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Employee Tuition Benefits: Changing Perspectives, Shaping Careers

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Dave Ramsay (above), had no idea that a visit to Moeller Lab on a summer morning would change the course of his future.  Sitting in the lobby while waiting to help present a Tradition of Excellence Award, he was approached by Hisham Abu-Nabaa, the chairman of the Healthcare Systems Engineering graduate program. “He thought I was a student,” Dave recalled. “He came over and said ‘Hey, do you have a couple of seconds to talk about my program?’ and he started pitching me.”

A computing consultant in LTS, Dave was planning to start a computer science degree that fall. After talking to Hisham, he switched programs. “He sold me on it, basically,” he said.

Two years, many sleepless nights, countless Monster energy drinks and a few moments of guilt later, Dave recently graduated with his MS in Healthcare Systems Engineering. As with all of the employees profiled in this article, he got there using Lehigh’s employee tuition benefits.


Getting Started

Casey Petroski earned her M.Ed. using the Lehigh employee tuition benefit.When you work in an office focused on graduate studies, it’s probably a no-brainer that you’ll wind up going to graduate school. For Casey Petroski (right), graduate coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences, it didn’t take too long to come to that conclusion.

“My supervisor, Mary Ann Haller, is a great mentor, and when I arrived here in 2011 it was kind of unspoken between us that I would give myself a full year to adjust to the academic cycle of my work,” Casey said. “Then, once I was comfortable with my work and responsibilities, she said ‘It’s time,’ and that gave me the push that I needed.”

In the case of Alexis Leon (below left) of the Iaccoca Institute, it wasn’t a supervisor who nudged her toward graduate school.  “The honest answer to why I decided to go to graduate school is peer pressure,” she said. “Three of my colleagues were starting with the project management class in the College of Education’s graduate program, so I took the class as well.”

Alexis enjoyed the course, but after two more education classes, she felt she hadn’t found the right program. She went to an open house for the American Studies program. “They had a list of past thesis topics on the board and I saw ‘Disney Princesses’ and ‘Punk,” and I thought ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. These are my people.’”
Alexis Leon (l) and Katrina Kraft (r) started in the same program but their paths diverged. Alexis earned her M.A. in American Studies while Katrina earned an M.Ed.
One of the co-workers Alexis started graduate studies with is Katrina Kraft (above right). Katrina is now in a different position in the Center for Advanced Nanotechnology Manufacturing, but at the time that she started her master’s degree in Globalization and Educational Change, she was also working in the Iacocca Institute.

With a background in finance, Katrina was looking to broaden her knowledge base. “People tended to keep me in a financial box,” she said. “But that’s not all I can do or all of who I am. The main purpose of this degree was to not only learn but also to demonstrate to others that I can think in ways beyond my financial skills and experience.”

A Lehigh “Hat Trick”

Moe Rinkunas earned her third Lehigh degree this year. A hat trick!Moe Rinkunas (right) in Advancement is now a three-time Lehigh graduate. She spent eight years consulting in the pharmaceutical field after earning both a bachelor’s and master’s of science in chemical engineering at Lehigh. Now, as an employee, she spends her time connecting with alumni from the engineering college and helping them find ways to support its work.

Moe says that an MBA was always in the back of her mind. “I knew I wanted to balance the technical knowledge with more of the business side,” she said. “When I got here I met some advancement colleagues who were taking advantage of the tuition benefits and I realized it would be silly not to when it’s something I’ve actually been thinking about for a long time.”





Learning About Yourself


Because she has decided on higher education as a career, Casey chose the College of Education’s master’s program in educational leadership.  But how do you study leadership?

“A lot of what you do when you study leadership is learn about yourself through the stories of others,” Casey said. “We discussed big issues, like Hurricane Katrina, and also day-to-day aspects of our work in higher education. We looked at what we as leaders would have done differently.”

Casey feels she has grown through the experience, and she’s not alone. “About a year into the program, my mom said to me, ‘I never really understood the value of a master’s degree, but I can just tell you’re different in some way,’” Casey said. “She said that I now look at problems from all points of view; not just from my own personal experience.”

All of the graduates agreed that their studies changed their perspective and mindset. Katrina says one of the greatest benefits of her program was the insight she gained into other cultures.

Katrina’s favorite class was Diversity. “We talked a lot about understanding other cultures and not pressing our own cultural perspectives on people when you are trying to help them,” she said. “We have a lot of international students in our department and my education has helped me be patient and improved my ability to make their experience as seamless and pleasant as it can be.”


Putting Knowledge To Work

At Lehigh, employees aren’t limited in their education choices based on their job responsibilities. If accepted into a program at the university, an employee can use the tuition benefit regardless of whether it directly relates to his or her job.

Alexis chose to pursue a degree in American Studies, focusing on how women are viewed in the geek subculture. Her thesis partially focused on the long-running television program The Big Bang Theory. “It had no connection to my work,” she said. “I did it for me. But as my great-grandmother used to say ‘an education is never wasted.’”

Some of this year’s staff graduates chose programs more closely connected to their work. Matt Kitchie (left), senior assistant dean of students and director of student activities, already had a master’s degree in the student affairs field. He chose to pursue an MBA concentrating on finance.

“Finance is the language of business,” Matt noted. “Regardless of whether it’s corporate or the business of higher education, it’s very helpful to have a good understanding of it. I was finding applicability from the topics I was studying every day.”

Matt recalled a meeting with a group of students the day after his Negotiations class. They were trying to come to an agreement with another committee. “I was able to walk them through the steps I had just learned the night before,” he said. “My studies have helped me collaborate with colleagues better and find win-win outcomes with student groups. I’m also better able to think about how one decision impacts another organizationally.”

Focusing on entrepreneurship in her MBA program gave Moe new insight into the work of many of the engineering college alumni. “First and foremost, having the language and understanding of the start up culture helps me interact with our alumni in that arena,” Moe said. “But in a broader sense, you really take away a lot about where people are coming from. Given the fact that I spend a lot of my time meeting people for the first time and trying to understand them, that has been a great asset.”

Moe added, “It has given me the ability to look across the table and think how an alumnus would like to be a part of Lehigh as opposed to how we want them to come back and be involved.”


The Essential Supportive Family And Boss

The graduates interviewed for this story all voiced appreciation and recognition that they didn’t reach this milestone alone. 

For Katrina, it was a husband who could shoulder more of the parenting load with her teenage daughter who was applying to colleges at the time (and now attends Lehigh).

Whatever I needed to do was fine with them,” Katrina noted “There is no way that anyone could do one of these programs without their family’s support.  If you’re not at work or at school, you’re at home in front of the computer doing class work or reading.”

Matt’s wife was also in school while he worked on his MBA, so making time for each other was a challenge. “It’s a lot of time management, but if we had a date night or a trip away, we put aside the school work. We left the books at home and focused on our time together,” he said.

Alexis maintains a busy schedule, serving on the boards of two local theatre companies. For her, having understanding friends was key. “My friends joke that if they want to see me they have to make reservations four weeks in advance,” she said. “But my weekends were devoted to homework, especially when I was working on my thesis.”

The award for “most supportive” has to go to Dave’s wife, who gave birth to their third child while he was working on his degree. “That was the one point at which I questioned doing this,” he admitted. “I was taking a compressed intensive engineering math class the summer we were preparing to welcome our child, and on top of work, it was a lot of stress.”

Everyone acknowledged the importance of a supportive supervisor who is willing to provide some measure of work schedule flexibility.  For example, in some instances a required course only meets during the day. At such times, a supervisor and an employee can work together to find a way that an employee can be successful in completing his or her work while also attending that class.

Investing in staff and faculty is a commitment in Lehigh's strategic plan that pays dividends both to employees and the university. Dave says his department is certainly getting something out of it.

“My mindset is definitely a lot different in terms of seeing everyday functions and how I can improve my tasks and the work of my clients," he noted. “It also makes me feel good. I’ve got my master’s. It’s a huge accomplishment. It’s like a milestone for me.”

Learn More About Our Graduates Here

There’s more to our education benefits than just master’s degree programs. Learn More About The Lehigh Staff and Faculty Tuition Benefit Here.

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Spotlight is published monthly by Human Resources. Please address any comments to Hillary Kwiatek, Spotlight Editor, Human Resources, 428 Brodhead Avenue, send email to hik210@lehigh.edu, or call extension 85165.

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