Sunny Downes

Ashford University

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology


Sunny Downes is earning her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology online. Since 2004, she has tried several different online and brick-and-mortar schools en route to her degree. She has chosen to finish her program at Ashford University because it allows the most flexibility and benefits for military members.

Sunny chose to pursue her degree at “home” because, as an active duty member of the Air Force, home is always changing. She and her family must be prepared to move from base to base at a moment’s notice, so traditional classes that are tied to a physical campus were impractical. Online courses allow her to relocate and to do homework when it fits into her schedule.

What are the biggest benefits of attending college at home?

The biggest benefit of attending college at home is that the staff and professors at Ashford University are very accommodating toward students who are in the military, and that was extremely important to me and my family. Oftentimes members of the military do not have much control over their location and access to computers can be shaky. Although a few professors are less tolerant of the unpredictable schedule of service members, most of them are used to teaching military students. On the whole, they have given me leeway when it comes to time-sensitive matters like assignment, due dates and absences.

Another significant advantage to attending school at home through Ashford University is that students who are service members are assigned both regular advisors and military advisors. Over the course of my studies, I have had 4 regular academic advisors and 1 military advisor. My 4 regular advisors have all been difficult to contact, but my military advisor has been excellent. He knows me by my first name and truly understands the reality of a military schedule. Because of that, I seek him out when I have an issue instead of my academic advisors.


What are the drawbacks to attending college at home?

A drawback to taking college classes from home is that I find it difficult to get to know my professors on a personal basis. While they do post short biographies about themselves online, you cannot tell enough about them. Professors have different personalities and perspectives that I am not able to pick up on strictly from their bios. If I was in a physical classroom, I think it would be much easier to read their personalities and understand what they really want from us.

Since I can’t talk to my professors in person, I have to interact with them strictly through e-mail and the class message board. When I have questions about assignments and other matters that pertain to the entire class, I post on the message board. But for private matters, such as informing my instructor about my upcoming shoulder surgery, I choose to use e-mail. Regardless of the method that I use to communicate with them, they are supposed to reply within 24 hours. But sometimes I have to wait several days to hear back from them. That was particularly problematic when I was stationed overseas in Japan because of the time difference, but it is a little better now that I am stationed in the Unites States.


How much do you think you save by living at home?

I save everything by living at home, because Ashford University’s tuition aligns perfectly with the amount of money that the military provides me for tuition assistance. Another thing that I appreciate about my school is that if I am late on a payment because I have to wait for my tuition assistance to come through, they will place me on military financial hold instead of automatically forcing me to withdraw from my classes.


How many hours do you spend on coursework each week?

I don’t think that I can give an accurate estimate of how many hours I spend on coursework each week because it depends on the difficulty of the classes that I am taking and the particular assignment. But I can say that in addition to our weekly homework, we are required to log in twice a week to post on our class discussion board. I always write 3 solid paragraphs like we are supposed to, but some students seem to be skating through the program by writing a couple sentences per paragraph. It irritates me to see those students earning the same amount of credit as me, because I feel like I put in a lot more time and effort into my work.


Do you think attending college at home affects your learning in any way?

One way that attending college at home negatively affects the quality of my learning is that online-only education does not provide many opportunities for students to put theory into practice. That particularly affects my learning since I am in a psychology program, where you need to see clinical methods in practice to fully understand them.

Plus, I think some type of hands-on experience or job shadowing opportunity would have been extremely beneficial for my future career plans. I am interested in conducting research that might lead to better treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder because I want to work at a Veteran’s Affairs Hospital. If were able to follow a practicing psychologist in a clinical setting, I could have learned a lot. Unfortunately, Ashford University only offers study abroad programs, not internships.

Despite the lack of hands-on training, my classes in clinical and abnormal psychology have been extremely useful from a theoretical standpoint. For example, my clinical psychology course taught me about the many different settings in which mental health is diagnosed and treated, which is what sparked my interest in working at the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital. I like that I can see how the information I am learning directly relates to my long-term career goals.


Do you feel like attending college at home affects your ability to make friends?

I suppose I would make more friends if I went to a traditional on-campus school, but that isn’t the reason that I am in school. I thought that there would be more military members in my classes who I would have something in common with, but oddly enough, I have encountered very few others.

There are about 25 to 30 students in each of my online classes and it is a mixed group. For example, I have shared classes with grandmothers, students who are fresh out of high school, working adults making a career change and students who have never even had a job.


Do ever feel isolated from campus life?

I think that being in the military is an isolating experience when you are dealing with members of the public who don’t have any idea what it is like to be on active duty. That shows itself through the way that some of my professors react when they learn that I am in the Air Force. I tell them that if I am suddenly deployed, I might be in a different time zone or I might only have access to the class e-mails on my phone, instead of on a real computer. Sometimes I can almost hear the sigh on the other end because I make things less convenient for them. That isn’t the typical case, but it happens from time to time.


Is attending college at home what you had imagined it to be?

Yes, my experience with online college has been what I thought it would be. I don’t have a lot of experience in regular brick-and-mortar classrooms, but I have been taking classes online for several years now, so I knew what to expect. There are small differences between programs but for the most part, online schools operate similarly.


What are the biggest challenges you face in attending college at home?

Miscommunication has been the biggest challenge for me. I find it hard to read people online because I can’t sense their tone. So if I could start over, I would have approached class discussions with a bit more caution. For example, I found myself engaged in a heated online discussion with a professor about our differing attitudes toward God and religion. At the time of the debate, I didn’t know that she was an ordained minister and that I was probably offending her. Once I found out about her background, I started to rethink how openly I should voice my opinions over the class discussion board.


If you started college over again, would you choose to live at home while attending college?

Yes, I would still choose to live at home because for me, this is the only option for schooling. I chose to study online because my schedule does not leave any room for traditional classes. In addition to being in the military, I am married with 2 children. I need the flexibility of online courses.


What advice would you give other students who are trying to decide if attending college at home is right for them?

I would caution other students who are considering earning on an online degree from home that they will need to be disciplined. I cannot stress enough that they should not procrastinate. In my psychology classes, typical assignments require you to write papers up to 14 pages in length. Students should start working on these projects as soon as they can so that they don’t get buried in the work.