An Interview with Trisha Toenjes
“If you are considering online legal studies, be aware that you will need to be self-motivated to do well.”
Trisha Toenjes is pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Legal Studies from South University. Eventually, she wants to complete law school, but her immediate goal after graduation is to become a paralegal in order to get some experience working in the legal field.
Trisha chose to earn her bachelors degree through a partially online program because she feels that she learns better independently. Additionally, she travels frequently since her husband is a professional athlete. Her online classes let her keep up with her studies while they are on the road.
In your own words, what is paralegal studies?
A paralegal studies program trains people to work for attorneys and lawyers. Students in a paralegal studies program learn to write and interpret legal documents and to research legal issues, but they don’t have to appear in court. Although I eventually want to go to law school, paralegal studies is not actually a prelaw degree.
Why did you choose to get a bachelors degree in legal studies online?
My legal studies program at South University is only partially online, actually. But I chose to go with a program that incorporated online classes because I have always learned best when I am able to teach myself. I like to read and I am excellent at taking notes and absorbing material.
I also travel frequently with my husband, who plays baseball professionally. In order to manage travelling, taking care of our 2 young children and finishing school, I need to be able to log in to a computer and study no matter where I am on any given evening.
Once I finish the online portion of my program, I have to complete my on-campus classes. But I don’t know what those classes entail yet. I am only in my first year of study at South University, although I am a little further than that in my program since I was able to transfer some of my previous credits from St. Louis University.
What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying legal studies?
I enjoy that a lot of the work that I am required to produce relies on my ability to write, which I consider to be a strength of mine since I am a very detail-oriented person. I also tend to take my time with my writing assignments to do a thorough job.
But what I don’t necessarily enjoy is the pace of South University’s legal studies program. I take accelerated courses, which are only 5 and a half weeks in length, as opposed to full semesters. There are no breaks between courses, so I find it difficult to jump from studying a certain subject very intensely into a totally different subject without any transition period. It is hard to adapt my focus so quickly, and it can be exhausting.
When you first considered studying legal studies online what were your expectations?
From all of the advertisements that I heard about online schooling, I expected it to be extremely flexible. The ads make it seem like you can tweak the class deadline whenever you need to in order to fit your schedule. So while I did not expect online study to be easy, I did anticipate a greater degree of flexibility than South University offers. In fact, this is a highly structured, fast-paced program with many hard deadlines.
What kinds of classes have you taken in your legal studies program?
I am only in my first year, so most of the classes I have taken so far are general education courses like English and math. Luckily, a lot of the credits that I had earned from St. Louis University transferred over, so I am starting to take business law classes too. I am currently taking both Business Law I and II, which is difficult because it requires me to take the information that I just learned in the first class and apply it immediately to the second class. But that is the kind of difficulty that students have to be prepared to navigate in an accelerated program like mine.
What resources do you use to help you succeed in your studies?
The resource that I use the most frequently is my academic advisor, who makes himself very available to me. I called him frequently when I started my program with questions about which of my credits transferred over and why I had to take a certain class. He was very helpful in clarifying my program’s requirements.
How do you interact with your professors?
I mainly interact with my professors through online discussion boards. Professors use the boards to monitor the quantity and quality of each student’s posts and to provide feedback. Most professors give students their e-mail addresses and phone numbers as well in case we need more immediate attention. In general, online study fits my learning style and my lifestyle very well, but I do occasionally miss face-to-face interaction with professors. Purely online methods of communication seem a bit impersonal to me.
Are you able to interact with your peers while studying online?
I am able to interact with my peers while studying online, but I choose not to for the most part. We have access to a list of all students’ e-mail addresses, but most of the messages I receive from other students simply wish me luck near the end of the term. The messages generally do not contain vital information. In addition, there is a window in the online classroom, where professors can post recently answered questions from students whenever they feel other students might have similar questions. I occasionally use that feature, but otherwise my peer interaction is limited.
What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in a legal studies program and what traits would hinder success?
Online legal studies students should be very self-motivated. Students have to be able to complete assignments on time without having a teacher coax them to do so. At South University, assignments are docked 15% each day that they are late, so students simply cannot afford to fall behind.
It follows that online paralegal studies students will be hindered if they are disorganized. If a student does not schedule adequate time to study or is prone to becoming overwhelmed by multitasking, it will be very difficult for them to do well in a program like this.
What is your weekly schedule?
I do the majority of my coursework while my children are at school and after they go to bed at night. The amount of time that I spend studying and doing homework each day varies greatly. Some days I spend 5 hours writing an essay, but sometimes I just log on for a half hour to comment briefly on another student’s discussion board post.
How do you manage your course load? What study tips would you give to a prospective student?
I manage my course load by consciously separating my family obligations from my academic obligations and by studying at night. My husband and I have small children who require lots of attention, so I only do coursework when they are otherwise occupied. Besides, I am a night person, so late night study works for me.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After I graduate I plan to start applying to paralegal positions right away so that I can get experience in the legal field under my belt. Ultimately, I would like to continue my education and pursue a law degree once my children are older and my husband retires from baseball. Life will be more settled then and I will be able to attend a traditional offline law school.
Do you think the fact that you studied online will affect your job prospects?
I do not think that the fact that I earned my degree partially online through South University will affect my future job prospects. The significant on-campus course requirements for my program will reassure prospective employers who might be wary of online degrees.
If you were to redo the past 1 year of college, what would you do differently?
I think that I am on the right track now, so I wouldn’t change anything about the last year. But if I could redo my previous undergraduate experience, I would finish my degree during my first attempt. I had to drop out of St. Louis University during my junior year for personal reasons beyond my control, and returning to school after a long hiatus was challenging for me.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying legal studies online?
If you are considering online legal studies, be aware that you will need to be self-motivated to do well. You must be able to force yourself to manage your time well in order to meet the strict deadlines. You would have to do that in an offline classroom too, but the difference is that you don’t have a professor harping on you to turn your work in every day. You just have to remember to do it.