From his home in Mendocino — or occasionally sitting in a Mendocino café or library — James Sommermann completed 23 online classes in music, English, statistics, Spanish, psychology, anthropology and geology.
He will enter the University of California at Berkeley this fall with hopes of double majoring in music and English.
Foothill offers all-online associate's degrees in 18 subjects as well as an array of all-online "certificates of proficiency." College officials said they have no way to track the number of students earning all-online degrees but that online classes accounted for about 27 percent of last quarter's enrollment.
Many students take a combination of traditional classes and online classes. But Sommermann needed to stay close to home in Mendocino, where he's been helping with driving and household chores for a family member who has health problems.
"I'm not going to say it's ideal because I'd rather go to in-person classes to be honest, but it was really just not possible for me at that point," he said.
He'd never taken an online class before enrolling at Foothill and said he first considered it "kind of a weird idea." He stumbled on Foothill — which he'd never heard of before — while helping a friend search for an online music class. Then he decided to try it himself.
"I ended up really enjoying it, for the most part," he said.
Over 18 months as a Foothill student Sommermann met "very few" of his professors in person but "talked to them a lot through email," he said. While he missed the camaraderie of in-person classes, he said professors tried to make up for it by welcoming electronic contact.
"They return emails very quickly and they encourage you to communicate with them," he said. "If you don't understand something you 'talk' to them. Some of them you get to know pretty well — at least as well as you can know anybody through email.
"A few of them even asked me where I'm transferring to and stuff."
Sommermann "met" his fellow students online, including a partner in a Spanish class with whom he regularly recorded conversations for review by the professor.
"You have to record it in real time, so you're talking over the computer like it's a phone, or a video chat without the video," he said. "The professor listens to it and grades it."
In twice-weekly online conversations, Sommermann got acquainted with his Spanish partner online but still could not say where the partner actually, physically lives.
"I assume it was close (to Foothill) because I think he took in-person classes too," Sommermann said. "He works a lot, so that's why online classes were good for him."
He also used specialized software that enabled him to enter musical notation for assignments in his music theory classes.
He met other remote classmates through online forums.
"For most classes there would be like a discussion board. We'd post introductions so we could actually talk to each other a bit, to make it more social. Some people have their picture on it," he said.
Sommermann had to physically travel to the Los Altos Hills campus to take exams — "some of them, not all of them" — and also to participate in a week-long program called Pass the Torch, during which he learned how to tutor fellow students.
His stellar performance at Foothill earned him the President's Medal, the college's highest academic honor, as well as admission to UC campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Riverside and San Diego.
He chose Cal because it's not too far from Mendocino and because, he said, "I've always kind of wanted to go to Berkeley."
Though he loved his online classes, Sommermann said he can understand the view of skeptics of online learning.
"I've heard people say you can't learn the same way online as you can in person, or that it's easier or something, which I can't really tell you because I haven't taken the actual class in person.
"Personally I loved (online classes) ... but I could see why someone might say otherwise. College has always had this really traditional aura — it seems caught up in a traditional culture and they wouldn't be so accepting of online classes.
"I'm definitely looking forward to going to Berkeley where I can actually be there."
From its first graduating class of 37 students in 1960 Foothill has grown to serve some 14,000 students each quarter. This year's graduates include 520 earning associate in arts degrees and 355 for associate in science degrees. An additional 61 students will graduate under a new program in collaboration with the California State University system that guarantees admission to CSU with junior standing.