Lehigh Staff Earn Master's Degrees, Find the Joy in the Grind

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Thursday, September 17, 2020


Lehigh employees can earn graduate degrees tuition-free through the university’s employee tuition benefit program. We spoke with several recent graduates to find out what it’s like to work and study at Lehigh. Our Zoom interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


Ashley Baker

Ashley is Associate Director of Student Services in the Office of  Registration and Academic Services (RAS). She has been at Lehigh since 2011. She supervises a team of three. In addition to earning her graduate degree, Ashley also takes advantage of Career Enrichment (CE@L) programs through Human Resources and has served on the Employee Relations Advisory Committee (ERAC).


What do you do in your role in RAS?

Some of my primary functions are working with students on degree audits and graduation clearance. And then I also have involvement in transfer students and first your registration. So kind of helping students move through that experience from when they start till graduation. I help oversee some of the front operations of our office as well.


What has your career path in this field been like? 

I was a first generation college student responsible for paying for my own college education. There was an expectation of me from my family that I was going to go to college, but I had to figure out a way and pay for it, too.

I started at community college, just trying to find my way. I had been working retail since I was young, and an opportunity came up that was for an office job at Cedar Crest College. I really didn't know much about it, but it made sense to work somewhere I could access tuition benefits as well as earn a living in a more professional environment.

I obviously knew very, very little about the college experience even at the time having attended community college. I didn't know what to expect. I worked in the registrar's office at Cedar Crest. And it just kind of clicked with me. I enjoyed learning about higher education and working with college students. 

Then, I started as a coordinator in RAS at Lehigh. In 2015 I moved to my current supervisory position, which has kind of morphed a bit over the years. That’s also when I decided to start the master’s degree program.


What led you to that decision at that point?

It’s something that I had been considering for some time after starting at Lehigh, just knowing it was an option, and I felt it was a benefit that was worth taking advantage of. 

I was a bit nervous about starting and balancing that with work and home life as well, but after moving into the new position, it just felt like it was the right next step. I felt like it was something that I needed to do in order to continue my own professional development and to be able to continue to grow in my role.


Why did you choose the Educational Leadership program in the College of Education?

Even though the program is primarily structured for the K-12 environment, I thought it would really help me, both internally within my office and in my interactions with students. I've strengthened my leadership skills and have been able to exemplify some of those skills in my work with our students and supporting them as they continue on their educational journey.

My intention wasn't necessarily for a specific end goal or a desired position as a result of getting the degree. It was more to continue learning so I could keep growing in my role.

Lehigh staff member Ashley Baker stands outside Packard Lab smiling with pride after accomplishing her goal of earning a Master's Degree in educational leadership.
"Being able to really connect the program to my job was beneficial for me." Ashley Baker, Associate Director of Student Services in the Office of Registration and Academic Services

How did you make graduate school work in addition to work and life responsibilities?

I have two children. My oldest is eight, so she was already around when I started the program, my youngest is three and she came along, while I was still in the program. I took a semester leave of absence from the program when my youngest was born so that I wouldn’t go into labor during class!

I went into the program with plans to take it slow, one class a semester. But to keep going and not not give up on it, to be able to balance home and work.

I have had a very unconventional journey through education. At Cedar Crest, I worked full time and took classes full time and that was my life. I wasn't a student who lived on campus. I didn't have that transition period. So in some ways I think that helped me prepare for the graduate program as I was used to trying to balance all these things at one time.

I just wanted to take my time with it. And so that's what I did. I took one class each semester and found ways to carve out my schedule to accommodate for the reading and the writing and extra time demands that didn't exist previously.


How did you make that happen? What did you need to get it done?

For me, quiet is necessary, especially when I’m reading material that can sometimes be difficult to follow such as complex research studies. I spent a lot of lunch hours with my office door closed so I could focus on my work for class.  Occasionally I would go outside and sit in one of the Adirondack chairs on the UC lawn to get a little bit of sunshine while also trying to read.

I ended up doing the rest of it once my kids went to bed. With young children, it's pretty much impossible to find quiet time, as you can probably hear in the background. And my doors are closed right now!

I had to be very intentional about adding that time to my schedule in order to make sure I could stay on top of it. And most of that ended up being late at night.


Can you share an experience from the program that was particularly meaningful for you?

I did an independent study with George White researching the impact that offices like RAS can have on the success of first generation college students. I did a lot of research in order to benchmark my office’s programs against peer institutions. I found that really interesting because it gave me the opportunity to explore an area that was a little bit beyond what I was doing in my day-to-day work, but also tied into what I'm doing on a regular basis. Being able to really connect the program to my job was beneficial for me. 


Does your older child understand what you've been doing? Do you think you’ve provided an example for her to follow?

She was young through most of the time while I was in the program, but I've tried to explain to her what it was that I was doing. I explained the different steps of education, how she would start with elementary school and then go to middle school, then high school and then college.

I'm not sure that she fully understood what it meant, but I think that it's important that she just understands the importance of continuing to learn. There never needs to be an ending point to when you stop learning. I think that the biggest thing that she has seen is that I'm not too old to be in school.


Any words of advice for someone who might be thinking about doing this?

I spent a lot of time thinking about doing it. I had even registered for a few information sessions that I never actually went to because I kind of had cold feet.

My advice would be to try to overcome the nerves. Just take a course to see how it goes. Take it day by day without trying to cram in as much as you can as quickly as possible. Once I finally took my first course, I kind of had that feeling that  ‘Okay, this isn't so bad.’  And that gave me the confidence to keep going.

Christopher Herrera

Chris is the assistant director of Marketing in the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s been a full time staff member since he started as a graphic designer in 2016. With two small children at home, Chris faced many of the same challenges as Ashley.


How did you get started at Lehigh?

I'm Lehigh through and through! It’s a weird and long story, but I’m a first generation college graduate. I'm from Allentown born and raised and I started out in Penn State Lehigh Valley, but it didn't really work out as well as I thought it was going to. So I left and went to community college locally. My time in community college really helped me better understand how to be successful in college. But what I really wanted to do was come to a university like Lehigh. It was a huge deal to get here essentially. 

I was working part time as a manager in a store while I was a student and really had to learn how to manage my time. When I graduated I was looking for work in my field and I got offered an internship here. After about a year I ended up getting a full time job as a graphic designer at College of Arts and Sciences. 

It almost felt like the universe was telling me that this is where I needed to go. I couldn't imagine having gone anywhere else especially with the leadership team in CAS. I'm really happy being where I am. 


Why did you decide to get a master’s degree?

I hadn't planned getting a masters but my boss, Rob Nichols, who's the marketing and communications director, was wrapping up the program himself as I was in my first year as his employee and he said “Chris if you want to consider going back to school this is a really strong program. If you want to learn about organizational leadership and if you envision yourself wanting to grow, this is a great path to do so.”  And he was right.  It was really a great program.

Lehigh Staff Member Chris Herrera shares a photo op with the iconic statue of founder Asa Packer, celebrating earning his master's degree in educational leadership
"I'm Lehigh through and through." Christopher Herrera, Assistant Director of Marketing, College of Arts and Sciences

How was it getting started?

To be honest, it wasn't something that I thought I was going to be all that successful in. In my first class I thought, “Man, what am I doing here?”

But then after I got a couple of classes under my belt, I realized this was going to be a life changer.  There was so much about education that I was not aware of until I went through this program.


Can you explain what you mean?

I knew I didn't go to one of the more privileged school districts in the area. But there were a lot of things I didn’t know I was disadvantaged in. I just thought I was not up to par with other students. I felt it when I was at Penn State, when I made the jump from high school to college for the first time when I was younger. I could see how much I struggled initially in school. And I felt like I wasn't at their level. 

But then I had a reawakening once I went to community college. That was like my restart. It helped me figure out what I needed to do to be an excellent student.  I feel I was a couple years behind you my peers who had gone to better school districts. Not to denigrate my school district because I know that they are doing the best that they can with the budgets that they have. And I give thanks to all the teachers that I've had. But, there's a lot of disparity in terms of what one school district can provide versus another.

So when I went through the courses in the Education Leadership program I was able to see how those things can affect students and kids as they're growing up. 


Were there any particular courses that provided that perspective? 

For me, the course I would say was life changing was the Diversity course I took with Professor Chris Liang. It was the most eye-opening course I've had in all my time in college. 

I learned more about people from my background and people who are even more disenfranchised. I saw how much further we have to go, but there were also a lot of solutions that arose in the reading. I learned how I can make change -- that it can start out with me, my family. Then the knowledge that I spread becomes a net I cast that can help people. 

For this class, I wrote a paper about cultural capital and how crucial it is in a young person's life to feel entitled. If you have that cultural capital, you feel entitled and the next step is to go to college. Kids who are raised in families without cultural capital to pass on are much less sure of themselves when it's time to go to college. They don’t feel entitled to that level of education. 

As a first generation student, all of those factors played into why I didn't find success in college initially. I didn't have parents that had gone to college, my brothers didn’t go through the college system like I had. There were a lot of things that I didn't know. I didn't know what a Dean was. I didn't know what a provost was -- things that are so common to universities. I didn't even know what they meant. But now that I have kids, I'm going to pass all of these things that I know along to them.

When you're a first generation student your family may not know what it is that you're actually doing, so it’s harder for them sometimes to understand when you need to work on your homework or you need to miss a social gathering. There's this inner turmoil that you feel within you -- do I appease my family or friends, or do I do what I need to be successful?  It’s an additional pressure. Looking at my own experience through the lens of what I learned in my master's degree program has allowed me to reflect on it. 

Now that I'm privileged enough to have had that experience, I can be more understanding of my children when they grow up. 


How did your studies apply to your job at Lehigh?

In almost every course I took, I was able to research and write about something that was related to my job. I can give you a specific example.

I took a course in data-driven decision making. It was one of the best experiences I have had. I'm not a huge math person, and I don't like numbers all that much. But there wasn’t a lot of math. The course was really about being able to understand trends and numbers and to think critically about data. I asked if I could write about analytics for websites because a lot of my work is developing websites for CAS.

I used Google Analytics to read the trends in what users were clicking on, how much time they spent on a particular web pages, if there was a high rate of exiting from a specific page. I looked at the flows of clicks, seeing where users were jumping from one page to the next. 

I could start to see trends through the data and then based off of that, as a web designer, I can improve that flow for the user. I can ask if there is anything that I can do from my end to help the user experience? It could be as simple as moving an “apply now” button higher up the page. 


How were you able to juggle all of it and finish?

I took a lot of courses in the summer right before the fall. I think I took three or four courses, including a compressed course where you do 40 hours of coursework in a week, just before my daughter was born so that I could finish.

I tried not to think about what I was doing too much because then it feels overwhelming, but it was such a great experience.  

My wife, Indiany, just finished her bachelor's degree at Moravian College as well. She's an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and she has sort of had a similar trajectory to mine. We've been on this road together trying to overcome challenges and get our degrees. I was working hard. But she was working twice as hard. And now she's actually studying at Lehigh. She just started the technical entrepreneurship program. 

So we're grinding. That's kind of our mantra here in the house -- we just grind every day. Since we're the first ones in our family to do it, it's almost like it's imperative that we do it. I would say it's very difficult. But there's so much beauty in overcoming the challenge.


So what would you tell folks who are considering taking the leap?

That it's worth it. It's a blessing, not just for me but for my family. It was a personal and professional growth experience. 


What are you doing now with all of your “free time?”


I actually love to just sit and just do nothing when I get a chance to at night. Being able to have a normal breather, I love it.