After four exhaustive years of splitting my time between work and school work, in December 2020, I earned my shiny, new, master’s degree in educational media from Appalachian State University.
In case you don’t know what educational media is — it’s one part instructional design, one part media literacy, one part digital media creation, one part web design and a splash of vodka, shaken not stirred. Note: the vodka was for me!
Back to (Graduate) School
In a July 2018 All About Women article titled “Back to (Graduate) School,” I wrote about my decision to go back to school “16 years after finishing my undergraduate degree and a few months shy of my 40th birthday.” I shared why I enrolled in a master’s program — to improve my current skills and gain new ones, and to stay current with best practices — as well as the struggle to balance work, school and life.
At that time, I was almost halfway through the program, which is 100 percent online and housed in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies at App State’s Reich College of Education (RCOE). It took me four years — one class at a time, three classes per year — but as an App State employee, I was able to earn a master’s degree at no cost to me, which was a major factor in my decision to go back to school.
If graduate school wasn’t enough excitement, during the program, I changed jobs, had a bout with breast cancer and endured my first ever pandemic. Along the way, I also discovered that one of my goals was to become a better leader and mentor, to inspire others to be better — especially other women.
I’ve been fortunate in that I have known many women leaders — both personally and professionally — and each one has taught me something about leadership and/or modeled a behavior that I want to emulate. This list includes three of my professors: Theresa Redmond, Amy Cheney and Krista Terry.
Dr. Theresa Redmond is an associate professor in App State’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction where she teaches in media studies and teacher education. We met when I took her Global Perspectives in Media and Technology course — as a trial to see if I wanted to enroll in the program — and we’ve stayed in touch via email and occasional lunches.
I felt an instant connection with Theresa. Her instruction was eye-opening; it was fun and rigorous, most importantly, relevant. I learned a great deal about using digital tools to create multimedia presentations — tools I continue to use in my current role as a digital communications specialist with App State’s University Communications (UComm).
I learned from her that graduate course work was not busy work but could and should be relevant to my personal and professional interests. For example, for one assignment, I examined my local community and reflected on my role within it, as well as the role of media and technology in the personal and professional aspects of my life. My favorite project, however, was one that focused on Star Wars fandom — specifically cultural ownership, participatory culture and fan activism. Doing the research and creating the multimedia project hardly felt like work at all!
Theresa encouraged me to pursue topics that held meaning for me and inspired me as she was inspired by another woman — her mother.
“My mother experienced the women's rights or feminist movement of the late 20th century first-hand and observed tremendous progress and change — as well as struggle — regarding the role of women in American society and culture,” Theresa says.
“As a high school home economics teacher, she embodied her philosophy that the feminist movement was not to equate women with men or expect women to be as men in the culture, but rather to recognize the unique capacities of women and value them for their uniqueness in the culture.”
Theresa added that through some of her recent scholarly and personal work, she’s come to understand that the space we hold together is held together, in part, because we are women.
“I believe that the best way I can inspire or mentor my female students and colleagues is to create space for care and creativity and, of course, to listen and guide in a way that is invitational so they are empowered to choose their own way forward,” she says.
Dr. Krista Terry is an associate professor in App State’s Department of Leadership and Educational Studies where she teaches in the instructional technology and higher education program areas. She also serves as a learning design specialist with App State’s Center for Academic Excellence.
I took two courses from Krista — Instructional Design and Advanced Instructional Design — and I learned a lot about how to design engaging and effective online instruction, as well as the importance of adaptability and how to successfully contribute to virtual teams.
Krista shared that it’s important for her to “pay it forward” because she’s benefited from having some outstanding women mentors. “When I’ve faced significant challenges, having these women along the way to inspire me, and give me the confidence that I needed to keep going, and achieve my goals was indescribably impactful.”
I took Instructional Design early in the program, and like Theresa, Krista encouraged me to choose projects that were relevant to me. At the time, I was serving as the director of communications for App State’s RCOE and was working to improve the college’s digital signage system. This became the focus for my final project, a training session that focused on designing media, and would lay the groundwork for later projects and professional work.
When I took Advanced Instructional Design, I was halfway through the program; I also transitioned from the RCOE to my current position with UComm.
Krista helped me dig deeper into what makes online instruction good — and this is less subjective than you might think — via an opportunity to help create an online professional development course for App State faculty. This real-world instructional design experience was and continues to be relevant to the work I do at the university.
Krista says, “As a teacher, one of my values is that I try to be open, authentic and approachable so that students who might be interested in collaborating beyond the classroom feel comfortable seeking me out. It’s a great experience to serve the role of official mentor to these talented students, many of whom are women.”
Krista also helped me grow as a leader and showed me that working with virtual teams is both rewarding and challenging and requires a lot of flexibility — a skill that has served me well during the COVID-19 pandemic with a shift to teleworking and virtual collaboration.
Dr. Amy Cheney is the director of digital teaching and learning for App State’s RCOE, and a professor of instructional technology in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies. She also served as the educational media program director for much of my time in the program; I would often contact her for course suggestions, and to make sure I was on track.
I was only able to take one course with Amy — Professional Development, Innovation and Systemic Change — but it was one that was particularly impactful; the work I did throughout the course for my final project was again relevant to my current position. Amy also pushed me to continue to develop myself as campus leader and to foster systemic change.
Amy says, “It is truly amazing to watch both students and junior faculty gain confidence, become advocates for themselves and their passions, and get to the work of transforming our educational systems. If I'm able to play even a small role in that, it's well worth it!”
I don’t want to bore you with the details, but the project was an intensive examination of App State’s digital signage system along with the steps I took to improve the system and its perception value on campus. After advocating for institutional training and support of digital signage for a number of years, this became one of my responsibilities when I moved to UComm, and is work I continue to do on a daily basis.
Amy also introduced me to a very amusing and helpful book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which I revisit when I feel stuck and/or need a reminder about how and when a little change can make all the difference.
Amy shared that one of her professional joys has been cultivating women leaders. “Though education has been primarily a woman's profession, historically, it has only been within my lifetime that we have truly risen to leadership roles. I had quite a revelatory moment at a conference a few years back: though at that time I had been in education for 26 years, it was only then that I had my first direct report to a woman. It was a sobering thought,” she says.
Was it worth it? There were days when I questioned my decision to go back to school — days that I sequestered myself in my office to finish a paper or project. But I’m pleased by what I accomplished and relieved that I am finished!
Did I master my future? That’s a work in progress. But, I value the time I spent with Theresa, Krista and Amy, and I look forward to continued collaboration as colleagues. I know that they are there if I need encouragement or another push to be better.