Three University staff members who took advantage of Pitt’s education benefit to earn a new degree will graduate this spring. They believe the tuition benefit to be one of the top perks of working for the University — and say they couldn’t have accomplished their advanced studies without it.
During the 2017-18 academic year alone, 1,041 staff and 307 faculty members took at least one Pitt class using the education benefit, which pays for most of the employees’ tuition. Benefits were also extended to the spouse, domestic partner or children of 1,315 staff and 763 faculty members, according to Director of Benefits Lori Carnvale from the Office of Human Resources.
‘It Opens Up So Many Opportunities’
Mary Ann Brown is set to graduate from the School of Law with a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) degree. She chose an employment and labor law concentration, for which she took some of the same courses as the JD students aiming to be lawyers.
“If you don’t take advantage of it, it’s just a tremendous waste, because it opens up so many opportunities for you,” she said.
As the administrative manager for the Divisions of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Geriatric Medicine and Infectious Diseases in the School of Medicine, Brown handles paperwork for new hires and visiting physicians. “I just work with a great group of people and that makes everything enjoyable,” she said of her colleagues.
And yet, she knew that if she wanted further career advancement she’d need an advanced degree. Such an accomplishment, she realized, would only be possible with Pitt’s education benefit.
Having experienced downsizing and underemployment for several years before coming to work at Pitt in 2012, Brown decided that she would add the MSL degree to her previous experience in marketing and her current job skills, making her even more valuable as an employee.
Getting the degree wasn’t easy, Brown said, since the law school’s curriculum has neither night nor online classes, but her Pitt supervisor accommodated her class schedule.
“If you really want something you figure out a way to make it happen,” Brown said. “I’ve enjoyed it because you’re challenged. You’re really working every last brain cell.”
Bringing School and Career Together
Kimberly Muth found a perfect fit between her Pitt undergraduate experience, her current Pitt work and the degree she’ll be awarded this month: a master’s degree in education from the School of Education, focusing on foreign language teaching.
Muth is the manager in the lab of psychology faculty member Charles Perfetti, director and senior scientist in the Learning Research and Development Center. Muth started working in the Perfetti lab as a Pitt sophomore psychology major/neuroscience minor in 2010 and was hired by the lab upon graduation in 2014. The lab’s focus is reading and language: how our brains comprehend words and put them together into meaningful combinations.
As an undergraduate, Muth’s favorite experience had involved language as well: She was a volunteer English tutor for members of the local Somali Bantu community, via an undergraduate service organization called Keep It Real.
All of these experiences made her new degree a great match for her current skills and future plans. Muth said that balancing her lab work and her classes was a tough challenge that paid off.
“My growth as an individual has been really that I’ve been doing all of this at the same time,” she said. “I’ve been required to multitask and connect what I do in my classes to my work.”
“The education benefit is one of the best benefits they give you at Pitt, and I think you should take advantage of it if you can,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford it” otherwise, she added.
Advancing While Staying on the Job
Jeffrey Weiss realizes it’s rare bioengineers like him even to seek a job before getting an advanced degree — which is why he chose to pursue a master’s in bioengineering from the Swanson School of Engineering.
Like Muth, he joined a Pitt lab as an undergraduate, starting in 2011 in the lab of Jennifer Collinger, faculty member in the School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. At the time, Weiss was studying for a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering. He was hired as a staff member in Collinger’s lab in 2013 and today helps with its research studies on brain-computer interfaces that make mobility possible for those with paralysis.
Working toward his new degree, he said, “gave me a chance to develop research skills that I am applying in my job here.” Collinger, he added, “very much encouraged me to apply for the program and served as my adviser.”
Weiss explained that without the education benefit, he would have had to quit his job to undertake such a degree, since graduate students in bioengineering normally must attend school full-time to be eligible for a tuition stipend.
“It would have been substantially more difficult,” he said. Without the education benefit, “I don’t know that I would have done it.”