March 23, 2011 | “I had some spare time,” jokes Krista Laursen (CISL) when asked what inspired her to pursue a doctor of business administration degree while simultaneously working as project director for the NCAR–Wyoming Supercomputing Center.
Krista is one of dozens of staff members who utilize the UCAR Education Assistance Program to further their educations, whether that means taking a class or two or obtaining a degree. Currently, about 65 employees are in the program as degree-seeking students in disciplines as diverse as information technology, environmental policy, electrical engineering, government contracting, accounting, business, applied statistics, and, of course, atmospheric science.
“The Education Assistance Program is one of this organization’s many excellent benefits,” says Laurie Carr, HR’s benefits manager. “It’s exciting to see staff move on to new opportunities within the organization after obtaining a degree.”
The program, which is funded from UCAR’s benefits pool, prepays full tuition for all participants, from the first day of class through graduation. It is intended to assist staff in maintaining and improving the skills necessary for future job advancement. All employees with appointments of more than six months are eligible to participate, with the exception of visitors, casuals, and student assistants.
Because courses must be taken for the purpose of increasing an employee’s effectiveness in his or her present job and improving the potential for advancement within the organization, HR looks at each application on a case-by-case basis and requires that supervisors sign off. Highly specialized training, such as a pilot’s license, does not qualify. The program tends to attract degree-seeking students in higher education, but anything from a GED to a Ph.D. is eligible. Slacking, however, is not allowed; participants must earn a grade of C or higher in each undergraduate course and B or higher in graduate courses for continued eligibility.
“The program tends to attract people who really make a career out of this organization,” says HR’s Betty Singleton, who administers the program. “In many cases, they’ll roll straight from master’s degrees to Ph.D.s.”
Staff have a variety of reasons for going back to school. In some cases they’re launching a fresh career; in other cases, they’re enhancing an established one or branching into new areas.
• In Krista’s case, she worked as a project manager at NCAR for a number of years—one of her tasks was overseeing the acquisition of HIAPER—before she attended the UCAR Leadership Academy in 2006 and the Executive Leadership Program in 2008. The experiences piqued her interest in leadership theory and development. After looking into a few master of business administration (MBA) programs, she settled on a doctor of business administration (DBA) degree offered online through Walden University.
“The doctoral degree interested me most because it will give me opportunities to expand my learning and to conduct research in a field I’ve become very passionate about,” she says, adding that she hopes to perform that research here in the UCAR/NCAR workplace.
• Bryan Anderson, currently a network technician in CISL/NETS, started working at UCAR/NCAR in 1999 as a sous chef in the cafeteria. He then moved into a position in NETS and, after taking a few continuing education courses at CU, decided to formally pursue a bachelor’s degree with a major in information technology.
Although Bryan’s job in NETS is similar to what he was doing before he obtained the degree, he’s been reclassified and says that the degree has helped him progress further and faster. His coursework has also allowed him to branch into new areas, such as GIS, that he learned about in school.
• For Karla Edwards (F&A/IT), the Education Assistance Program helped her decide where to focus. Originally an administrator in HR, Karla was working as an IT project manager in the early 2000s when she started a dual master’s degree at Regis University in project management and database technologies.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the database side or continue where I was,” she says. “Once I dabbled in programming, I decided that it wasn’t for me. But the degree helped me decide, and it was all directly transferable back to my job.”
• Carl Drews, a software engineer in NESL/ACD, got a master’s degree in atmospheric and oceanic sciences from CU in 2009. He’s still in the same job, but he says that the degree has helped him communicate with scientists much better than before. (And his thesis research on the biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea even made national headlines last September.)
“I like writing software, so in that respect, I don’t think that the degree will change my role here,” he says. “But it’s really nice to understand what the scientists around me are talking about and what’s going on at NCAR in general. Being more closely involved in research would be a plus, perhaps in ocean modeling or coupling ocean and atmospheric models.”
• Rachel Hauser, a research relations specialist in the NCAR Directorate, was listening to speakers at an American Meteorological Society science policy colloquium in 2009 when she became inspired to jump into the field herself. She’s now a CU student in the thick of a master’s degree in climate policy with a focus on geoengineering.
“I’ve been writing about climate science for so long, I wanted to see if I could get more into the game myself instead of reporting on it,” she says. “This degree is perfect for my job because it’s a nice bridge between the science and the people using the science.”
A delicate balancing act
For a working adult removed from the days of all-nighters and midnight pizza delivery, the thought of going back to school while maintaining a job—not to mention a family—can be daunting. Indeed, employees who’ve been through the Education Assistance Program don’t sugarcoat the challenges.
Chris Knoetgen, an administrative assistant in F&A, started working at UCAR/NCAR in 1996. Over the years, he’s worked in the cafeteria, driven the shuttle, and been a materials handling clerk. He’s also been working on his bachelor’s of science, with a major in meteorology, on and off at Denver State University (formerly Metropolitan State University), when he lived in Arvada, and at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley after moving to Loveland. He’s found it difficult to juggle the long commutes between home, work, and school—a challenge compounded by fatherhood.
Despite this, he says, “The program is wonderful. My biggest recommendation is, once you start, don’t stop.”
Bryan, who spent about seven years working on his bachelor’s degree, tried as much as possible to schedule his courses in the afternoons and evenings, while working a 7–3 schedule at NCAR. “It was a grueling effort, but I knew that one day it would pay off and it really has,” he says. “I’ll always have that degree, and there’s no way I could have done it without the support of NETS and my co-workers.”
Krista, who has two young children, credits her husband for his support. The fact that her coursework takes place online helps her balance work and family. “I go to my job during the day, try to get home reasonably early, spend time with my family, and then study at night and on weekends,” she says.
Karla made sure to complete her degree before having her second child. Rachel, who is taking two courses per semester, describes her daily life as “work, school, and a little bit of exercise.”
To help employees balance work and school, the Education Assistance Program grants employees up to five hours per week of paid education time if class occurs during an employee's normal work hours and there are no options to attend the class during non-work hours. It’s a benefit that all participants describe as both generous and essential. They also credit the cooperation of their supervisors and colleagues and the helpfulness of Laurie and Betty in navigating the enrollment process.
“We’ve worked hard at UCAR to maintain and expand our benefits over the years,” says Laurie, who’s been in HR for 20 years. “The Education Assistance Program is well utilized. People recognize the opportunity they have available to them, and they make it work.”