We’re excited to share two more great conversations with Lehigh staff members who recently earned their master’s degree at Lehigh through the employee tuition benefit program. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
When we met Sarah Andrews, Associate Director of Executive Education, (on Zoom) recently, a mylar balloon owl wearing a cap and gown was bobbing around in the background. It was part of a graduation gift from her family. “It’s been going for about a month now. It's just chilling back there,” she explained. “And it's funny because it’s become a staple of my Zoom meetings. People just want to check in on the balloon and see how it's doing.” Sarah was the second employee hired into the new executive education program of the College of Business in 2016.
What is Executive Education?
I usually describe us as a department that functions as a mini college within the larger university - but with programs geared towards professionals who are already established in their careers. Participants in our programs are people who work in the business world and are looking to enhance their skills or fill a gap in their knowledge to get to the next stage.
We provide two parallel services. First, we have open enrollment non-degree programs which anyone can register for. They are one or two day programs, many of which can be combined to earn an executive certificate. And then we also work one-on-one with organizations to create custom learning and development programs. For example, one of our clients is a local hospital system. We work with a group of their physicians each year, teaching them leadership and business development. Doctors run their own practices, but they don't gain any business skills as part of their clinical training, so this helps fill that gap and sets them on the path to be leaders in the health network.
So, we’re kind of like a startup within the university. We've been here for a little more than four years now and it’s been really fun to see the growth over time.
How did your career path lead you to Lehigh?
In my last role before Lehigh, I worked in Washington, DC for an association. I worked in their professional learning services department, coordinating workshops, eLearning courses, and webinars - and then eventually moved to their conference program department, planning their 12,000 person annual conference from the content side (conference sessions, plenaries, and networking events).
Eventually, I needed a new challenge. I wanted something where there wasn’t an established precedent. So when I saw that Lehigh was launching an executive education center, I saw the opportunity to help shape its future. I was really excited by that. I also loved that executive education combined my passion for learning and development with my undergrad degree in Business. And now that I’ve been here for 4 years, I still love that no two days are the same.
It seems logical that someone working in the College of Business would choose the MBA program, but tell us why you went in that direction.
You know, education is a lifelong thing for me. I think because of the combination of my chosen career path and just my general curiosity, I will always be trying to learn new things. I'm the person who just wrapped my MBA and am already thinking ‘What about a PhD?’
I'd always known that I wanted to pursue a master's degree, and I was deciding between an MBA and a master's in organizational leadership or something focused around teaching and learning or program design.
Even though I got my undergraduate degree in business, there's a big difference between learning business before you have any experience in it and then going back and doing your MBA with some years under your belt actually spent working. For me, a master's degree always represented being able to take classes that I actually wanted to take rather than classes that I had to take. The real world application that exists in the FLEX MBA program (Lehigh Business' part-time MBA program) adds a layer that brought back to life all of the concepts that I might have learned as an undergrad and then brushed to the side.
What was it like getting started in the program?
I was initially worried about going into the FLEX MBA program because I wasn't coming from a for-profit background. I thought that I might not have as much to contribute in class discussions. I discovered that in fact my background in education and nonprofits was actually a kind of counterpoint to some of the things that the other people in my classes had experience in.
From the first class I took, I realized that my experience wasn't discounted just because it didn't happen in a traditional Fortune 500 environment, and that there was a lot that happens in nonprofit and education that the corporate world could learn from and vice versa. Education tends to move a bit slowly, whereas the corporate world is very fast paced. But because the education and non-profit sectors are so resource-limited, institutions have to be a little more scrappy. In addition, my experience has been diverse because when you're working in a small department or for a small organization, you wear a lot of different hats. When you're in the corporate world, your role might be very specific and focused. So you don't have that same kind of global perspective of things.
Has the work you did to earn your MBA been helpful in your job?
For me, especially in my role at Lehigh because I am working with business faculty to design other programs, it has helped on two fronts. First, I was able to take what I was learning and use that in my work. But also, hearing other people's perspectives in class gave me a better understanding of how, across industries, the same problems perpetuate themselves and show up in different ways.
So I think that my work and the MBA program complemented each other really well. I was definitely in an interesting position because while there were other students in the program who were Lehigh employees, I was the only one actually working in the College of Business and taking classes with faculty who I also worked directly with professionally. It was an interesting sort of dynamic, but one just reinforced the other really well and I got to know them a lot better.
I knew going into the program that my career will probably forever be in the learning and development field. I really love what I do. So, I did an independent study in Adult Learning Theory with Dr. Farah Vallera in the College of Education. I did a deep dive into the theory, best practices, and practical applications for corporate learning, and through my independent study I was able to revamp our executive education curriculum development process so that we can ensure our programs are experiential, impactful, and provide takeaways that are immediately applicable to participants. It was fun to find that way to meld personal and professional on something that has a direct impact.
How did you manage your dual roles within the college?
I was very careful to keep the two separate so, you know, I was “Student Sarah” in my classes and then during work hours I was “Work Sarah.” Those lines kind of could blur sometimes. For instance, I got to see faculty members teaching and got to know their content well enough to see whether they might also work well in an executive environment, which is a different teaching style. It definitely helped build those connections.
What was it like balancing work and school?
It was a really positive experience. I started the MBA program in the summer of 2017 and I didn't take a break throughout the whole thing. I was taking classes every summer term. I doubled up during certain semesters, where it made sense. I knew that if I stopped that I could be in danger of getting used to having that time back, so I kind of just went through at a steady pace. I understand why Lehigh doesn't let employees take more than six credits a semester, because anything more than that is a little hard to manage with a full time job.
One of my unique challenges was that because I worked in the College of Business, the mental divide didn't easily exist. My classes were in the same building as my office. So I had to really focus and make sure that I was protecting my time for both areas because obviously you can't let the job suffer to take classes, but you also have to meet the demands of your classes. So I had to get really good at time management and also kind of compartmentalizing so that one didn't bleed over into the other.
Because my office was right in the building where my classmates were, they would sometimes stop by. I had to remind them that I was working. So in addition to carving out the time, finding those boundaries was probably the hardest part.
But there were probably some sacrifices, right?
Oh, sure of course. I think back to last year when I went to a Penn State tailgate with friends and while they were playing cornhole, I was sitting in a lawn chair reading case studies. There were some personal things that I had to either not go to or not be fully present for. There wasn't anything major that I missed, but it definitely took a little bit away from social time and family time. I think it was all worth it. It’s not always fun in the moment, but you know what you're working towards. And you know why it's important. So you do it.
Do you have any words of advice for people who are thinking about doing this?
Carefully consider which program you choose. It’s one of the main principles of adult learning theory - you need to be interested in the program and see the benefits in it for your future in order to learn. Once you're an adult, there are so many other obligations and distractions. If you don't see the benefit in what you're doing, you're not going to finish.
Also, I would encourage anyone thinking about this to start now. There's never going to be a perfect time, so just start with one class and see how it goes. I’m also more than happy to talk to anyone who is undecided on the FLEX MBA and wants more information!
Neil Gogno has spent the last seven months working with his colleagues in Admissions to re-imagine everything they do. The Admissions Office launched a new virtual platform for admitted students to offer content that would help them choose Lehigh. They took big events like spring Admitted Students Days and recurring programs like admissions tours, information sessions, and interviews online. And, through it all, Neil has also been part of the team looking for ways to safely offer on-campus events for prospective students. Neil started as an assistant director at Lehigh eight years ago. Now, as a senior associate director, he supervises a team of three.
Was university admissions your planned career trajectory?
I didn't have a clear timeline. When I started at Lehigh, I was fresh out of college. I graduated from Cabrini College in 2012 with a bachelor's in English, concentrating in Film Studies, and a minor in marketing. Like most admissions people I was a tour guide at my school. I also was on the board of trustees as a student representative. As an athlete, I had taken part in some recruiting. So, I really liked the higher education environment. I knew that I really wanted to continue in higher ed.
It takes about a year to get used to the work in admissions because you need to go through a full cycle. What we do in the fall is very different from what we do in the winter and what we do in the spring. I started my job in August 2012 and got right into learning how to plan my travel and how to talk about Lehigh. Then I got right out on the road.
When I came back from my visits to my territory, I learned about giving information sessions and reading applications, which is pretty much all you do during the winter. Right around March we gather back together to finish building the class. In April you get pushed into the forefront of admitted student events. At the same time, new visitors are coming to campus -- juniors who are starting their lists, seniors who are trying to make their decisions.
It really takes at least two years to feel like you’ve mastered the admissions cycle. The saying in the industry is “it's three or 30.” You’ll either be in it for three years, get burnt out and leave, or you'll be in it for the rest of your career. So I guess I'm on that trajectory.
When did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I always saw myself pursuing a master's degree in some way, shape or form, especially given the tuition benefit opportunity. But I probably wasted two years trying to decide which program. I initially thought of doing an MBA. But as I thought about my future, it seemed to be leaning more higher ed. And so the Educational Leadership program really appealed to me in that sense.
I started in the spring of 2017 as a non-degree seeking student because I was still kind of test driving it to see what it would be like to take a class with the cycle of admissions work. All of that can be tough to balance, so I remained a non-degree seeking student for four classes, sticking to spring and summer classes since Fall is our heavy travel season.
What were some of your favorite experiences that stuck with you?
I took a data informed decision making class that I really, really enjoyed. The professor was specific that while the course is officially called data “based” decision making, you don't want to base decisions on data only. We learned how to use data as part of decisions, but not to ignore a gut instinct, particularly if you have personal or professional knowledge that may contradict that data. You need to be aware of whether the data says you're not making the right choice or that you should be making a different choice, so that you can ultimately justify whatever choice that you make, either in spite of or because of the data.
As an associate superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, the professor brought a really interesting perspective from the community and the way he uses data in his everyday job.
The Education Leadership program is mainly geared toward K-12 educators. How did your professors help you get the most out of the degree?
I was very upfront with my professors that while I have some exposure to high schools because I recruit and talk with counselors, I primarily wanted to take these skills and translate them to higher education. They were all very open with me tweaking papers or assignments, looking at these things from my lens. I found the faculty to be very accommodating in that realm.
I still benefited from the classroom experience as well. My classmates were mostly people who wanted to be principals, superintendents and heads of departments in their high schools or middle schools. So, I would listen to their contributions during classes and translate the structure of a high school into the structure of a university.
I took a supervision and management class that was really interesting and the skill sets I got from there I could see applying in my workplace as I was learning about them.
What do you think is the biggest impact that getting your master's degree had beyond what you actually learned?
When you’re fresh out of college, you go from learning all the time to a new kind of learning, where you’re trying to obtain the professional skill sets you need. And I did that for two or three years. But after a certain point, I felt comfortable in my job and started wondering, what's the next thing to learn? This experience helped me find those next things. It doesn’t have to only be a structured program like the M. Ed program where you have classes and readings. It can just be knowing there are books to read or one-off classes to take.
I’m now taking one of the management tracks through HR’s Career Enrichment program (CE@L). That's the next thing I moved on to for this year, and my goal is to complete that. So, the master’s program reinforced my love of learning and my desire to keep exposing myself to new thoughts and new ideas. And there are some ancillary, secondary topics that I'm interested in that are out there that I was exposed to because of some of the classes I took as well.
Were there some things that you had to give up in order to finish your degree? How did you balance it?
I had moved in with some of my friends from high school in Conshohocken, an hour and 15 minute commute from Lehigh. I didn’t mind the commute because it was a fun opportunity to live with friends and have that experience. I did that for two years but when I finally decided to pursue a masters, I knew I couldn’t spend two and a half hours in the car every day. So I moved up to Bethlehem. So I actually changed my lifestyle to accommodate graduate school.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about following in your footsteps?
Do it sooner rather than later. As a supervisor, I tell my staff that if they’re interested in starting a graduate program, they should reach out and start the conversation. I met with someone from the MBA program twice over the course of my first three years here, just trying to figure out if that was the right program. I also met with somebody about the Education Leadership program. The nice thing about Lehigh is that there are people here and they want to help you if you seek them out. We tell the students that all the time, but it's important for we staff members to remember that as well.
Even if you don't know if it's right for you, take a class. It's free. The only thing it costs is your time. Even if you don't decide to get a master’s degree, at least you've had that experience and have a sense of what graduate classes are like.
So what’s next?
The MBA program is in the back of my mind. I think it is potentially a differentiating degree for the field that I'm in. Regardless of what I decide, I just want to make sure that I keep challenging myself and keep learning.
Ready to take the next step? Learn more about Lehigh employee tuition benefits on the HR website.