Lewis Wheeler, a student in the first graduating class of Grace College’s online associate degree program, always read student success stories from colleges and thought they were corny PR moves, that is, until he became the student success story.
A Childhood Centered on Mission
Wheeler was born in Frankfort Indiana, but at the age of seven his parents moved him and his five siblings down to Mexico to be missionaries. In the next seven years, the Wheelers would move to Guatemala, and then again to Honduras. His dad taught at a Bible school, while his mom served as a nurse at a clinic.
Wheeler explained that growing up a missionary kid was a positive experience for him. He grew in his independence, he learned to acclimate to change, he adjusted to new circumstances, and he discovered how to relate to people who come from different cultures.
At the age of 14, Wheeler’s family moved back to Frankfort, Indiana, and he began high school. Unfortunately, due to all of the changes in his education with moves to different countries, he was a year behind in his school work. Wheeler decided to pursue a homeschool education to catch up on his studies and graduate from high school the year he had anticipated.
Hanging Up On School
After that, he felt burned out from school. His plan was to take a year off, but his friends convinced him to go to a small Christian school in Ohio with a total enrollment of 300. And he’s glad he did — because it was at that small school in Ohio that Wheeler met his bride. The two got married rather quickly, dropped out of college to get jobs, and moved back to Frankfort. The idea of going back and completing his degree felt like a pipe dream.
“I hung up on college,” said Wheeler. “In the back of my mind I thought, I’ll need to finish this eventually. But it never seemed to be the right time.”
Several years and four kids later, Wheeler felt like a degree was as far from reach as it ever could be. And it was that feeling that propelled Wheeler to give online learning a try. He enrolled at a school well known for its online programs. But Wheeler was terribly disappointed in the experience he had.
“I was in classes of 45-50 people, and I just felt like I was another number in the class. There was no introduction to the learning platforms we were using, and within the first week I felt like I was falling behind. When I reached out to the professors, they didn’t respond. I felt like a total inconvenience,” recalled Wheeler.
Rather than struggling through the rest of the semester this way, Wheeler withdrew from the school that week and swore off online learning altogether.
“I just thought online learning was not for me,” he said.
The Grace Difference – An Online Associates Degree Program
Three years went by without Wheeler thinking twice about going back to school, when Wheeler’s pastor friend shared about his positive experience at Grace College. He was completing his degree through a residential program offered at the time, and he highly recommended that Lewis look into it.
Wheeler inquired about the residential option at Grace and was disappointed to hear that it was only available for bachelor degree completion — not for the associate degree program which was launching its first-ever class that year. But the man on the other end of the phone assured Wheeler that this up and coming online associate degree program would usher him to success.
“I remember him telling me that day, ‘We guarantee that you can be successful,’” said Wheeler. “He promised me that the class sizes would be small and the teachers would personally communicate with me and assist me,” he said.
Wheeler mustered all the hope he could, and he applied to Grace’s online associate degree program in liberal arts.
“Grace made all the difference,” stated Wheeler. “There was buy-in from the professors. The classes were highly personalized and not overwhelming. And before classes ever started, we were taught how to access all of the online resources and platforms. That was a game-changer,” he recalled.
Wheeler also mentioned the spiritual encouragement that came from weekly emails from administrators with scripture. All of these elements made it possible for Wheeler to walk across the stage (with honors!) in 2019 and get the long-awaited diploma.
“It was absolutely surreal. I remember being at graduation and realizing that I never thought this would really happen,” said Wheeler.
He recalls the very moment that reality set in that he was a college degree graduate.
“It was after I loaded up my family into the car,” he said. “I hadn’t actually opened my diploma yet, because the woman sitting next to me opened hers to find a note saying she had one class yet to complete. I was nervous that mine would say the same. But my daughter grabbed my diploma from the back seat of the car, opened it up to me, and there it was — my diploma!” he beamed.
After such a positive experience with his online associate degree program, Wheeler enrolled into Grace’s BS in Human Services, and just graduated in August of 2020.
Promotions on Promotions
Despite his early skepticism about student success stories, Wheeler now knows the dramatic impact of a degree first-hand.
“Almost as soon as I notified my employer that I was pursuing higher education, he offered me a promotion and tuition assistance,” he said.
But that initial promotion was one of many for Wheeler. He soon stepped into a coordinator position, was then recruited to oversee special assignments which was followed by another promotion, and then offered a salaried position.
“There’s no doubt that getting my degree impacted my career directly. When my employer saw me invest in my education, he invested in me.”
Wheeler was also elected as a city councilman during his time in school, and he served in that role from 2016-2019.
A Future Centered on Mission
While Wheeler does not feel led to the mission field as his parents did, his childhood years in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala fostered a heart to support those who do. Looking forward, he plans to leverage his influence and extra time to work part-time for missions organizations.
“I feel called to help missionaries in any way I can now,” said Wheeler. “And I only want to dial up my involvement when I retire.”