Etching her name in the state's record books, a Moorefield High School alumna recently became the first ever community and technical college graduate to earn a bachelor's degree through the BA Pathway Multidisciplinary Studies (MDS) program.
As a West Virginia Promise Scholar, Brittany M. Bush, MHS 2010, completed two associate degrees, with a business concentration, at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College in December 2011, winning both Dean's and President's List distinction along the way.
Seeking to develop a still deeper knowledge and skill base, and "a realistic perspective on how to run a business," she chose to continue her education towards a bachelor's degree through an innovative online program offered through West Virginia University.
On Dec. 20, 2013, she attended commencement in Morgantown, earning her B.A. with summa cum laude - the highest honor.
According to its website, the MDS program "allows students great flexibility in designing their own bachelor's degree." To chart a course of study that best meets their individual career goals, students work with an advisor "to select three degree minors (instead of one major)."
That custom-design feature appealed to Bush, as she discussed her plans in the fall of 2011 with Monica Wilson, Eastern's associate director of admissions.
"The advisors at Eastern, and particularly Monica, helped me find something that fit me, and to make the transition to the Pathway program at WVU."
Working in funeral homes since her junior high school year, Bush "graduated high school knowing that I wanted to become a funeral director, because my passion in life is helping others. And funeral services allow me to help an individual, or a whole family, at one of possibly the most difficult times of their whole lives."
Relying on the guidance of her "mentor" John Elmore, of the Elmore Funeral Home, and with an ultimate goal of one day owning and operating her own funeral home, she decided that "a degree in business made the most sense."
Based on her advisors' input, and on her own instincts, Bush decided to enhance her classroom training with additional on-the-job experience, and she found a part-time job five-days-a-week at the Weymouth Funeral Home in Newport News, Va.
"That's why I definitely needed to be an online student," she explained.
Her research had identified WVU's online program as one of the best in the state, offering "options that I never thought would be available to me." Transferring to the Pathway program from Eastern in the spring of 2012 let her start the job in Newport News later that September, and pursue the BA Pathway program at the same time, selecting business administration, advertising and communication studies as her three minors.
"As soon as I applied, Melissa Kelley from WVU called, so I didn't feel like I was just a number. Even though I was doing everything away from campus, and completely online, it was personal," she emphasized.
"In a way, I was like a separate entity, and it was nice, because I could still live and work on my own schedule, do things on my own time, while I was studying.
"And it was a really thorough program," she noted. "I chose those minors because they carried over my business concentration from Eastern. The courses were very interesting, and I learned a lot: how to run a business, and to do advertisements, and communicate professionally in different settings.
"Eastern prepared me for WVU all the way, and saved me a lot of time, too, because I took a lot of courses there while still in high school. And because I'd been an online student for a year at Eastern," she emphasized, "I was used to that environment and the content of the classes going to WVU. My whole experience with both was extremely positive."
Bush now continues her chosen career's training road as an apprentice.
"You have to do an apprenticeship that usually takes two years, involving a certain amount of hours and a certain amount of funeral services you have to conduct. Then you have to go to school for a special associate's degree in funeral services."
Despite a large interest in the field among college students today, the profession offers relatively few apprenticeship opportunities, although both West Virginia and Virginia require one for licensure.
"It's a big part of the process in becoming a funeral director, so there's really a hunt for it," said Bush. "In the industry today, when you're lucky enough to find an apprenticeship, you have to take it."
In that climate, she said her education, and the degrees that certify it, have given her an edge in the market.
"It shows that you're able to stick with and finish something, that you're consistent. And it shows that you offer things any employer looks for - someone they can trust and who can get things done - and it makes you more appealing."
As a woman in a field traditionally run by men, Bush may need every edge she can get. Research shows a roughly four-to-one industry ratio of male-to-female funeral home directors, she said. As she progresses in her professional development, though, those numbers may change, as some "70 percent of students in the industry today are females," she noted.