Heather Munsell doesn’t get to be one of the mothers who sits in the crowd to enjoy her children’s college graduations.
Her two children, Joshua and Kelsey Munsell, both graduate with double majors this week from Montana State University Billings, but she’ll be right up there on the stage with them, receiving her master’s degree.
“How many moms get to have both of their kids walk at the same time, let alone get to walk with them?” she said.
Heather Munsell will receive her master’s degree, Joshua Munsell will receive bachelor’s degrees in outdoor adventure leadership and organizational communication, and Kelsey Munsell will graduate with a double major in mass communication and organizational communication.
While each will finish at MSUB’s Saturday commencement at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark with hard-earned degrees in hand, each of the Munsells took a different path getting there.
For Heather Munsell, it was an effort 20 years in the making. She attended Montana State University in Bozeman until moving to Billings in the early 1990s with her husband, Jeff, 13 credits shy of earning a bachelor’s in fine arts.
She worked as a freelance graphic designer over the years but wanted to be able to “check that box on list” and earn a college degree before her children. So, about the same time her daughter enrolled at MSUB, she signed up, finished her bachelor’s and spent the next three years earning her master’s in public relations.
“Before they got their pieces of paper, I needed to get my piece of paper,” she said.
Joshua Munsell took the most traditional path, graduating from Billings West High in 2010 and earning his degrees in four years. However, he switched majors after a sophomore year during which he realized his initial choice, pursuing a career in physical therapy, wasn’t for him.
“If you get in and realize it’s not what you want to do, don’t be afraid to move on from it,” he said. “There’s still time.”
As a junior at West High, Kelsey Munsell realized during her brother’s freshman year at MSUB that she was ready for college.
So, with her family’s blessing and through working with the university, she dropped out of high school halfway through her junior year, enrolled as a home school student and started taking classes at MSUB.
“They were really great in working with me,” she said.
Education has always been a priority for the family. Heather and Kelsey Munsell until 2012 ran their own business, a yoga studio called Mind Over Matter, while they attended class.
When Jeff Munsell had the opportunity to take a work promotion that required the family to move to Seattle in May 2013, they packed up and headed west but finished their degrees through MSUB’s online programs.
“The online program has been amazing for us,” Heather Munsell said. “None of this would have worked out without that.”
Even with the upheaval of moving, the family has excelled, with Joshua Munsell finishing with a 3.5 GPA after taking about a quarter of his classes online, Kelsey Munsell finishing with a 3.9 and while taking all but about six classes online and Heather Munsell graduating with a 4.0 in her master’s program, all of which was taken online.
Susan Balter Reitz, a professor of communication and the interim director of MSUB’s online learning program, has worked with the Munsells in various ways since 2011.
“I never had the opportunity to have all three of them at the same time but they’re wonderful students and really good-natured people,” she said. “Their success is a combination of their own motivation, the availability and accessibility of the programs they wanted and their own flexibility.”
All three Munsells did end up in a few classes together though, especially since all three pursued degrees that require plenty of communications classes.
That allowed them to share ideas and help each other out, but also forced them to explore new ideas and topics.
“We’ve all had classes together,” Kelsey Munsell said. “We have similar interests but we come at them in different ways. Going through all of this as a family, we had a built in support system.”
With their time at MSUB wrapping up, the Munsells are now chasing new opportunities in Seattle. Heather Munsell is applying for teaching positions at local colleges while both children have been accepted to master’s programs at the University of Washington.
Kelsey Munsell will study human-centered design and engineering, which she described as “research and design on how people use technology and software” to make it easier to use and hopes to work for a tech company in Seattle.
With the leadership, team-building and communication skills learned at MSUB, Joshua Munsell plans to earn his master’s at UW in education or teaching and pursue a career in teaching, thanks to a summer internship he finished last year.
“I found out during my internship last summer that I love working with kids,” he said. “I’d never really done that before.”
Heather Munsell said it’s those kinds of realizations that will keep the family learning and exploring long after they’ve earned their degrees.
“If you ever stop wanting to learn, what’s the point?” she said