Deb Rubart from the Provost’s Office could have chosen a different road. As a wife and mom with two kids in elementary school and a full time job in Academic Outreach she enjoyed, she had every excuse not to take on the added workload of college. But something pushed her forward.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to advance without furthering my education,” she recalled. “And as much as I enjoyed the work, it was a dream I had for me to finish my bachelor’s degree.”
That dream finally came true this spring. “It took me ten and a half years,” Deb said, “but here we are.”
As with any life, Deb encountered obstacles on her educational journey. She took about two years off when she needed treatment for cancer. And there were mini-breaks along the way to care for the needs of aging parents. Through it all, though, she never stopped moving forward with her plan.
For Karen Sims, director of information processing in Advancement, receiving her master’s degree in educational leadership this year was the culmination of a decade of work as an adult student balancing the responsibilities of a life with five children.
After finishing an associate’s degree at Northampton Community College that she had started prior to working at Lehigh, Karen decided to complete a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management using the LVAIC tuition benefit program. Within months of finishing that degree, she took her first graduate course at Lehigh.
“By the time I finished my bachelor’s I had successfully completed raising my kids and helping my nephew graduate and I had seen the educational process from the mommy side, but I didn’t know it as well from the educator side,” Karen said. “So I thought I’d take one course in the College of Education and see how it went. With the tuition benefit, if it didn’t go well, I would be okay, because my main goal had really been to complete my bachelor’s degree.”
Three years later, Karen is now taking a break, but she’s also thinking about a doctorate. “I already know what my thesis would be if and when I continue on for my PhD,” she notes. “It has been shaped by all of the experiences and classes I’ve been through.”
Karen Sims had a huge cheering section at Commencement in May,
including co-workers. Her colleague Lisa Hersh took this photo.
Both Deb and Karen completed their undergraduate work at DeSales University. Their ACCESS program is a favorite among Lehigh employees working on bachelor’s degrees because of its accelerated format. Students can take two eight-week evening courses in succession each semester. Deb and Karen agree that it’s an intense but efficient way to earn credits.
We caught up with Deb, Karen, and five other Lehigh employees who completed a degree this year to learn more about the excitement, challenges and opportunities that come with furthering your education through Lehigh’s employee tuition benefits.
Being A Student Where You Work
For employees using the Lehigh graduate tuition benefit, there are some great advantages to studying (for free) where you work.
Susan Ellis from the College of Arts and Sciences advising center had a background in art and art education. Her decision to pursue a master’s degree in teaching, learning and technology in the College of Education brought her back into the world of art that she loves.
“I had a great opportunity to work with Ricardo Viera in the Lehigh Art Galleries,” she said. “I co-curated two exhibitions, produced a video for one of the exhibitions and in my courses, I was able to experiment with augmented reality by producing additional content about the artwork that could be accessed on smartphones via trigger images.”
Maria Asayag, director of diversity recruitment in Admissions, combined her graduate studies in the Educational Leadership program with her work recruiting international applicants in Latin America. “I did research on admissions trends,” she noted. “I looked at all of the universities in South America and created fact sheets on each of them. I got to really understand my competition.”
Maria says her research has made her a better recruiter for Lehigh. “I am better equipped to talk to students about why Lehigh is a great option for them.”
She also did research into how community based organizations (CBOs) help underrepresented students make it to and through college. That research reinforced the importance of strengthening her admissions team’s strategy of working with CBOs. “These programs are fantastic, and they’re working,” Maria said. “Any diversity recruiter has to tap into them and the good work they’re doing.”
For Heather Simoneau, humanities librarian, being a student at Lehigh is something she’s accustomed to. She received her BS in accounting here in 1990. After getting an MLS at Pitt and switching careers, Heather came back to Lehigh in the role of business librarian. Being in the academic setting, she had a yearning to continue her education.
“I’ve always had a love of literature,” she said, “and I thought ‘I can go for free!’ so I started working on my MA in English.” That decision led to a new position, as Heather took on the title of humanities librarian in 2011. Now she’s working on her PhD.
Being a student as well as an employee can provide new insight. According to Heather, “You get to see the university in a different light. It connects you a little bit more because you’re involved in the life of the university as a student.”
While Heather is just starting on her doctorate, Sarah Stanlick from the Office of Research and Graduate Studies heard the magic words “Congratulations, Dr. Stanlick” after successfully defending her dissertation this spring.
Sarah Stanlick beams with pride after earning her PhD this spring.
In Sarah’s case, her role as an employee came after she started the Learning Sciences and Technology doctoral program. Working in the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, she found that students weren’t connecting to the wider world as global citizens. She felt educational technology could be a tool to facilitate that connection. Lehigh’s College of Education was a great fit for her interests.
A few years into her studies, a full time staff position opened up that matched Sarah’s skill set, and she decided to make the leap from full time student to full time employee/part time student. She loves working here. “There are so many things offered to employees, from education benefits to yoga, to opportunities to be connected to the community,” Sarah said.
As time went on, Sarah’s work and studies started to come into greater alignment. “In my work, I’ve learned about writing grants to sustain research and programming that I think are important for faculty members,” she said. “My work on the Mountaintop project is so cool. The students are working with the community and out in the world trying to make things better in a meaningful, ethical, and reciprocal way.”
These experiences shaped her studies. “My dissertation came into focus. I wrote on global citizenship identity development in undergraduate students,” she said. “I studied whether using online reflection methods for global citizenship and service learning work created a more lasting impact on a student’s identity.”
No Blood, But Definitely Sweat and Tears
Jodeen Gemmel, from the Study Abroad Office, found the path to a master’s degree in globalization and educational change in the College of Education a challenging journey. “I took one class a semester, and then I took two years off. I almost gave up. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said.
An encounter with Professor Alex Wiseman at a social occasion brought her back. “He said ‘Have you graduated? I haven’t seen you in a while,’” Jodeen recalled. “And I had to say no, and he said ‘What are you doing? Get it done. Take a class with me, you’ll get it done!’”
Jodeen says Alex’s belief in her got her to return to the program. She registered for a class with him and didn’t stop again. “There was no blood, but it was sweat and tears definitely through every class that I took,” Jodeen said. “But it was very rewarding and I’m so glad I finished.”
Susan Ellis encourages all employees to continue their education.
Susan says it is important to be realistic about the challenges of balancing full time work, outside obligations and pursuing a degree. You will need to give up something. “I didn’t watch a lot of TV so I couldn’t talk about the latest shows with people,” she joked.
Karen adds that calling on your network of support is extremely important. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends can all lend a hand in time of need. And they’ll all share in your achievement.
“Four of my children, my sister, my parents, my grandchildren, my friends and my children’s friends all came to commencement,” Karen said. “I could hear the roar of their cheers when they announced my name. It made all the sleepless nights and the missed events worthwhile.”
For Deb, family was also crucial. “It’s not a journey you take alone. I’ve often told my husband he earned the degree as much as I did, I was just the one doing the homework,” she said. “And thank goodness for my brother. He spent hours with me on Skype tutoring me in statistics.”
Sarah was especially grateful for the support of her Lehigh colleagues. On the day of her dissertation defense, in addition to her husband and parents, her cheering section included a number of co-workers.
“Sujata (Jagota) made cookies. And Sujata cookies are the best in the world,” Sarah said. “While I waited for the committee to make their decision, we all stood out in the hall together. When I was called back into the room, I think I still had one of those cookies nervously clutched in my hand.”
When You Aren’t The Only Student In Your House
Having children can complicate the pursuit of your own education, but most parents we interviewed said that they believe there was a net benefit both for them and their kids. “The fact that they’re watching me model good behavior and they’re proud of me keeps me going,” Heather said.
Karen added that working on a college campus offers chances for enrichment for the whole family. She brought her children with her to lectures by luminaries like Jessie Jackson and Nikki Giovanni. She and her son also took on roles in Every Tongue Confess, a play presented at Zoellner this winter.
Heather’s daughter just finished her first year at Lehigh. She says having her child on campus has been rejuvenating and inspiring. “We sit and work on papers together in my office in the evening, and we push each other,” she said.
For Jodeen, the example she has set for her daughter is one of perseverance. “At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to walk at graduation, and then I thought, I have to. I have to do it for me, and I have to do it for my daughter,” she said. “She’s been on this whole journey with me. She knows she’s going to college and she’s very focused and I’m amazed by her.”
Jodeen Gemmel and her daughter at Commencement.
Susan agrees that being a student at the same time your own children are in school creates a new bond. “I was finishing my last paper, which was a real bear to finish, and my youngest daughter was doing a big English paper,” she recalled. “And so the two of us would come home and work on our papers and we would bat things back and forth.”
Showing Commitment Pays Off
A number of our graduates have experienced opportunities for professional growth at Lehigh as a result of their commitment to education. Although there is no guarantee that earning a degree will lead to a promotion, the experience of furthering your education can open up new horizons.
Deb, who majored in information technology and management, moved into a role as a project manager in the Office of the Provost in which she is applying her education directly every day. In Heather’s case, her ability to move from business librarian to humanities librarian was a direct result of her studies.
Jodeen was recently promoted from coordinator to advisor and program manager in the Study Abroad Office. She credits the combination of her work experience and obtaining her graduate degree.
The impact goes beyond professional growth. For Deb, it was discovering new interests and new things about herself. “It’s kind of a funny thing being in my forties and finding out that I wasn’t as academically challenged as I grew up thinking I was. I learned a lot about me in this process,” she said.
Jodeen believes earning a graduate degree has given her a boost of self-esteem as well. “I feel like it’s my year!”