The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Grad student still learning at 82

Chris Kemp

At age 82, James Roch is not a typical graduate student.

Roch, a wheelchair user with severe hearing loss, does not need to leave his home in Chippewa Falls to take courses toward his master’s degree in business administration. Instead, the Internet offers him what the traditional classroom cannot.

“I didn’t make good use of my time in my undergraduate degree,” said Roch, who is pursuing his MBA through the University of Wisconsin’s Internet Business Consortium MBA program, which offers online courses through UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Parkside. “My whole goal in my four years at the university was to get by without writing a term paper.”

Roch earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1951 through the GI Bill after serving four years in World War II.

“My conscience bothers me that I didn’t make good use of the money at the time,” he said.

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MBA program Director Robert Erffmeyer, who teaches Roch’s current course, said he has been “a model student” and sets a positive example for other students.

“He’s not content to just sit back at home. He’s engaging himself, and I think he sets a great example,” Erffmeyer said. “I hope when I’m 82 I can do what he’s doing.”

The online course format is especially beneficial for Roch, who uses a wheelchair and would have a difficult time attending regular classes on campus. Most students in the program are between 25 and 35 years old, working full time and raising a family, he said.

“In Jim’s case, it’s a situation where he probably would not have found the campus accessible … whereas in the online program, he can handle it,” Erffmeyer said.

Roch began learning to use computers through a senior center course, and has personal caregivers help him post assignments.

“He’s really kind of embraced technology, I think,” Erffmeyer said. “It’s wonderful to see the technology embraced by someone who wouldn’t normally be able to come to campus. … It allows him to participate in educational goals he has.”

The college experience has changed significantly since Roch earned his bachelor’s degree, he said.

“The courses are a lot, lot tougher than my undergraduate work,” Roch said. “I really don’t think my roommates in my undergraduate work could handle the courses I’m taking at UW-Eau Claire.”

Another surprise, he said, was the high price he must pay for his courses.

“School’s quite expensive,” he said. “I can pay for it all right, but it shocked me when I found out what it cost for a few credits.”

Roch, who chose Eau Claire in part because U.S. News and World Report listed it as one of the best regional colleges in the country, said he also feels an obligation to the university officials who helped him get his start on his degree.

“I just feel I can’t let them down,” he said. “I have to do well.”

Erffmeyer said the advantages of the online degree are that students can do their work wherever and whenever they choose.

“Some of these folks wouldn’t be able to pursue their educational interest if it weren’t for this format,” he said. However, he said, “Students have to be active learners. … They can’t be passive.”

During his career, Roch worked for a division of General Machinery that built the guidance system for NASA’s Apollo program and was named employee of the year.

Roch, who is scheduled to complete his MBA in 2012, said recent publicity about his work is humbling.

Does he think he is an inspiration?

“Oh my goodness gracious no,” he said. “I can study all day and all night. People who are running house, working or raising a family are the ones who deserve the credit for good grades.”

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Grad student still learning at 82