrich is pursuing a career as a pharmacist, with plans to attended Pittsburg (Kan.) State University in the fall semester. With the associate’s degree, she has trimmed two years off what is normally an eight-year pharmacy degree program. She said she plans on getting her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at PSU in two years, then going to the University of Missouri-Kansas City for her four-year pharmacy degree.
Ulrich said she started taking the dual-credit courses from Crowder with no thought about it leading to an associate degree. She said Melissa Smith, Crowder’s dual-credit coordinator, audited her hours before her senior year and told her that it would be possible to get her degree.
Ulrich took 40 credit hours of courses from Crowder in her senior year of high school: 20 hours in the first semester and 20 hours in the second semester. She took evening classes, summer classes and online classes to reach her goal.
“It’s crazy,” she said.
She also played softball and was involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Business Leaders of America, served on the yearbook staff and was a member of the Student Council. She said she gave up a lot of her social life. She made time for family, friends and her boyfriend, but she said she didn’t go out every time her friends went out. Instead, she stayed home to study.
“I think they enjoyed high school more than I did,” she said of her friends.
She said she had planned to take her trigonometry homework with her on her senior trip, but family, friends and school officials insisted she leave it at home and have fun.
She said she spent about $5,000 on the 60 hours for her associate degree, at Crowder’s discounted tuition rate for dual-credit courses. She said it’s a big savings in her overall education cost.
Smith said she and Ulrich’s high school counselor worked with Ulrich to help her achieve her goal.
“She has just done an amazing job,” Smith said.
Smith said Ulrich is dedicated.
“She’s just this motivated and studious student,” Smith said.
Liberal High School Principal Keith Robertson said the entire school is happy about Ulrich’s achievement.
“We’re all extremely proud of her,” Robertson said. “Over the course of the past few years, she set a goal for herself and worked diligently to achieve it.”
Robertson said the achievement also is a testament to the work and training of the teaching staff that offer the dual-credit courses at Liberal High School.
Officials with Crowder College and Carthage High School in March announced an agreement that would allow high school students to graduate with an associate degree from Crowder with dual-credit courses. Crowder now has the same agreement with Liberal High School, and Principal Keith Robertson said another student is on track to receive an associate degree next May.