Stephanie N. Blahut plans to drive almost 10 hours east from her Oak Forest, Ill., home this week to make her first visit ever to Penn State University.
She's already lined up a campus tour and hopes to hike the Mount Nittany overlook, wander the picturesque grounds of the arboretum and experience a decades-old student tradition by noshing on her first cone from the university's famed Berkey Creamery.
But she also will do something else not normally done by those visiting campus for the first time: On Saturday evening, she will march down an aisle inside Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center and proudly accept her bachelor's degree.
In the coming weeks, commencement lawns will be crowded with wistful graduates indulging in a long, last look at the place they came to call home. But for some online learners like Ms. Blahut, 35, a student enrolled through Penn State's World Campus, commencement is a reason to finally get a look at the institution from which they are getting a degree.
Consider it the academic equivalent of a reverse commute.
Every year at this time, schools with sizable populations of virtual learners roll out the welcome mat for some of those students, even as most of their peers are getting ready to leave.
"It's kind of closing a chapter in my life. It's important," said Ms. Blahut, explaining her desire to be there in person to receive her law and society degree. "It also opens a new chapter. It's actually going to be very emotional for me."
It is hard to know how many online learners like her are moved enough by their graduation to make a first-time visit, but they have become a noticeable part of commencement season as online enrollment nationwide continues to surge.
The number of students taking one or more college courses online topped 6.7 million as of fall 2011, equal to 32 percent of the nation's college enrollment, according to the latest survey of online learning by the Babson Survey Research Group. The total is up 570,000 from the previous year alone.
Online learners tend to be older than traditional age students. Often, they study from home simply because it is the only way to pursue an education given job responsibilities, a complicated schedule or other personal issues.
But experts say many people incorrectly assume that those choosing to study remotely have no desire for an emotional link to their school. In fact, many do, even those who have never actually been to campus.
The act of picking up a diploma can be as powerful to them as it is for someone who spends fours years going to classes and living in a dormitory, said Barmak Nassirian, an independent higher education analyst in Washington, D.C., and former associate director of the Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.
If anything, he said, the rising cost of college has made it even more important not to miss out on the sights, sounds and emotions of the day.
"It would be almost like spending all that money on a new car and not getting that new car smell," he said. "You feel cheated."
Seeing the cap and gown
Making a first-time visit to campus for graduation will involve hundreds of miles of travel for students like Ms. Blahut or Jose Carlos Silva, 47, a firefighter and fitness entrepreneur who lives in Glastonbury, Conn.
He will make his first trip to California University of Pennsylvania next month to pick up a master's degree in exercise science that he earned online.
His wife, Lisa, will be with him in Cal U's convocation center on May 17. So will his daughters Caroline, 8, and Chloe, 7, making the ceremony even more important.
"I really want my daughters to see me go down the aisle," said Mr. Silva, the son of Portuguese immigrants. "I think it's important for them to visualize the cap and gown. That's 90 percent of why I'm doing it."
Other online learners like Aja Firestone Sobota, 31, of White Oak live much closer to their school but never had a compelling enough reason to go there physically -- until now.
She made her first trip to Robert Morris University on April 1 to pick up the cap and gown she will wear May 10 when she receives a master's degree in organizational leadership.
"It was kind of funny," she said of her visit. "I had to ask people where to go."
She enrolled in August 2010 but took a semester off to get married and juggled her part-time studies with a full-time office job. She did not relish the prospect of trips to campus for evening classes, a commute she said would have taken her anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on traffic.
"I wanted to do it right, and that meant getting good grades," she said. "I thought I could be putting that time toward my studies."
Yet even though she jokes about "going to classes on my couch," she did not want to be absent from the ceremony itself.
"To go to the physical campus and be a part of the ceremony makes it the real deal," she said.
Some online learners who waited until commencement to see their campus said they nonetheless had bonded with their schools.
Mr. Silva said he follows Cal U's soccer teams from afar and sometimes wears a T-shirt bearing the school name.
"I wear it to the gym, and people ask me, 'California University of Pennsylvania? Where's that?' "
It doesn't bother him that someone hundreds of miles away hasn't heard of his soon-to-be alma mater. He said he loved his experience at Cal U.
Some join student clubs virtually and even raise money for campus philanthropies.
Ms. Blahut was among them. Her extended path to a bachelor's degree was marked by roadblocks and by perseverance.
She earned an associate degree in 1998 from Joliet Junior College in Illinois. While working, she went back to school in that state in 2003 intent on finishing a four-year degree.
But she left campus after injuries from a car accident made it nearly impossible to pursue studies in person. Her husband became ill, making it necessary for her to go back to work full time.
In fall 2009, she enrolled in Penn State, attracted by its standing as a Big 10 school, a curriculum she felt would be challenging and the ability to pursue her degree on her own time.
She wasn't content to just toil away in solitude on her home computer. She became an officer of the World Campus chapter of the Blue and White Society, the student arm of Penn State's alumni association, and she attended a gathering in Chicago arranged by the school that enabled students and alumni to network.
She helped raise money for Penn State's signature student-led philanthropy, the Penn State Dance Marathon, which benefits children's cancer research and treatment.
And she grew closer to classmates through visits to an online community offered by the school that encouraged peer discussions and even allowed for virtual student gatherings at a beach bonfire -- an exotic image for a school hundreds of miles from the ocean.
Such opportunities are why she will leave Penn State not only with a 3.8 grade point average but also with a sense she belonged to the campus community, said Ms. Blahut, whose husband, David Chambers, is driving with her to State College for Saturday's ceremony.
A 'surprisingly intense bond'
Craig Weidemann, Penn State vice president of outreach to whom the World Campus reports, said such stories are indicative of a surprisingly intense bond that some online learners form with their school.
He said 46 percent of World Campus graduates go on to join the university's Alumni Association compared with 30 percent of Penn State's general student population.
Such a statistic could help explain why universities -- including his -- are investing in initiatives to better connect online students to their campus, not only in the classroom but outside it, too.
"Schools are now really trying to make their students feel more a part of the campus," said Kathleen Ives, associate executive director and chief operating officer with The Sloan Consortium, a professional online learning society headquartered in Newburyport, Mass.
Such moves make sense, said Nick Bowden, CEO and founder of a venture based in Omaha, Neb., called Mind Mixer, which works with universities to better engage online learners through platforms enabling them to work collectively on assignments, interact with instructors and form study groups.
He did his own undergraduate study at the University of Nebraska and said "most of my memories of that campus are not classroom memories. They are things that are a little more intangible."
Those intangibles, said Mr. Nassirian, are important to retention since "one of the biggest risks of online learning is being detached, that feeling you are sitting alone in your basement typing."
And they can determine whether a student who attends online disappears after graduation or stays involved with the school as an alum.
There is no doubt that a decision to stay involved has been made by Jose Francisco Llompart, a lawyer in Spain who finished an online degree in law and society at Penn State and traveled between continents in December to see the school and walk in commencement.
He already serves as an alumni ambassador to the university, blogs about the university and has contributed financially, too.
During his trip, he recalled being greatly impressed, both by a university so elaborate it has its own airport and by the chance to meet those who shaped his academic path.
He said the ceremony itself in the Jordan Center was "simply amazing" and "very touching," adding, "Any adjective that I could use to describe it would probably fall short."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM