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Long-time friends complete long-distance BYU BGS degrees together

When Heidi Noriega and Michele Ellsworth graduated from Brigham Young University last week through the Bachelor of General Studies program, it wasn’t the first time their families had celebrated a graduation together.

Their husbands, Sean Noriega and John Ellsworth, graduated together with master of public administration degrees in 1995. Sean and John were former roommates at BYU who first met when they were serving in the Costa Rica Panama Mission. They also graduated together in political science from BYU.

Both couples were married in January 1991. When Heidi and Michele first met 23 years ago, it was to play Rook with their husbands. They became instant friends. Their lives later took them to other places —the Noriegas moved to Kansas City, Mo., and the Ellsworths relocated to Gilbert, Ariz. But they stayed in touch, vacationing together in Cancun, Mexico one year, skiing together in Utah another year. They also communicated on Facebook and by email.

Then a couple of years ago, they realized that both of them were in the BGS program working to complete the degrees they’d started back in the 1980s. Heidi was in the program’s writing emphasis, and Michele was well into the history emphasis.

“At that point, it was like, ‘Hey, how’re you progressing?’” Michele said.

They decided that since their husbands had earned their degrees and graduated together, they would do the same thing.

“We actually wanted to graduate last December together, but Independent Study classes can take a little longer than you think,” Heidi said.

They considered April, but that didn’t work out either. When they talked again, “It was like, how are you for August?” Michele said. “We were both on track for August, so we both just planned on doing it in August together. So all summer we were emailing, ‘How’re you doing? Are you getting your capstone done?’”

Both Heidi and Michele had been feeling a sense of urgency to finish their degrees as quickly as possible, and not just so they could graduate together.

Michele felt it was important to graduate soon so she could credibly encourage her sons to go to college. She also wanted to get a job that would allow her to be at home with her children when they were at home.

“I was very focused on getting my degree,” she said. “I knew that once I got the degree, things would work out.”

Heidi also had goals, but hers revolved around her 12-year-old son who had been diagnosed with autism when he was two years old.

“We didn’t know how to help him, so I got a job working at his preschool so I could learn how,” she explained. “In Kansas City they have phenomenal services.”

But when the family moved to Utah a few years ago, she found a different scenario.

“Utah has lower taxes, so the schools don’t have the same funding as they do in some other states,” she said. “When we moved to Layton, I considered homeschooling Johnny, but when we prayed about it we felt a definite ‘no.’ So I began volunteering in Johnny’s classes. Then I was offered a job as an assistant, and before long I was training the other assistant teachers.”

Feeling increasing urgency to complete her degree, she called the BGS Office in March and worked with an advisor to map out exactly what she had to do to graduate in August with Michele.

“The BGS Office was so great to work with,” she said.

“They were reliable, too,” Michele said. “I knew they wouldn’t make mistakes and that I could trust them.”

In just a few days, Heidi found out why she’d been feeling prompted to finish as soon as possible.

“The very next week, I got called into the administrative office. They asked me how long I had to go before I finished my degree, and where I was in school. I told them I would be graduating from BYU, and they were like, ‘Oh, BYU!’ They offered me a full-time teaching position at Spectrum Academy in North Salt Lake if I could get my degree by August. So I’ll be my son’s teacher in addition to all his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classmates.”

The school offered to provide temporary licensure until she gets her ARL (alternative route to licensure), which she expects to have by December. She’s also applying to a master’s program in special education.

“I saw the hand of the Lord in my life — this is a direct answer to prayer. I’ll be able to bless the life of my son and his friends. I can take what I learned in Kansas City and begin to effect real and concrete changes in the way autism education is performed here in Utah,” Heidi said.  

Michele also has felt guidance in her life. “The Spirit was prompting me to do this [complete the degree], so I jumped in not knowing how I was going to do it. Three and a half years ago, I had five kids in school.”

She finally realized that “you don’t have to see the end from the beginning. You have to just jump in, and if you feel like you can do it, just start.”  

She initially hoped to complete her credits in two years, but two years turned into three and a half. Now that she’s graduated, Michele is looking for work and may have a job as a permanent substitute teacher soon.

“I’ve known all along that once I get the degree, things will work out,” she said.

For more information, contact Cindy Moorhead, cindy.moorhead@byu.edu, 801-422-3208, or visit bgs.byu.edu.

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Left to right, Sean and Heidi Noriega, and Michele and John Ellsworth

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Heidi Noriega (left) and Michele Ellsworth.
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