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UND student earns online degree from cab of truck

Julie Hjelle stands in front of her rig at the Big Sioux Truck Stop in Grand Forks, N.D. Hjelle is an online student at the University of North Dakota and often uses Wi-Fi Internet access at truck stops and rest areas to download classwork. John Stennes / Forum Communications Co.

Julie Hjelle gives new meaning to distance learning.

The University of North Dakota student is earning an online degree while working as a truck driver.

Hjelle, 39, of Lankin, N.D., works three nights a week driving a FedEx route between Grand Forks, N.D., and Winnipeg, in addition to working two days as an aide in a nursing home.

Until this fall, Hjelle juggled her coursework while driving a route from the Midwest to Alaska, staying on the road for months at a time.

The territory she covered had spotty Internet and cell phone service, so Hjelle would download her assignments at truck stops or rest areas.

UND instructor Steven Schmidt, who taught Hjelle in two online Spanish courses, said Hjelle illustrates how online education is reaching beyond the traditional students.

"The fact that she did this largely from the cab of a semi truck perfectly indicates how much learning is changing," Schmidt said.

Hjelle was recognized this fall as the Great Plains Region Outstanding Continuing Education Student.

She started going back to school at age 37 with the goal of earning a degree by age 45. Her major is social science.

Hjelle, who has two teenagers, has the e-mail handle Mother Trucker. Her husband, Sean, also is a truck driver, and they worked together when she did the route to Alaska.

Hjelle said there's nothing she loves more than being an over-the-road driver, but she wants a degree so she can have more options.

"I wanted to someday come off the road and have a decent job," Hjelle said. "You don't see a lot of

75-year-old ladies driving."

Hjelle, who attended Bismarck State College for a year right out of high school, said she's a much more serious student now.

"It means more to me, and I expect more from myself," Hjelle said. "Getting an A means a lot to me."

But even with what she's achieved so far, Hjelle has a long road ahead of her.

With her busy schedule, she's taking about two courses per year. It means she may not get the degree by age 45.

"It might be 50," Hjelle said. "And that's a little disheartening."

Hjelle wants to take college algebra, but realizes she needs some extra help with math and she'll need to find time in her schedule to take the class at UND, rather than online.

Schmidt, who teaches about 100 online students at a time, said other than some military members who studied from Iraq or Afghanistan, Hjelle did her coursework under the most challenging circumstances. He recognized Hjelle as his outstanding online Spanish student one year with a Don Quixote award.

"Many students have difficulty online right from the comforts of the campus library, and she was out on the highway and very remote," he said.