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Gainfully employed, to a degree
U.Va. Staff Join Traditional Students In Walking Down The Lawn

May 11, 2004 -- As many as two dozen University of Virginia employees will leave this weekend with something even more significant than a paycheck: a U.Va. degree. When they walk down The Lawn, each will be cloaked in not just caps and gowns, but in their own personal stories.

* * *

Tim Wilkinson manages a computer lab in the Health System these days, but his path toward the Lawn started when he was the first band director at Sutherland Middle School. The brand-new Albemarle County school was outfitted with the latest computer technology, and Wilkinson immersed himself in it, eventually becoming the unofficial resident expert.

“The mindset for music is the same as the mindset for computers,” he explained, involving decoding and putting things in a logical order.

Wilkinson came to realize that he enjoyed the computer work more than music. He took a computer lab job at U.Va. in 1999. Soon after, he began taking one class per semester toward his master’s degree in education, which he completed this spring.

“It was kind of a personal thing. I wanted to do it for myself,” he said. But the degree also will aid him in his job, as he helps others incorporate technology into their work. “A lot of things I learned in my classes apply to what I am doing now,” he said.

* * *

The University officially encourages employees to seek more education, and offers to pay for it in two ways: tuition waivers and tuition reimbursement.

Under the tuition waiver program, full- and part-time faculty, classified staff and Medical Center employees may take one for-credit class at U.Va. each semester, free of charge. Employees must receive a passing grade, and make arrangements with their supervisors for time lost if the class is not job-related. The tuition reimbursement program allows employees to be reimbursed from departmental funds for taking job-related courses at any level of education, from high school to technical schools to graduate programs.

“Educational benefits are a tremendous value to employees,” said Emily Bardeen, director of faculty and staff career services in Human Resources. She notes that the first $5,250 of educational benefits an employee receives each year are tax-exempt. “You can just add that to your bottom line. … Considering that you might get your U.Va. degree at no charge, that’s a tremendous deal.”

Bardeen has been preaching the employee-education gospel since arriving in June 2001, and her message is finding a receptive audience. This spring, approximately 175 employees took advantage of the tuition waiver program, while another 96 took advantage of tuition reimbursement or assistance programs.

Bardeen calls her annual “Back to the Books” workshops “probably my favorites.” They are designed to encourage employees to resume their academic careers, even long-abandoned ones. She brings in officials from Piedmont Virginia Community College to come talk about their programs. She brings in peers who are enrolled at Piedmont, or in U.Va.’s Bachelor’s of Interdisciplinary Studies program, or other schools. She invites attendees to ask any questions they want. “It’s all about possibilities,” she said.

Many fear entrance exams, particularly in math, she noted. The “Back to the Books” panelists are reassuring, Bardeen said; any math tests are for placement purposes, not entrance requirements.

In her first year, about 30 people attended the workshops. Last year, the number doubled, she said. This spring, 151 employees attended a series of workshops on educational benefits.

* * *

Sally Friedman came to U.Va. three years ago as a marketing and admissions assistant at the McIntire School of Commerce. She already had an undergraduate business degree from Appalachian State University, but her supervisor, assistant dean of admission Cyndy Huddleston, urged her to go for a master’s degree to further her career.

She jumped on the opportunity and earned a master’s from the Curry School of Education, accumulating 30 hours of credit in just three semesters.

“I have a very, very understanding and flexible supervisor,” Friedman said. “I took a lot of night and evening classes. I tried to take as many 4 p.m. classes as possible.”
“She really made it work by being dedicated, flexible, and very conscientious,” Huddleston said.

Friedman will walk the Lawn this weekend with her husband, Dan, who wrapped up his Ph.D. in higher education administration in February.

* * *

Supportive supervisors are important, Bardeen said.

Some are reluctant to allow employees to pursue further education, fearful of losing them to more challenging work elsewhere, Bardeen acknowledged. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.

“The real role of the supervisor is to help develop employees to their greatest potential,” she said. “Sometimes, people think the goal is no turnover. No turnover is arguably worse than too much turnover.”

The University Library, in particular, has been a leader in employee training and education, Bardeen said.

Yolanda Cooper joined the library staff in December as associate university librarian for organizational development. She found a culture that was different from that of her previous employer.

She estimates that as many as three-quarters of the U.Va. library system’s 210 employees pursue some additional training. She noted that supervisors routinely include learning programs as part of the performance review process, and that the library has a training coordinator.

Doesn’t she worry about training employees who will end up leaving fora better paycheck somewhere else?

“My response is that it is important to train the staff and not take that into consideration,” she said. “If people move on, it means they’ve grown while they’re here. We’re not afraid of that.”

* * *

Fay Miller Ferneyhough works in Human Resources management systems, helping crank out the payroll. Back in 1999 — before she came to the University — she had just wrapped up an associate’s degree at PVCC and was looking for a four-year degree option.

“It just so happened to be at the exact right time the BIS program was going to be implemented,” she said. “It was perfect timing.”

The Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, under the auspices of U.Va.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, is the University’s first undergraduate degree program for adult learners. Ferneyhough joined the original entering class and will graduate with concentrations in business and information technology.

She did it with three children at home, currently ages 9, 11 and 16. “I study on every baseball field from here to Northern Virginia,” she said.

* * *

The BIS program opened in fall 1999, offering classes at night for part-time, adult students. Applicants must have completed at least 60 hours of coursework at regionally accredited colleges, including community colleges, to be eligible, and there are few limits on the age of those credits.

BIS students receive the same undergraduate degree as traditional students, with concentrations offered in business, humanities, and social science, plus the opportunity to develop individualized concentrations.

“It was hard getting the message out initially because people absolutely did not expect the University to take this step,” said Donna Plasket, who directs the BIS program.

This weekend’s graduation will more than double the ranks of BIS alumni. Before now, 19 people had earned degrees; this weekend, 28 — including seven current U.Va. employees — will pick up their diplomas.

* * *

Debbie Fisher was an assistant to a former Darden School dean, and went with him when he left to go into private consulting. When he later took an out-of-town job, Fisher made a plan.

She returned to the Darden School, working for what was then the Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. As part of her new job arrangements, she made sure she could take time to attend classes at PVCC. Once finished there, she enrolled in the BIS program.

She admits to having been a bit “overly obsessive” about her studies, even with two teen-aged sons at home. But she also found Darden faculty eager to answer her questions, sometimes shifting conversations from their offices to classrooms in order to illustrate finer points on whiteboards.

“I had the whole building to talk to, and they were always open to what I needed,” she said. “I owe a lot to the faculty at Darden.”

She wrapped up her degree in December, and has already taken on greater responsibility. She directs the Batten Institute’s Batten Fellows program, bringing in business leaders from all over the world to work with Darden faculty and students.

* * *

A new degree, or even additional coursework or vocational training, can give careers a much-needed shot in the arm.

The greatest number of employees at the University are classified as being in the administrative services group, which is in pay band 3, Bardeen says. To move to a higher pay band, they must find a new group; to find a new group, “You need some college,” she said.

That doesn’t mean employees are looking to walk down the Lawn and into a new job. Many grads-to-be stress that they like working where they are and expect to remain. Their additional education will only help them do their jobs better, or enable them to take on new responsibilities.

It is this quest for learning, for learning’s sake, that makes the University special, Bardeen said, and there’s no reason to reserve it only for 18-year-old high school grads.

Contact: Dan Heuchert, (434) 924-7676

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-Nov-2005 10:40:09 EST
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