Mother, wife and manager at the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, 53-year-old UMass Amherst UWW student, Donna Cohen Avery is pursuing a concentration in Early Education and Care Leadership Studies. Here she talks about work, family and dreams of a graduate degree. Her advisor is Karen Stevens.
Every non-traditional age student has a story. What’s your story?
I have been working in the field of early education for over three decades at the State agency responsible for setting public policy for early education and care. Other than my initial entry into the agency after earning an associate’s degree; all of my promotions have been based on my knowledge and experience gained on the job. If I were to apply for my job today, I would need a master’s degree.
In Massachusetts we are building systems to continually improve the quality of the early education field. As a result, we are expecting more of the educators. Many of them are going back to school to earn their degrees because they know that degree attainment is an important element of quality programming. Like the educators, I also want my work experience and formal education to be better matched.
Why did you choose UMass Amherst UWW to complete your degree?
I was having trouble finding a degree program that fit my needs. I wanted something that took my experience into account, acknowledged my previous education, and would allow me to focus on a concentration that strengthened my leadership skills. I needed flexibility to allow for things that suddenly came up at work or at home. UWW was the perfect fit. I loved the idea that I could create my own area of concentration. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is a respected and well ranked institution. I knew I could trust this program to have the academic rigor to broaden my perspective.
What is the best part about being a UWW student for you?
I love being able to reflect on my experiences and learn from them all over again. As a student in my fifties, I find that this program plays to the strengths of my own adult development. I’m at a point in my life where reflection comes naturally. The program challenges me to go even further with my thinking than I would have on my own. I also re-discovered how much I enjoy writing.
What are you studying?
My concentration is a design of my own making. The coursework will be drawn from education, management, psychology, sociology, political science and history. I came to the program with quite a bit of course work completed so I am primarily focusing on management and leadership courses.
What’s been your favorite class at UMass Amherst so far?
I am still pretty new to this program. I loved both of my classes last semester and so far this semester I feel the same way. The UWW and CPE courses are focused on non-traditional students. The instructors have been very accessible. I was very struck last semester by how much time instructors spent providing individual feedback on all assignments and discussions. Even papers that were graded with the maximum amount of points had pages of comments to explain why. I was very impressed by their commitment to all of their students.
What have been the benefits of taking your classes online?
The flexibility of the program has been fabulous. My studies are timed around my schedule. I can access the courses anywhere I have a computer and an internet connection. When my classes have an online lecture, I can pause, back up or re-watch any part of the lecture.
How do you balance work, school, and family?
My family has been amazingly supportive. My husband is my best proof reader. My youngest daughter who is in college herself taught me all of her secrets to online research. I do my best to stay organized, but some days are more hectic than others. I try to do enough class work ahead to account for the unexpected. I have a very full life with a lot of interests beyond school and work. I cut back on some of my hobbies and outside activities to make room for course work. However, I am still finding time for some fun.
What advice do you have for other students finishing their degrees?
My best advice would be to stick with it and do what you can manage. Even if you can only fit one course a semester and it will take you a long time. You will get there eventually.
What are your future plans, professionally and personally?
I love what I do for a living and the people I work with. After I graduate from UWW I may continue on for a graduate degree. I hope to embark on a volunteer “career” when I eventually retire from State service. I am involved in community service organizing within my local community and I would like to take that to the next level. My husband and I also plan to travel.
Tell readers something cool about yourself that no one would guess about you.
I am a second soprano in a regional chorale society. We sing mostly classical choral music. The chorale sponsors a scholarship competition that draws very talented young classical musicians. Each year we award a total of $10,000.00 in prize money to four winners. The winners perform at our spring concert.
Please add anything else you want people to know about you, your family, and your story.
My husband and I have four wonderful adult children ranging in age from 21 to 30. There are two girls and two boys including our son-in-law.