The Collegian
Sunday, December 10, 2023

Some faculty and staff assume the role of student, too

Robert Plymale -- or Computer Bob as he's known in facilities -- began working at the University of Richmond in maintenance and landscaping in June 1988 and started taking classes that fall.

Fifteen years later, he completed his bachelor's degree in information systems with a minor in business through the university's School of Continuing Studies. In May 2006, he became the grants accounting manager in the university's accounting office.

"It was hard, but it was something I wanted to do," Plymale said.

He now skips his lunch break, sometimes every day, to teach a basic computer skills class to his former facilities co-workers.

Susie Reid, director of operations and maintenance, said Plymale was facilities' greatest success story. She asked him to begin teaching computer classes in 2004.

"Our whole business here is educating -- that should include the facilities employees," said Reid, who helped kick off the facilities department's "TouchDown" program in October 2006 to encourage employees to meet their personal, educational and career goals.

The Training and Development program is just one example reflecting a greater trend in the university community fueled by tuition remission and flexible Continuing Studies night classes: employees by day, students by night.

According to James Narduzzi, the dean of the School of Continuing Studies, more than half of the university's 1,200 employees have taken non-credit classes or classes for personal enrichment so far this academic year. It is good business sense to better educate university employees, he said, and the right thing to do.

"We're all about education as an institution, and we have a responsibility to our employees to give them these opportunities," Narduzzi said.

Full-time employees, their spouses or domestic partners and their children receive immediate 100 percent tuition remission for five non-credit courses per year, according to Human Resource Services.

Full-time faculty and staff members can also take credit courses or courses that count toward a degree for free -- one per semester during their first year and two per semester after their first year. The spouses or domestic partners without an undergraduate degree and children of senior professionals, librarians, tenured-faculty, tenure-track faculty and faculty on continuing contracts also received free tuition, but not room and board. For other full-time staff, there is a three-year waiting period for family benefits.

Cindy Deffenbaugh, director of financial aid, said 100 staff members and five faculty members currently receive tuition remission for credit classes. Eighty of these employees are enrolled in credit courses through the SCS, Narduzzi said, with estimates of about 55 working toward a degree, based on last year's data.

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"The number has gone up," said Carl Sorensen, associate vice president for Human Resources, the department that determines employee tuition remission eligibility.

One SCS employee, Ginny Carlson, and her son, have split five degrees through the tuition remission program. Having worked full-time as the vice president for Development/University Relations since 1987, before becoming the SCS director of External Relations in 1997, Carlson has earned three degrees: an associate's degree in 1997, a bachelor's degree in 2000 and a master's degree in 2005. She also raised three kids-- her son Eric is a 1996 and 2002 alumnus of the undergraduate and law school programs.

Carlson called her motivation typical for the Richmond campus, but it is more common for employees to enroll in non-credit courses.

"There are people in virtually every department on campus," Carlson said about university employees who educate others by day and themselves by night.

The TouchDown program has been the facilities department's effort to include itself in the Common Ground initiative that calls for the university to extend education beyond the traditional, college-age student.

"Facilities is really the first department to have this kind of program," said Kathy Carmody, coordinator for learning and development, whose position was created in April 2008 to take over TouchDown as the Human Resources' contact in the facilities Physical Plant.

Reid said after she, her fellow facilities department heads and John Hoogakker, associate vice president for facilities, established TouchDown, the employee response necessitated a new position.

In November 2006, 199 facilities employees attended life-planning workshops held by a pair of private consultants before individually meeting with their immediate supervisors and department heads to set personal goals from January to March of 2007.

"We found out there was so much that our people wanted," said Reid, who had begun to absorb the program under the operations part of her job, and she couldn't risk the progress they had made.

Carmody's first task was to read all the files from the employees' 2007 meetings to help them progress in the three areas of the TouchDown program: current success, career advancement and personal enrichment.

According to Reid, 25 percent of the facilities staff currently takes classes. Most of these 30 to 40 employees opt for computer, wellness or other enrichment courses, Carmody said.

Plymale said employees needed to learn computer skills when the university began relying on Spidermail, Spiderbytes and BannerWeb. Some, he said, didn't even know how to turn on the computer before his class.

Reid and Carmody said students from the classes would send them e-mails as practice.

"'This is my first e-mail. Hope I did it right,'" Carmody said the e-mails read.

She said some employees were working toward their bachelor's degrees, with the vast majority using the SCS because of its flexible evening classes.

But Reid reminded that, "We still have those few without a high school diploma."

Carmody said these employees might work toward passing General Education tests, while others had to prepare for the Testing of English as a Foreign Language exam before they could take other classes.

And employees don't just take classes. One painter, Ben Smith, teaches an ESL class to co-workers whose second language is English, with the help of ESL Services Director Nuray Grove. Reid said learning was so important to Smith and the employees that they had held class during their lunch break.

"This is a guy that's not going to be a painter all his life," Reid said. "He's going to go a long way."

Custodian Magid Mahabad is taking an ESL class he said was organized by Common Ground and taught by students. He has been working in housekeeping since January 2004 and said he didn't remember meeting with his supervisor or department head regarding classes or goals. Mahabad said he also took two ESL classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College because it helped him that professional teachers led the courses.

Another custodian, Dragica Jovanovic, said her supervisor kept a record of the classes she had taken. Jovanovic said she didn't speak a word of English when she started working in Weinstein Hall four years ago but had learned English from the classes. In a manila folder on a shelf amid her work supplies, she stores newspaper word searches for extra practice. She also said she improved through conversations with faculty and staff.

According to Narduzzi, the university could afford to offer its employees full remission because of tuition paid by SCS students from the outside community. The SCS enrolled more than 7,000 students -- 6,000 for non-credit courses and 1,000 for credit courses last year.

"Because we're providing this to the larger community," Narduzzi said, "the university gets this for its employees at a reduced cost."

With five colleges to choose from -- the undergraduate and graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences, the School of Continuing Studies, the Graduate School of Business and the T.C. Williams School of Law -- the costs are few and the options many.

Dana Rajczewski, Modlin Center operations manager, in her sixth semester in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' Master of Liberal Arts program, said she loved perusing the Bannerweb course offerings and probably wouldn't be able to pursue her master's degree without tuition remission.

"There is no reason that I should not be doing this," Rajczewski said she told herself.

But the job, Rajczewski said, is what attracted her back to Richmond after graduating in 1999, and it continues to be her top priority.

"The teachers are extremely understanding that the job comes first," she said, and her bosses have been supportive too."

Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at

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