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A matter of degrees

University employees are among the current record-breaking enrollment of UNC System students. They’re taking advantage of Carolina’s tuition waiver benefit and more online classes to pursue degrees during the pandemic.

Jesse Bethany works at a desk in his home.
Overnight librarian Jesse Bethany took three online classes last semester. During the pandemic, he has been working mostly remotely at home with his wife and their son, who turns 1 this month. (Photo by Erin Bethany)

As the coronavirus pandemic continued to keep North Carolinians at home and pushed many college courses online, the UNC System enrolled a record 242,464 students in fall 2020. Carolina contributed to the number with its own record-breaking 30,092 students enrolled, including the largest transfer class ever.

Since the University’s tuition waiver benefit allows full-time employees to take up to three free classes per year at any UNC System institution, the record enrollment includes many University employees. Staff members are taking advantage of a wider selection of online classes to enroll in college courses and pursue degrees.

“It’s one positive experience during the pandemic,” said Aja Martindale, grants administrator in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is in the fifth year of earning her bachelor’s degree in an interdisciplinary major she designed herself, combining the topics of geography, women and work. Martindale is also the first nontraditional student to participate in Honors Carolina.

Getting a college degree was something Martindale always wanted to do, she said, but work and staying at home for 11 years to raise three children delayed higher education. Then a year after coming to work at Carolina, she took a geography class in the fall of 2015 and hasn’t stopped since.

“All my free time goes to my education. I have two and a half years left, so I’m getting down to the finish line,” Martindale said.

Her interdisciplinary major reflects her interest in studying the “motherhood penalty” experienced by many working women and eventually pursuing a career in advocating for family-friendly policies for employees.

Meanwhile, her studies “make me a better employee,” she said. “I write better and I’m getting those soft skills that you learn in college.”

Because of the age difference from most undergraduates, “I find that I have more in common with the professors,” she said. But she appreciates the chance to experience Carolina as a student. “The staff experience is so different. Being a student at the University gives you a different perspective.”

Although she misses going to class on campus, she’s glad to be able to continue to work toward the completion of her degree online using her tuition waiver benefit. “Everyone should take advantage of it,” she said. “It’s such a great experience. It makes you more interesting.”

Opening the door

Miguel Jackson was accustomed to online learning before the pandemic. He has been pursuing an MBA from the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington for the past three years while also working full time at the University’s Finance and Operations Service Center of Excellence.

Jackson graduated from Carolina in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, always intending to earn his MBA sometime in the future. First, he wanted to earn a living and pay off his student loans. “When I graduated, it was very stressful,” he said. “You’re always wondering what you’ll do if you don’t have a job.”

Jackson had an internship in communications and graphic design for UNC Student Stores that eventually led to a full-time, permanent position there in 2001. Now, 19 years later, he uses his videography, photography and graphic design skills as a public communications specialist.

When he began to think about going back to school, Jackson decided to test the waters with a graduate certificate in entrepreneurship from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He studied to earn his certificate as a traditional student, fitting in classes around his work schedule and at night. “I said, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” he said.

Jackson began to research schools where he could earn his MBA online. “For me, it had to be reputable and accessible,” he said. He narrowed his choices to schools in the UNC System because he wanted to be able to use the tuition waiver benefit. He also wanted a school close enough to the Triangle area to make it possible to attend special on-campus events like seminars and talks by guest speakers.

UNC Wilmington met all his criteria, offering asynchronous online classes in seven-week modules. “I’m spending two to three hours a night studying and doing a lot of work on weekends,” Jackson said. “But there’s great flexibility and you can go as fast or as slow as you want. It takes a lot of time, but it’s rewarding.”

The tuition waiver benefit paired with online learning “opens up the possibilities for going back to school” for full-time employees, he said. “Education is like freedom. It opens the door to different opportunities and allows you to immediately apply what you have learned to your current position.”

‘One long ride’

As someone who’s spent the better part of the past 20 years as a student, Jesse Bethany calls his educational journey “one long ride.” The overnight services manager at the Undergraduate Library is halfway through the current leg of his trip, earning a master’s degree in library science.

This master’s degree will be his fourth degree, following a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Virginia Tech and two master’s degrees — one in divinity and one in philosophy of religion — from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He also worked in the library at the seminary, sparking a career detour from philosophy professor to university librarian.

“I like helping people, and I like solving problems. At the library, I solve one little problem after another,” Bethany said.

Before the pandemic, the overnight librarian was able to work at night and go to classes during the day. But since the pandemic, he works mostly remotely at home with his wife and their son, who turns 1 this month. He took three online classes last semester.

“So far, I haven’t had any super mishaps,” he said of juggling at-home fatherhood with classes on Zoom. “People have been accommodating him being on my lap for some meetings.”

Although he misses in-person interaction, Bethany also appreciates the greater flexibility online learning offers, especially for full-time employees.

“One change I hope comes out of COVID times is the School of Information and Library Science having more online courses,” he said. “More traditional scheduling does make it hard for students like me. It can be difficult to coordinate classes and work. Online classes offer more flexible options.”

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