Wife, Mother of Three Proves College Degree Within Reach

Karen Demunn Schmarje remembers clearly what her father told her as she approached her high school graduation.

“My dad was, ‘Hey, if you want to go to college that’s great, but I can’t pay for it,’” said Schmarje, senior manager of customer service and logistics at Tyson Foods in Springdale. “And, I think there was maybe some poor guidance at the high school level, knowing what I know now. I could have probably been awarded some scholarships or taken advantage of some financial aid. So I grew up thinking that school was out of reach for me. At that point it wasn’t even an option in my mind.”

Life in the working world soon made it clear that higher education would be needed to advance, so Schmarje revisited the idea of earning a degree. She graduated from Kishwaukee College in her native Illinois with an associate degree in general studies. It was, by any measurement, a tough get.

“I had two kids, a husband,” she said. “We just bought a house and I started a new job, so things were a little bit crazy.”

Schmarje then started taking classes at Rockford University, a combination of brick-and-mortar and online classes. She appreciated the online piece, as it helped her fit school around her family obligations, which now included her husband traveling two hours to attend to his own studies in Chicago. But even so, she says, “to say we were stretched thin is an understatement.”

The opportunity to move to Northwest Arkansas with her work closed that chapter of her post-secondary education, seemingly for good. That is until Michael Moore, Ph.D., chief academic/operating officer of the University of Arkansas System eVersity, made a presentation at the company about the all-online degree completion program. The opportunity awakened something in her, a burning desire to finish what she’d started educationally.

“I was very fortunate here at Tyson that they recognized that I do have some potential. I think they maybe promoted me ahead of some of my qualifications in that regard, because I had proven myself,” she said. “But then it got to the point where I needed to prove to myself that I really could do it. It was just always this elephant in the room. You’re having this conversation, ‘Oh, where did you go to school?’ Well, ‘Oh, I have my associate’s but I don’t have my bachelor’s.’ It just became this itch that I just needed to scratch.”

Taking advantage of eVersity’s educational alliance with Tyson Foods, Schmarje enrolled in early 2018 and immediately found eVersity played to her strengths as an online learner.

“The Blackboard platform was something I was very familiar with having used it in previous experiences,” she said. “For me, the way that it’s set up was very user-friendly. It made it very easy to follow along.”

One of the best features of eVersity, she said, was its flexibility in allowing her to take one abbreviated class at a time while still raising a family.

“One of my favorite things was that you can really, to a degree, work at your own pace,” she said. “Again, I have an 8-year-old, an 11-year-old and a nine-month-old. What would work for me is, I would do the bulk of my homework on Sunday and try to get as much of that week’s work done at one time because during the week, I’ve got to take my oldest to cheer practice, I’ve got to take them to 4-H. I loved that I had that flexibility.”

In July 2019, Schmarje graduated magna cum laude with a degree in business. She said beyond the applicable knowledge she gained through eVersity, she also had a goal to set an example for her three daughters.

“My eight-year-old and 11-year-old are very aware that Mom works at Tyson and Mom works really hard. I wanted to accomplish (my degree) to show them, ‘Mom did this,’” she said. “I hope they realize, once they are in school themselves, that Mom had a baby, she was working full-time and she was getting her degree, too. I hope someday they’ll understand that in life, you have to push on and make it work.”