How UVA Edge Helped These Students Gain Far More Than College Credit

December 1, 2021 By Caroline Newman, Caroline Newman,

The first students to begin UVA Edge, a new online University of Virginia program designed for working adults, finish this semester. They each will have earned 20 transferable college credits and a wealth of new knowledge, but also something more: confidence gained, new pathways discovered and new goals in sight.

One student did the program for his children; he wanted to prove that adults can and should do hard things. Another did it because he saw his dream job and realized he would need more education to get there. Another fulfilled a promise to a parent.

A partnership between UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, UVA Edge is a yearlong, six-course online program that helps adults develop skills such as leadership, effective communication and digital literacy while earning credits that could help them toward a degree.

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Some students have a few college courses under their belts when they start the program; others have never taken one, and may not have been in the classroom since high school. All can continue to work while in the program, as classes are held online at night, with a mix of live classes and recorded instruction.

The program launched in January with a pilot group of students mostly drawn from UVA staff, from both the academic and medical sides. The program is compatible with UVA’s education benefit, and accepted students pay a maximum of $300 in total out-of-pocket costs for a year’s worth of courses, making the program a very affordable way to start working on a bachelor’s degree.

The first students to complete the program include many UVA employees working in a wide range of roles across Grounds. These are some of their stories.

Laura Painter

Current role: Painter is the administrative assistant to Lisa Badeau, chief marketing and communications officer for UVA Health.

Why did you choose to enroll in UVA Edge? After the pandemic and the furloughs (Painter was among the UVA Health employees facing months-long furloughs when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit), I recognized that even though I had vast experience, the majority of jobs posted require a college education. That was something I had not made time for at any other point in my life. I always felt like I was too busy raising children, or the cost was too high. By the time I heard about the Edge program, I was frustrated by the lack of a degree. My children are grown now, and it seemed like the perfect time to try. The low cost and being able to utilize UVA’s education benefit made it much more attainable.

What are some of the most important things you have learned? Edge has given me not just transferable credits, but insights into myself, my environment and my workplace. I am a more confident person than I was before, and I have learned that I really like learning. I am not sure where that will take me in the future, but it has been fascinating to shine light on things like imposter syndrome (believing you are not good enough for a job even when your skills align) and the antidote to that.

I am not quite sure yet where it will take me, but now I can check the box of some college credit. I am 53 years old, so I know if I had started this process 20 or 30 years ago it might have taken me down a different career path. At this point, that would require a lot of time, but I have also been advised to think about what my “encore” career might look like after retirement, if I want to strike out in a new direction. The grades I have gotten have been validating and encouraging, so I know I will continue learning in some way.

What else stands out as you look back at the program? Ida Hoequist’s course in academic citizenship was phenomenal and taught me so much. Ida [a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology] has a tremendous way of communicating truth in a down-to-earth manner. I also enjoyed “Impact Communications” with Matt Weber [chief creative officer and senior adviser to UVA President Jim Ryan]. I had worked with Matt in my job and really enjoyed learning from him.

My hardest class was statistics; the one that came most easily was persuasive writing. I also enjoyed learning about high-impact behaviors in the workplace with our HR professors, which fed into my capstone project using a Darden School of Business case study.

Overall, I would say that the courses are challenging, because they are college courses, but it is not a challenge that should scare people. There is a tremendous amount of support and encouragement.

Valerie Thomas

Current role: Thomas is a community member and descendent of the enslaved laborer Peyton Skipwith, for whom Skipwith Hall at UVA was named.

Why did you choose to enroll in UVA Edge? I decided to enroll in UVA Edge because I was offered the opportunity to continue my education as a descendant of enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia. In addition, my decision to enroll was to fulfill a promise I made to my father to finish my education. He passed away on Thanksgiving Day last year after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. I would drive him to chemo treatments, and he expressed his desire that I complete my education. I found out about the UVA Edge opportunity while my father was in the hospice stage of the cancer battle. It felt like a sign and although it was difficult to think of learning while going through such trauma, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fulfill a promise.

What have been some of the most valuable parts of the program for you? The program in its entirety. Each aspect has value and significance in preparing students for success in life or in continuing their education. It’s a well-thought-out plan. The course starts by introducing philosophical thought to open the minds of students to think and see beyond what they already know. It pairs that with the digital technology training to provide confidence in real-world applications. It includes a writing course that has been transformational and sums up the course with ethical leadership training. For me, it is the sum of the program in its entirety that has been most beneficial.

Confidence is one word that I would use to describe how Edge has helped me in my current job and career goals. Edge is the bridge to a better future. Before this program, I didn’t see a way forward to getting my degree. After Edge, not only do I now see the way forward, but I also know that it is achievable.

Anthony Orsolini

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

Current role: Orsolini is an access associate with UVA Orthopaedics, helping patients register and schedule appointments.

Why did you choose to enroll in UVA Edge? I logged into LinkedIn a while ago and noticed a friend of mine, who used to work in retail with me, had a job description that I saw as a dream job or career path, working in human resources for UVA Athletics. I knew that a college degree was key to getting anything like that dream career path. I began looking at different options and realized that UVA Edge would allow me to get 20 credits, close to $11,000 in value, for $300 while still working. I did not want to take out student loans, so it made a lot of sense financially. Plus, the credits would be from UVA, which is a very marketable degree.

What are some of the most important things you have learned? I have gained a lot of academic know-how and learned about navigating academia. The program also really hones critical thinking skills and I have noticed myself thinking differently in everyday life, looking at situations from different angles. 

I have also really enjoyed collaborating with my peers and being able to communicate with them over Zoom. That made the transition easier for me, rather than being entirely in asynchronous learning where you are on your own.

How did the program fit with your professional life and lifestyle? I appreciate that the program was made for working adults. That really stood out to me when I was thinking about enrolling, because I knew I could work it into my schedule and not even have to take an afternoon off work. I felt like this program was made for people just like me, and seeing it advertised that way really sold me. Not only did I want to do it, I felt like I could.

Lester Jackson

Current role: Jackson is an elevator technician in UVA Facilities Management, working primarily in the hospital and medical research buildings. He is also an accomplished writer and musician, with several albums to his name and a children’s book in progress.

Why did you choose to enroll in UVA Edge? Ultimately, I want to work toward a college degree. But the most important reason I did this was to prove something to my two children (soon to be three; Jackson and his wife are expecting a baby in December).

I always tell them how important it is to push through when things get difficult and to see things through. Just because something is hard, it is not impossible. I want them to see me struggle with something and push through it. Our kids rarely get to see us struggle, we tend to show them things we are good at. I want to be a living example of the lessons I try to tell my kids.

What are some of the most important things you have learned from UVA Edge? I feel like I learned how to think like a college student, a different way of approaching things. I am a writer, so being able to think outside of the box is not new to me as a creative, but learning to bring those pieces together in the world of academia is a different skill.

I really enjoyed a philosophy class, “Knowledge in the Digital Age.” I love to read and interpret texts, so that was really enjoyable for me. I also enjoyed the writing class. As a songwriter right now, I don’t really write lyrics; I go to the microphone and just sing and work on them that way. This opened my eyes to another process for writing. We can take writing for granted, when we pick up a book and just read it, but we don’t see all that it took to get to that point, that it took a lot more than just writing. That class helped me understand the writing process. I’ve already been using that in my own writing, and I am teaching my daughter to write short books and stories as well.  

Has the program made you think differently about your career? This semester had some pretty interesting topics that have been beneficial in my current job. We have discussed unlocking creativity, or how to use creative solutions to support meaningful change, which is applicable in my job and in every aspect of life, really.

More broadly, the program hasn’t led me to dial in on one subject, really, but it has given me a nice overview of possible destinations that could help me finish my undergraduate degree. It has opened me up to different possibilities.

Jennifer Elmore

Current role: Administrative assistant to the director of clinical operations for the UVA Transplant Center

Why did you choose to enroll in UVA Edge? I had been considering going back to school but was unsure of the time commitment. This felt very manageable; I knew I could commit to a year and thought it would be a good way to see if college was something I was interested in. I did some college courses years ago, but I was still working full-time and my mind just wasn’t in it at the time.

What are some of the most important things you have learned? It helped me to see my worth, to feel worthy of continuing my education. It feels like something I can accomplish now.

How has the program made you think differently about your career? It has made me feel more valuable in my current position. I feel more comfortable speaking up or adding my opinion to the conversation, if I see something that would be useful. I am also excited about looking at different opportunities at UVA and feel more confident looking at jobs I was not looking at before. I want to go on to take more classes toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and the advisers have been really great in supporting that and helping me lay out what my next steps will be.

I felt a bit intimidated going into the program, but now I feel like I really accomplished something and that has been great for me. It is a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it to take that leap of faith and believe that you can accomplish this, if you put in the time and rely on support from the program and from your classmates.

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