Lehigh Staff Earn Graduate Degrees Amidst Pandemic Challenges

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Friday, July 16, 2021


Lehigh’s Associate Head Coach of Baseball A.J. Miller was the Patriot League Player of the Year in 2011. Unfortunately for us, he wasn’t a Mountain Hawk. He was, in fact, a Leopard.

But after several seasons of pro ball and a job with the Phillies running their youth and fantasy camps, Lehigh came knocking on this Lafayette grad’s door. A.J. changed his spots and joined Coach Sean Leary’s staff.

“I enjoyed my work with the Phillies, but I knew that ultimately I wanted to be in the college realm, working with competitive athletes. I was familiar with Coach Leary from my years playing at Lafayette, and one of his assistant coaches was a former teammate of mine, so I knew it was a great opportunity.”

Since arriving at Lehigh in 2015, AJ has added responsibilities to his role including directing the team’s recruiting efforts. And this year, he added a new identity - Lehigh alumnus. 

“Being a Lafayette alumnus, I get a lot of flak for it, so now I’m a Lehigh grad, too,” he joked. “But seriously, it’s a great benefit of the job and I’m always eager to learn. I like to constantly absorb new ideas and thoughts. I like to process my own ideas and share my opinions.”

Associate Head Coach A.J. Miller focused on his graduate studies when the pandemic shut down the baseball season.

For Dean of Students Office Coordinator Micha Fell, earning a graduate degree was always a goal. “After starting a family, it took a bit of a backseat to life,” she said.

Micha’s career began at a local non-profit organization supporting young adults with disabilities in gaining school-based, employment and post-secondary goals. “I was supporting young adults on their career and post-school journey,” she explained. “So, while I moved into higher education to obtain more manageable work/life balance, I am still on my career path, just in a different setting.”

Both Micha and A.J. recently earned their M.Ed. in Educational Leadership in Lehigh’s College of Education using the university’s employee tuition benefits. Choosing the program was all about fit.

“A lot of the classes are leadership based which I enjoy,” A.J. noted. “I think the best leaders never stop learning and they never lead in one specific mindset. They lead in accordance with the individual. That’s what I learned from the Ed Leadership program.” 

Micha thinks the program will keep her career moving forward. “I did some research into Lehigh’s graduate programs and although many of my classmates in Ed Leadership work in the K-12 educational environment, I was able to focus on student experience in higher education with my projects,” she said. 

Coordinator of the Undergraduate Program in Electrical and Computer Engineering Jessica Berton finished up her M.S. in Instructional Technology this summer. Her role at Lehigh is varied. On a given day she might be answering questions from students about prerequisites or updating the program’s website. Later, there may be an event or seminar to plan. With a bachelor’s degree in communications, she saw a focus on technology as a natural evolution in her education. 

“After reading through the program and the course descriptions I thought I could take my education and interests one step further by learning how to implement technology in an educational setting,” she said. “I hadn’t really seen myself with a career on the academic side of higher education, but I have really fallen in love with it.”

Dean of Students Coordinator Micha Fell juggled work, graduate studies and two small children with the help of her extended family -- her "village."
“I was still able to get my work done, just with my kids around. Maybe they learned a thing or two along the way, too.”

Like all students at Lehigh, our staff graduates experienced a seismic shift in their education in March 2020. The pandemic affected each of them differently. 

With two small kids at home, Micha faced a new challenge. “During normal times, when I was in class, my kids weren’t there. But during COVID, I had to give a warning that Mommy was in school at the computer,” she said.

Micha said her professors were flexible and understanding. “I was still able to get my work done, just with my kids around,” she said. “Maybe they learned a thing or two along the way, too.”

For Jessica, the content of her courses met the moment. “Going through this program in the middle of the pandemic really tied it all together for me,” she explained. “I was learning to implement and develop various instructional technology platforms and doing so remotely was much more experiential than just using them for a single assignment or activity in a class.”

With a normal work schedule that includes the intensity of a spring athletic season and significant travel for recruitment during the summer, A.J. actually found the pandemic gave him an opportunity to slow down and focus more on his degree. 

“I’m obsessed with my job and I love what I do. I wanted to get the degree finished. Having a baby on the way was also a big incentive,” A.J. said. He dove in and finished his degree in time for the arrival of baby Charlotte this spring.

“When I registered for the class I had no idea what I was getting into.”

With so much of his work on hold, A.J. turned to his classes to continue the forward progress of his recruiting efforts. An elective in geospatial tools, taught by fellow Athletics staff member Julia Oltman (who earned her PhD at Lehigh in 2018), offered just such an opportunity.

“I learned how to use different software platforms and then created a one-stop shop website for our recruits,” A.J. explained. “I created something really different, through virtual tours and Google Earth, that gave me a competitive advantage while we were recruiting remotely.” 

A.J. says Julia went the extra mile last year to provide a rich experience for her students and it paid off. “She brought great guest speakers into the class, including Jeremy Mack, a data and visualization specialist and Lehigh baseball alumnus. He showed me how to use tools to uncover baseball hotbeds based on geographic data, socioeconomic status and other factors,” he said. “When I registered for the class I had no idea what I was getting into, I wanted something different and got a lot out of it.”

Even before the pandemic, Lehigh has reaped the benefits of its staff members who take advantage of the university’s educational benefits. Each employee who has earned a graduate degree has shared stories of putting what they’ve learned into practice almost immediately. Often professors encourage Lehigh staff members to develop projects that align with the work they do.

For example, as part of Micha’s role in Student Affairs, she supports the Student Opportunity Fund. The fund provides resources to students with financial need to pursue experiences outside the classroom. In her class on data-based decision making, she was able to analyze the assessments she gathers from recipients to look for ways to improve student engagement with the program. 

“I found that students only know about it because they talk to other students,” she said. “COVID interrupted our plans but when we are back together I think that Ashley (Lemmons) and I will discuss using some of the ideas from the project. She’s a great person to work with and we bounce ideas off of each other.”

Jessica used an infographic exercise in a class to create a resource for students considering majoring in the program she supports. “The infographic breaks down our courses, what graduates can do with the degree and other information,” she said. “Now I send the infographic to students who inquire and I’ve gotten feedback from them that they find it helpful. Nothing like it had existed in my department previously.”

Undergraduate Coordinator in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Jessica Berton loved how her program took her out of her comfort zone.
"I’m definitely looking forward to getting my weekends back."

There is sacrifice involved in earning a graduate degree while working. Something - or someone - has to give.

“Between my family who live really close - my parents, my brother and sister, my husband - there was always someone to be with the kids, to make dinner, to help out so that I could do my classes,” Micha said. “On the work side, Ashley was super flexible in adjusting hours or figuring out what I needed to do to get to class and get my work done as well. I only took night classes which made it more manageable."

Jessica gave up free time, but also appreciated her supportive supervisor and boss. “They wanted me to finish my degree so they gave me the time I needed and we worked out balancing my job and class work,” she said. “Of course, I did most of my school work over the weekend. A lot of weekends were spent doing nothing but school work, papers, and group projects. I’m definitely looking forward to getting my weekends back.”

A.J.’s extra time these days is all about being a new dad to Charlotte. “She’s my world. I get up early in the morning and I go in there and unswaddle her and she’s smiling. It’s literally the best thing in the world.”

Micha’s freedom from classes and projects means more time for dance lessons, music in the park, and preparing her five-year old for kindergarten. She’s also anticipating returning to campus. “I’m excited to see my co-workers and friends,” Micha said. “I am very ready to come back.” 


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