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October 21, 2014

From Dancing and Drama to a Four-Year Degree

Amanda VandenAkker, one of the first 50 PathwayConnect students, achieves her dream through PathwayConnect

Amanda with her husband, Tyson, and three children: Owen (6), Penelope (4), and Callum (1)

When Amanda VandenAkker was a little girl, all she could think about was dancing and singing. At the age of three, she wandered out on Disneyland’s Main Street and started dancing to the music of a band passing by. At age 13, she landed a part in a regional production of Saturday’s Warrior. So it was no surprise to her family and friends when she packed her bags and flew across the country to New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

After graduating, Amanda sold theater merchandise each day and performed in theaters and clubs off Broadway at night. While theater was still a passion, she felt an academic void. She wished she had her four-year degree. “I started going to school part-time at a really expensive school, but I could only afford to take one or two classes a semester — so it was going to take me a really long time,” Amanda said. Still, she forged ahead.

But after she got married in 2006, Amanda put her education on hold so her husband could finish his degree. She took on a job, planning to return to school once he had started his career. What she did not expect was that she would become pregnant. “I have seen so many women quit school to start a family and never end up finishing,” Amanda said. “I really didn’t want that for myself.”

Institute building in Manhattan, New York

Amanda didn’t have a clue how she was going to finish her education. Then one Sunday in 2009, she and her husband saw a handout about PathwayConnect, a new educational program to be piloted in New York City. She was intrigued at the idea of working toward a university degree online, and at a low cost.

“I jokingly told my husband that PathwayConnect sounded perfect,” said Amanda. “He told me I should do it, so I applied!” Amanda was accepted and became one of the first 50 students to participate in PathwayConnect.

“I knew I could do it. And I wanted to, not just for me, but for my kids. I teach my children all day, every day. My home may not be a formal classroom setting, but they learn from me. They deserve the most educated mother I can be.”

Through PathwayConnect, Amanda gained new skills and became eligible to enroll in the BYU-Idaho Online Degree Program, presented and coordinated through BYU-Pathway. Three years later, she was a college graduate with a degree in university studies and a minor in marriage and family studies.

Amanda VandenAkker shared her experience at the BYU-Idaho Online Degree graduation in April 2014.

“I loved PathwayConnect,” said Amanda. “I could be a mother by day and a student by night without neglecting anyone. I loved the feeling I had there. I learned new things and had deep conversations with others. I met people from all walks of life and backgrounds. I loved the opportunity everyone had to teach each other.”

The girl who once danced at Disneyland is now dancing to a new tune as a graduate. “I love checking the ‘bachelor’s degree’ box when filling out applications,” said Amanda. “And while it may not feel like a big deal to my children, if they decide to attend college because their parents did, it’s a big deal to me.”

This story is the third part of a three-part feature in honor of BYU-Pathway’s fifth anniversary. Each post follows people who attended PathwayConnect in its first semester as they share their stories and growth. Part one follows a young woman who found the courage to attend PathwayConnect as she battled social anxiety. Part two is about the mother and father who challenged the odds as they cared for their young family and pursued their goal of gaining a higher education.

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