Library employee plays long game for free degree

Using the Tuition Waiver Program, Jesse Bethany earned a master’s in library science after 5 ½ years and two kids.

Portrait of Jesse Bethany standing outside the Robert B. House Undergraduate Library on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
As a graduate student, Jesse Bethany has benefited from Carolina's Tuition Waiver Program and his concurrent work with the University Libraries. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

On Jesse Bethany’s desk at the Robert B. House Undergraduate Library, you’ll see photos of his two young children. There’s Joel, a month away from turning 4, and younger sister Lydia, nearing 18 months.

Add their ages together and they’re still younger than Bethany’s soon-to-be-earned master’s in library science, a journey he began in 2018.

“It’s been so long,” said Bethany, public services manager at the University Libraries, where he’s worked since 2017.

Long? Yes. Worth it? Yes again. Having used Carolina’s Tuition Waiver Program, which allows employees to take three free courses per academic year, Bethany is set to become a librarian with a cost-effective degree done his way and on his own timeline: through fatherhood, a pandemic and full-time employment.

“When I went to orientation for this job, I just kind of thought, ‘Oh, great, I got a nice full-time job that’ll help pay for doing school as well,’” Bethany said. “I had no idea they would literally pay for school.”

A Virginia native, Bethany graduated from Virginia Tech and later attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake County. While studying philosophy of religion, he started working at the campus library and realized the work suited him.

Wanting to learn from the best led him to Chapel Hill.

“It’s one of the best library schools,” Bethany said of the School of Information and Library Science. “If I’m going to do it, I want to do it at the best library school.”

In addition to qualifying him for educational aid from Carolina, his job also helped Bethany gain valuable experience working in a library, a great complement to his theoretical schooling.

“I have met some people in the program who have never worked in a library before,” said Bethany, who’s impressed professors with his use of “real-world” work for class assignments. “They just kind of liked the idea of it or had a family member who’s a librarian, but they’re not really going to get their practical experience.”

Bethany is the primary supervisor for the Undergraduate Library’s student assistants, which he said is one of the most rewarding parts of his job. He oversees their hiring, training and supervision and gets to be a mentor on occasion. He helps lead the library’s service desk and handles “office manager” tasks. He likes the library’s small, tight-knit staff, who have been like a family to him.

Partially inspired by his background in philosophy, Bethany found that his favorite graduate school classes revolved around misinformation and the role librarians can play in combating it with critical thinking. His final project is a paper that focuses on post-truth society and the idea that opinions hold higher value than facts and that subject-matter experts are often dismissed or met with skepticism. Does that apply to librarians?

“What I found was we actually still hold a high degree of trust, so we could actually use our positions as experts to potentially enact change,” Bethany said.

Post-degree, Bethany knows many more doors within libraries will open for him. There could be opportunities for career advancement within University Libraries, he said. He’s also open to exploring his passion for theological librarianship, which might take him away from Carolina.

For now, though, he’s glad to be a Carolina employee, a status that’s helped make him a December grad.

“To be honest, I don’t know if I would’ve finished if it wasn’t a benefit,” he said of the Tuition Waiver Program. “We just wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”