When Danielle Aronoff graduated from Garden City Community College with her associate’s degree in 2014, she said she never thought she would go back to school.
Higher education had never been a huge priority in her family, and she was working full time once she moved back home to Colorado. The idea that four years later she would be back in Garden City as the first person to graduate with an associate’s degree from the college and bachelor’s and master’s degrees through a partnership between GCCC and National American University was far from expected.
It started, she said, with a phone call.
Ashley Salazar, an associate campus director for NAU, called Aronoff with a pitch. The university is an accredited, for-profit university that offers both traditional classroom and online classes throughout the country. NAU partnered with GCCC in August 2014, giving local students a way to continue their education and expand their horizons remotely.
In 2015, Salazar called Aronoff and told her she could enroll in the program with reduced tuition since she was a GCCC graduate. Aronoff decided to go for it.
“I thought to myself, ‘Ok, I’ll give it a shot for a semester and I’ll probably hate it. And then I’ll just let it go and won’t ever go back.' And I loved it,” Aronoff said.
Aronoff said she always had liked school because of the people, but little else. As she took online classes in Colorado, NAU’s format did what other settings had not: made Aronoff feel truly comfortable in a classroom, she said.
Aronoff said she is social by nature, but environments like crowds or physical classrooms make her nervous. Through online classes, she found an accessible platform that fit her needs as a student.
The online classes didn’t create a barrier between her, her professors and her classmates, she said. If anything, it brought them closer. Her teachers gave the class their cell phone numbers in case a student needed anything and offered frequent extensions for students that often had jobs or kids outside of class.
Live seminars also established opportunities for real-time conversation, Aronoff said. She said she was able to speak to one professor from Nevada casually after class from miles away.
“It’s incredible. I could probably talk your ear off for the rest of the day about how awesome I think NAU is. But I think just the simplicity of it and the fact that they want people to be successful, so they offer just a ton of help,” she said.
Aronoff was also glad to have met classmates she may not have encountered elsewhere. Students in her classes were from all over the country and often nontraditional. She said she had the utmost respect for one student who was pursuing her degree while working two jobs and being a single mom to three kids.
“My favorite thing is to learn about my other classmates and where they’re from and what they’re doing … If anything, I feel like I’ve gotten to know these people better than when I was in a classroom setting, because in a classroom setting, I was so nervous I didn’t talk to anybody…” she said. “It’s a lot of fun getting to know different people.”
NAU offers courses in traditional classroom settings, as well as online, Salazar said, including some taught by GCCC faculty. The program offers more than 30 bachelor’s programs on the GCCC campus, often holding its in-person classes at night to cater to nontraditional students.
“We see a lot of students who are unable to take advantage of the opportunity to be on campus at a large state university, and they still want the opportunity to do in-person courses...” Salazar said. “In rural communities, students are not limited to only online options.”
In 2016, Aronoff came back to Garden City as an assistant softball coach. She was a born and raised city kid, she said, but loves Garden City, the college and its softball program, for which she played as a student. She continued her education, balancing coaching and homework. As she finished her bachelor’s degree, she found out a master’s was closer than she expected.
“The reason I actually got my master’s is because Ashley was super sneaky and enrolled me in dual credit courses throughout my undergrad...” Aronoff said.
By the time she finished her bachelor’s, Salazar told her she was seven credits away from a master’s.
“And so when somebody tells you, it’s kind of silly if you only have to take seven more credits to get a whole other degree, and it’s a degree that can set you apart down the line,” Aronoff said.
Aronoff earned her bachelor's of science in business management and her master’s in management through NAU. The degrees have certainly given her options. Next semester, she’ll be both coach and teacher, heading a GCCC freshman elective course on college success. In the future, she hopes to teach a core credit or business class.
“It has opened a lot of doors for me,” Aronoff said.
Aronoff’s three degrees mark a milestone for GCCC. Salazar said NAU was calling Aronoff’s local achievement the “Triple Play,” in honor of her softball roots. She hopes other students follow in the coach’s footsteps.
Last year, Aronoff missed her bachelor’s graduation, predictably, for a softball game, but this year she was able to celebrate the degrees she never planned to earn. On Friday night, she sat in Conestoga Arena at the Dennis Perryman Athletic Complex, the lone master’s graduate among a handful of NAU bachelor’s recipients and a sea of associate’s degree recipients. At one point or another, she had stood in all of their shoes.
In the coming months, many of the students of the room will leave the community college, but Aronoff will stay. She will coach players on the softball field and help students study and manage their time and acclimate to college. She said she’s grateful for the opportunity NAU afforded her and wants to pay it forward through her students and team members at GCCC.
“The biggest thing that I’ve wanted to do my whole life is just make an impact, whether it’s coaching, teaching, however that is,” she said. “And with the help of my boss and Ashley Salazar, I’m going to be able to do that.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.