Empowered to achieveOct 08, 2021 11:56AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Before Newark resident Heather Cox became a successful website designer, social media manager and strategist – before she formalized her career imprint ten years ago and before she was voted one of the top women in Delaware business by two leading publications in 2020 – she started a love affair with computers when she was in elementary school.
By the time she had reached the sixth grade, Cox was a mainstay at her mother’s Wallflower Gift Boutique in Hockessin’s Lantana Square. She did everything there, from creating window displays to helping customer service to managing inventory, and when the internet and social media began to shift the way businesses promoted themselves, she took it upon herself to transfer the promotion of the Wildflower Boutique from the cumbersome antiquity of postcards to a website and social media.
“I had been on the computer since the sixth grade and really loved technology and software and creating things, but when it came to marketing my mother’s business, we did it the old fashioned way,” Cox said. “When I saw that Facebook was making a direct connection to people, I thought it was brilliant, because instead of sending postcards, we were able to connect one-to-one with our customer base.”
In 2011 – inspired by the online marketing she had created for a local real estate investor -- Cox began her own website design and social media company. While her professional life slowly progressed, by 2016 Cox’s personal life had fallen into a free-fall of major transition. She moved back home with her parents and her one-year-old daughter.
“I was depressed, and I thought that my life had become a series of start-ups and false starts,” Cox said. “I looked at my daughter and told myself that I had to get it together – in order to continue to move my business and my life forward.”
Two days later, she saw an online advertisement for a certificate program entitled Advanced Social Media Marketing for Business, being offered by the University of Delaware Division of Professional and Continuing Studies (UD PCS). Within a few weeks, Cox found herself sitting in a class being taught by Nancy Dibert, the founder and chief executive officer of the Middletown-based Epic Marketing Consultants Corporation.
“When I walked into Nancy’s class for the first time, I already knew what I was doing with web design and social media, because I had taught myself for so many years,” Cox said. “When I entered University of Delaware’s Professional and Continuing Studies, I knew that this class would be able to elevate my expertise, especially in the graphic design and social media advertisement.
“Nancy really honed in on sharing her expertise on social media advertising through targeted audiences, and copy writing. I thought it was hugely beneficial, and while the platforms of social media are always changing, I am still able to take what I learned in her class and apply it to what I do now.”
The impact that University of Delaware’s Division of Professional and Continuing Studies made on Cox is just one of many of similar stories being told in its classrooms and online programs every year. From preschool age through postretirement age, UD PCS impacts thousands of students a year by supporting educational opportunities that enhance their academic or professional skills, serve as a springboard to launching, advancing or completing their college studies, and enrich their personal life.
UD PCS’ impact is local, regional and global, reaching students in 57 countries across six continents in 2020 – providing them with access to UD credit courses and degree offerings, professional development courses, certificate programs, specialized conferences, workshops and lifelong learning member cooperatives throughout Delaware. UD PCS doesn’t define itself through personal education; it also offers customized education services to businesses, organizations and professional associations within its geographic region.
Whether it is a professional seeking to expand her skills in social media applications or a 40-year-old looking to use a certificate to advance his career, UD PCS is also defined by its ability to inspire confidence in its students.
“When we talk about what students learn in a course or a certificate program in our division, we quite often see it from the standpoint of what the student wants to focus on, but we also teach them IQ skills – the nuts and bolts of how to do the given task – and soft skills, which is about presentation and having experiential learning whatever the skill is,” said George Irvine, associate vice provost for Professional and Continuing Studies. “One of the key intangibles we provide is the belief that you can learn a new skill and apply it to your current job or help you get a new job.
“So much of what we do is about developing an individual’s confidence, to allow them to say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
Timely programming, flexible schedules
Becoming a successful continuing education program at a major university involves designing classes and certificate program opportunities that reflect the ever-changing climate of society, culture, technology and business.
A deep look through UD PCS’ website is to see a curriculum filled with programs that provide training for several key industries that have seen a growing need for proficiency and practitioners. In the healthcare field for example, courses in advanced telehealth, clinical trials management and R.N. refresher programs are just a few of the many classes that are matching the need for more skilled healthcare professionals.
As businesses have been forced to rethink their strategies and chart new courses, UD PCS programs like business analysis, project management and social media marketing provide roadmaps for the future.
A continuing education program succeeds not just shaping its curriculum according to the social and business marketplace, but by tailoring its programs and classes around the lives of its students.
“We help reach them where they are at in their lives,” Irvine said. “If they have earned some credits, we help them figure out how to use them. If they want to learn a pinpoint skill, we can help get them there. If they want to learn online, we’re there for them. If they are retirees who just want to learn for the love of learning, we’re there for them, as well.”
Learning – even online -- is for a lifetime
Jennifer Merrill, the manager of UD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Wilmington, could easily tell the stories of dozens of students she has known who have taken classes at Arsht Hall, but one student in particular stands out.
“She came to OLLI years ago to study poetry with very little background in it, other than just a basic appreciation,” Merrill said. “She is now a published poet and teaches poetry classes, and she attributes it all to the classes that she took at OLLI.”
As a major component of UD PCS and one of the largest lifelong learning programs in the country, OLLI – with programs in Bridgeville, Dover, Lewes, Ocean View and Wilmington – has been a wide-open door for adults 50 and over to enjoy classes, teach, exchange ideas and socialize. With nearly 4,000 members and structured as volunteer-based academic cooperatives for learners, OLLI members teach classes and take classes. Of the more than 900 course offerings available, OLLI’s curriculum is determined by member interest and the passions and expertise of the dedicated volunteer member-instructors at each program’s location.
Prior to the arrival of COVID-19 last spring, OLLI was defined by its culture, seen through informative exchanges in classrooms, in friends having lunch together, and in-person performances in the lobby. When the pandemic hit, the fear among OLLI staff was that the person-to-person vibrancy of the program would vanish.
Instead, Merrill said that OLLI saw the silver lining in the cloud through the power of online learning.
“We had discussed the possibility of online programming before the pandemic, but it didn’t draw a lot of interest, but then the pandemic hit, and we built the plane while flying it like a lot of programs.
“Ours is an optional program. Folks are here to engage with each other and learn for the love of learning, and our instructors volunteer their time because they are so passionate about what they are teaching. We thought can this continue with a senior population who is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.
“They did, and it was remarkable. Suddenly, our students didn’t have to get in a car. They could take even more classes, even on days when they had other commitments. Online classes even allowed our students to actually see everyone’s faces on Zoom, instead of the backs of everyone’s heads.”
OLLI members have also provided great support to UD PCS’ commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion in its services, programs and operations, and its focus on partnering with the larger UD community to work toward a common goal of making the University of Delaware a welcoming and inclusive institution.
A member-led Diversity Committee developed initiatives for creating a welcoming and inclusive OLLI climate with initiatives that included mentoring elementary school students, tutoring adults, promoting introductory membership certificates in underrepresented communities, and launching a Celebration of Cultures.
“We have worked very hard to make sure that everyone feels welcome,” Merrill said. “We know that there are health benefits associated with participating in programs like this – keeping your brain and body active and engaging with others. As a leader in this program, I want to make sure that we keep pushing the envelope on welcoming people, that we think about access and opportunity to as many as we can.
“It’s more than just welcoming people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. It’s offering programs that teach about it, as well.”
‘We’re helping students to feel empowered’
Cox received her certification in Advanced Social Media Marketing for Business in December 2018, and since then, her business has blossomed and expanded to include such clients as Miss Delaware USA, as well as clients from the restaurant and hospitality, real estate, health care and fitness and community art sectors. She has also hired two media professionals, who assist her with website content design, her daughter just began Kindergarten, and in September, she gave her first Ted-X talk about women in business.
“As a woman business owner, we tend to deal a lot with the imposter syndrome of self doubt, and when I entered UD PCS, I had already been in business for several years, but my confidence level was not high,” she said. “When I graduated with that certification from a very reputable university, I felt as though I had finally gotten those credentials behind me, in order to show people that I am someone to be taken seriously.”
Some of the best moments Irvine and his colleagues have are when they hear from students who have benefitted from their continuing education at UD PCS.
“They are telling us, ‘I was floundering and your counselors helped me,’ or ‘I came out of the Army and I didn’t know where to go until I came here,’ or ‘Your conference or short course gave me the skills I needed to get that promotion,’” he said. “We’re helping students to feel empowered through knowledge, and they are being empowered to achieve whatever goal they want. They can then use that power for career advancement.
“It’s about getting a degree, but it’s also about self-development as a citizen or as a human being.”
To learn more about the University of Delaware’s Division of Professional and Continuing Studies, visit www.pcs.udel.edu or call 302-831-7600.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].