As the very first graduate of Berklee Online, Larry Oppenheimer didn’t have to think twice about whether he wanted to walk in the 2015 Commencement ceremony at the Boston campus of Berklee College of Music.
“They asked me if I wanted to walk, and I said, ‘Are you kidding? It’s been 41 years since I started school!’ And my 82-year-old mom flew to Boston, because she paid for all this damn schooling just about,” he says, “and they actually called her out from the stage, so that was worth it.”
Larry, who goes professionally by the moniker of Larry the O, was not only Berklee Online’s first graduate, but he was also the first former student of the Boston campus to return and finish a degree through Berklee Online. This is an accelerating trend which has led Berklee College of Music and Berklee Online to create an official Alumni Degree Completion Program, with academic advisors specifically assigned to guide students through the challenges of coming back to Berklee after an absence.
Of the 1,154 students who walked in the 2019 Commencement Ceremony, 15 were Berklee Online degree completion students and 16 were campus degree completion students.
The details of these graduates’ stories vary, as do the reasons they chose to leave Berklee, but what unites them all is an overwhelming sense of inspiration.
Sheri Alexander has a particularly touching tale. She was diagnosed with systemic lupus while going to school in the mid 1970s, and had to withdraw due to her treatment cycle.
“I was really sick,” she says now. “I mean, I couldn’t function. I had kidney disease. … and I was so terribly ill that I had a fever of about 106 and if that doctor hadn’t seen me that day, I would’ve died.”
Sheri started performing after dropping out of school, and adopted the rationale that since she didn’t need a degree to perform, that would work. Then she started teaching guitar at a private school about 15 years ago.
“I always had on my resumé that I went to Berklee College of Music from ’75 to ’79,” she says, “but I could never say I have a bachelor’s degree from Berklee College of Music. It just said, ‘attended Berklee College of Music’ … I wanted it to really mean something.”
Sheri found the program, talked to an advisor about completing her degree, found out the courses she needed to take to earn her degree, and a short while later she was walking across the stage of the 2019 Commencement, at the age of 62.
“It was interesting because I did participate in Commencement in 1979, that’s how close I was! I mean, I did walk in ’79, but I never received a degree. … What was so hard was to come that close, to have worked that hard and to have gone through so much and to get to the point where you’re ready to graduate and to not do it. So it was really very fulfilling for me to be able to stand up there.”What was so hard was to come that close, and to not do it. So it was really very fulfilling for me to be able to stand up there. #BerkleeOnlineDegreeCompletion Click To Tweet
The amount of credits a student earns before taking time off determines the type of degree they’re eligible for: 0-90 credits, a Bachelor of Professional studies degree; more than 90 credits, a Bachelor of Music degree. Students are required to complete a total of 120 credits and meet specific course requirements to earn either degree. Sheri earned the Bachelor of Music degree. Larry earned the Bachelor of Professionals Studies degree. In some instances, students will have to change the major they had originally chosen in order to fulfill all of the credits remotely via Berklee Online.
Emma Thurston recently earned a Bachelor of Professional Studies degree in interdisciplinary studies. She began her Berklee journey on campus as a Music Education major in 1995, and left in 1999 shortly after the birth of her first child. She was at Berklee on a scholarship, which required her to attend full-time: That was not an option with a newborn. She found work in the music/pop culture retail industry, eventually landing her current position as Director of Strategy for Newbury Comics. She played in area orchestras, including the New England Philharmonic, filled in for local pit orchestras, and diligently practiced her instrument (marimba) at home. But something was missing.
“It just gnawed at me,” she says of the fact that she didn’t complete her degree, and she didn’t want her daughter to feel that she prevented Emma from finishing, so when her daughter reached college-age, Emma knew she had to do something.
“We had a joke to see who would graduate first,” she says. “I won that. I graduated first. She’s still got two years left! But I spoke to her often about the importance of going to college, and she knew it was a thing that I wanted to do. … I just didn’t ever want her to think like, ‘Oh, here’s this thing that my mom never did because of me.’”
One of the cornerstones of a Berklee education has always been that the school wants students to be able to feel like they could (and should) leave for professional opportunities. So however much (or little) a student has done on campus at Berklee, if they are pursuing the same degree they originally sought, they can come back through the Alumni Degree Completion Program without a readmission process.
“You went to Berklee to get gigs, and not necessarily to complete a degree,” says Nick Manson, who left Berklee as a junior, with only 45 credits left to finish. What called him away was a gig playing in a band with Lenny Kravitz. The year was 1981, and it would be years until Lenny became a household name, so Nick left the band and went on to work at several LA studios, and then for the Disney channel. The latter gig earned him two Emmys for his work on a children’s television show.
“So things were pretty peachy,” he says. “Going back to college really didn’t come up until 2014.”
He eventually got a teaching gig at Mesa Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I teach at one of the biggest community college systems in the US,” he says. “There are over 10 colleges, and they made it mandatory that you had to have a degree to remain an educator. Even on the adjunct level, you can no longer teach unless you have a master’s.”
So Nick came back to Berklee, through Berklee Online and was able to stay on at Mesa while he earned his bachelor’s and eventually his master’s.
Larry the O says a teaching gig was also the original impetus for him to come back to Berklee. He says he put in a lot of hard work when he returned, and it paid off.
“Two weeks after I graduated and got back, I happened to pull out the degree and I looked at it again, and got that warm glow and satisfaction, and that’s when I noticed for the first time that underneath where it had the degree, it says ‘Summa Cum Laude.’”