One of the first students to complete a popular online doctorate program at Creighton University is a descendant of the family that founded the university 135 years ago.
Susan Russell Toohey is the great-great-granddaughter of James “Long Jim” Creighton, who settled in Omaha in the 1850s to work for his cousin, Edward, the wealthy businessman and civic leader whose widow established Creighton.
Toohey and four others will graduate Saturday from Creighton with a doctorate in leadership. They are the first to get a degree from Creighton's latest online doctorate program, which was launched in January 2011.
Although a growing number of colleges — many of them for-profit institutions — offer online doctorate programs, Creighton is one of the first nonprofit private universities to offer one.
The program has proved popular.
Creighton anticipated that about 40 students per year would enroll. Instead, 273 have joined the program during its two-year history.
Students say they were attracted to the program because of Creighton's strong academic reputation as a Jesuit institution, as well as for the program's unusual interdisciplinary curriculum.
Students range from people in their 30s looking to advance their careers to people in their 50s seeking ways to give back to their communities.
They include educators, health care administrators, military personnel, nonprofit managers, clergy, lawyers and businesspeople.
A master's degree is required, and the degree is pricey — $55,000 for the 60-credit hour program, though many students get assistance from their employers or other sources.
Amy Novak, provost at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., and Maj. Gen. Will Grimsley, chief of staff at the U.S. Strategic Command in Bellevue, are seeking doctorates through the Creighton program.
Both expect to graduate in December 2014.
Recently tapped to become Dakota Wesleyan's president on June 1, Novak said she researched about a dozen educational doctorate programs from across the country before selecting Creighton. As the mother of eight children, ages 5 to 17, she needed the flexibility of an online program.
“Reputation matters,” she said. “Creighton has a very strong academic reputation. I've not seen a lot of programs that offer this interdisciplinary approach.”
Grimsley, who is preparing to retire from his 33-year military career June 6, said he found Creighton's program after deciding he wanted to pursue a doctorate in education, rather than a doctorate in history.
A doctorate in education, or Ed.D., tends to be an applied degree used in professional careers, while a Ph.D. often is used to launch a scholarly career.
To Grimsley, the doctorate in education seemed more practical for the next phase of his life, which he says will involve giving back to the community, perhaps through philanthropic or nonprofit work.
When he has discussed possible positions, some of his interviews have seemed more intrigued by his studies than by his military career.
”It's broadened my perspective on a subject I thought I was pretty well-versed in.”
Toohey decided to pursue her doctorate after she was named head of school at Marian High School in December 2008. The longtime teacher enrolled in the new Creighton program as soon as it launched.
Soon after Toohey enrolled in the Creighton program, a friend who teaches at Marian gave her a worn textbook with a faded blue cover.
Inside its front cover was the youthful signature of her mother, then known as Ann Caldwell. It was a book she had used during her undergraduate studies at Creighton.
Anne Creighton Caldwell Russell, as Toohey's mother later was known, earned a bachelor's degree from Creighton in 1953.
She later earned a master's degree in counseling from Creighton and was the first winner of an award for outstanding female graduate student. She died of ovarian cancer in 1992, at age 58.
Getting the textbook was a “Holy Spirit moment,” Toohey said. It deepened her sense of connection to her mother and to Creighton.
“I just believe those who pass before us are watching over us,” she said. “You have to believe there's something beyond this world.”
Toohey said she was at her first regional meeting for Catholic school leaders in early 2010 when Laura Hickman, principal at Duchesne Academy, alerted her to the new Creighton program.
They enrolled together and both are graduating Saturday, completing the three-year program in just 2½ years.
The three others who will collect Ed.D. degrees Saturday are Anand Pereira, S.J., a Jesuit priest from India; Joe Hare, director of the Human Capital research laboratory at Bellevue University; and Milton Folson, a middle school principal from Ohio.
Despite their family ties with Creighton University, Toohey and her seven siblings went elsewhere for their undergraduate degrees. All eight preferred to leave Omaha for college, she said.
Her sister, Ginny Curley, was the first to attend Creighton when she sought her master's degree. Curley teaches at Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha.
Toohey's bachelor's degree is from Northern Colorado University, and she holds a master's degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“I'm proud to be a Creighton descendant, but I'd never been to a Jesuit institution before,” she said.
“I was very impressed. I felt so much more connected to Creighton than any other institution I've attended.”
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