A group of graduate students take a photo together in their graduation robes following Commencement.

LIFE as a Part-time Grad Student

Board game illustrates varied campus supports for part-time online or corporate learners
April 18, 2018

The game of LIFE is legendary for the unexpected turns, twists, and surprises that change players’ fates on a dime. When you’re a working professional with personal obligations, financial stresses, and a desire to further your education, that fictional board game upheaval can feel quite real.

Earlier this month, the Academic & Corporate Engagement division invited faculty and staff to LIFE as a Part-time Graduate Student, using the board game concept to illustrate the varied campus supports for part-time grad students.

Coordinated efforts between Corporate & Professional Education (CPE), Academic Affairs, the Academic Technology Center, Career Development Center, Academic & Corporate Engagement, and the Foisie Business School help part-time graduate students, some of whom never set foot on campus, navigate the tricky path of a rigorous course load and life as a working professional.

Jody Reis, senior manager of online learning with CPE, says students from all over the world take WPI courses thanks to technology. But the student’s path from inquiry to enrollment to graduation is not without challenges.

Whether students take some classes on campus or all classes from a different country—or perhaps complete courses through their workplace—they all receive the same level of education. In addition to creating flexible class times, the university customizes programs for corporate partners—such as BAE Systems, Pfizer, and United Technologies—and makes coursework convenient for students to fit into their schedules.

Prompted by the behind-the-scenes work that’s unknown to many on campus, the event featured two paths a student could take—online or corporate—with posters and teams at each stop. From corporate sales to ATC/faculty support to the Foisie Business School, the “stops” showed how WPI helps grad students, however they are completing a degree or certificate. Attendees discovered exactly how students move through the process and could chat with faculty members and staff who each play an essential role in bolstering students so they can reach their goals.

“The size of the program is impressive,” Reis says. “We have 1,500 graduate students taking online courses and more than 500 taking corporate programs with us. More than 120 faculty members teach online and more than 50 teach in a corporate setting.” According to Reis, 28 percent of the May 2017 Master of Science degree graduates were from either an online or a corporate program. And the online program has seen a 9 percent enrollment growth over the past two years for students looking to take any one of the 17 online degrees and certificates offered.

“People all over campus contribute to the education and experience of these grad students they never see. Showing the whole experience gives an appreciation and understanding of what grad students go through.” —Rachel LeBlanc

Rachel LeBlanc, assistant vice president of ACE, says part-time grad students appreciate the guidance. “They have a lot to juggle and a lot to balance,” she says. “They have all these life changes, they are furthering their education, and all while they are trying to get ahead in their careers.”

Terence Carmichael Jr. is working full-time at Pfizer in Chicago while earning his online MS in robotics engineering. With a background in biomedical engineering and a goal of using robotics to help those who are physically disabled, Carmichael says WPI offered unmatched flexibility. “This program would allow me to work full-time,” he says. “I have a goals-focused orientation. This was a viable route to get me where I want to go.” Learning from such a distance isn’t easy, he says, but regular check-ins from WPI bring more connection.

“Every single student is assigned to a student success manager who helps them navigate through the WPI graduate system,” says Reis, “including everything from submitting their application, to making sure they meet the graduation requirements, to knowing how to make payments, to understanding how to connect with their professors.”

Even corporate students who take the courses through their workplace welcome the guidance. A portfolio manager with longtime employer MITRE, Frank Picca is a student with the company’s MS in systems engineering cohort program. “I have a wife and two sons,” he says, “I work full-time overseeing multiple different engineering teams, and I travel quite a bit for business. The WPI MSSE program is smartly organized so that folks like me can make it all work.” Picca says the student success manager keeps everything on track. “Knowing that I can contact a real person at WPI who knows me this whole time really takes the worry out of all the crazy administrative stuff and allows me to be a student,” he says. “That entire personal touch is huge to me.“

If students take a break from courses or veer off track, the team is there to help them overcome barriers so they can graduate. There’s even time management assistance so students can plan for course obligations that might include class time, project work, and group work.

“We want people to be successful,” says LeBlanc. “This kind of support helps them get through.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil