When Tammie Vandermeulen walked across the graduation stage last December, it wasn’t just the end of her degree journey. It was the culmination of four decades of her life and a fitting end to an educational pathway that’s been anything but ordinary.
Vandermeulen grew up in a military family, living most of her childhood in South Carolina. After an accident ended Tammie’s father’s career in the navy, he moved the family to South Dakota to pursue a career in engineering. It was here that Vandermeulen first came across The Wesleyan Church.
“My mom was sitting in our backyard, and she heard the singing from the church behind it,” Tammie recalled. “It just so happened that it was a Wesleyan Church, and it reminded her of home, where she grew up. So next thing you know, we went.”
At the church, she became a follower of Christ. During high school, her Wesleyan connections made her aware of a denominational school, Bartlesville Wesleyan College, so Vandermeulen and her family made the road trip to see the campus.
“I loved the people, I loved everything about it. It just seemed so inclusive, and it seemed to embrace everybody where they were,” she said. “I signed up. I didn’t know how much I was going to be paid or even what courses I was going to be taking. I just knew that’s where the Lord wanted me.”
And instantly, Vandermeulen felt justified in her decision, finding in Bartlesville not only an educational pathway that could suit her or a community to be a part of, but a place where she could learn to live out the faith she’d accepted as a teenager.
“It was the college where I learned about how to do the Christian life, and I learned about doing devotions, and I learned about how inclusive Christianity really could be—how you cared about each other and prayed for each other,” she said.
Originally set on a music degree, Tammie switched to a pathway in elementary education, which turned out to be a good fit. One professor, in particular—Dr. Patricia Clinger—stands out in her memory.
“She picked me up right where I was at, and she nurtured me,” Vandermeulen said. “To this day, I am who I am because of her.”
Dr. Clinger offered Tammie extra help with certain parts of her academic journey, stepping in when there were challenges concerning her dyslexia and providing a foundation of support. “She helped me to see that I could do well, and she helped give me faith in myself,” she said.
“I still have a lot of gas in the tank. I may be 60, but don’t count me out.”
Completing the Journey
Eventually, academic challenges concerning Vandermeulen’s dyslexia forced her to unenroll from class, and she found herself continuing on with the rhythms of life—marriage, family, a career in the travel industry. She always planned on finishing her degree, but the years passed.
As it turned out, all it took to create the catalyst for change was a global pandemic. During the initial spread of COVID-19, Vandermeulen contracted the disease and was sick for about five and a half weeks. This gave her plenty of time to think.
“It got me thinking—What am I doing with my life? Where am I going? What is really important at this juncture?” she said.
Professionally, too, Tammie had run into a roadblock, as the travel industry was hit hard by the pandemic and the shutdowns.
“All of this started happening, and then having COVID myself, I thought: I’m getting older, and I need to figure out how to rebrand myself,” she explained. “I need to figure out how to find another job, and a lot of the jobs really wanted you to have some sort of bachelor’s degree.”
Since Vandermeulen knew she would need to continue her education online, she first considered transferring to a different school. Then she learned more about OKWU’s Graduate and Professional Studies program. “I got to thinking, I wonder if I could do that at OKWU.”
After a little research, Tammie was astonished to discover she only needed nine credits to graduate. Her GPS admissions counselor worked with her to create a plan. “[They] figured out exactly what I needed, how many credits I needed, even looked up the courses that would fit into my schedule,” she said.
Only three classes stood between Tammie and a degree. But what surprised her during her semester of study was how much she actually got from the classes—the variety of viewpoints in her cohort across age and profession were eye-opening. “The discussions that we had were all so enlightening and amazing,” she said.
When the time came for commencement, Vandermeulen didn’t do things halfway. She traveled from where she lives, in upstate New York, to OKWU’s campus. It had been decades since she’d started in Bartlesville, and it was a powerful experience to finally walk across the graduation stage.
“It was like going full-circle for me,” she said. “It meant so much to me to come back to where it started, and to finish what I’d started… I think I floated across the stage.”
And like so many other professionals who achieve their degree through OKWU’s GPS program, Vandermeulen has already reaped professional benefits, earning a promotion since December in her travel company. As she sees it, her achievement opened her company’s eyes to her value. She’s not stopping anytime soon.
“I still have a lot of gas in the tank,” she said. “I may be 60, but don’t count me out.”