How an Advanced Degree Can Benefit Your Clients, Your Workplace, and Most Importantly, Your Future

In the months before Theresa Nolan, IIS/IFRS Specialist, decided to pursue her master’s in clinical therapy, she was going through a difficult divorce. Fortunately, one of her team members, Shelby Jennings, was one year ahead in the same program and helped convince Theresa that she could do it.

“She was my savior; it was because of her that I started my degree,” said Theresa. “She was the one who helped me get enrolled and gave me confidence that I am strong and can do this.”

Now in her fifth semester of the program, Theresa’s support team has grown to include her supervisor, Amanda Johnson, and her entire team at Cornerstones of Care.

Similar themes of teamwork, camaraderie, and the value of continued education are prominent at Cornerstones of Care, perhaps nowhere as much as within the Intensive In-Home and Family Reunification Services (IIS/IFRS) team in the Western Region, where several team members are simultaneously pursuing advanced degrees.

Dusty Scheiter, Director of IIS/IFRS, completed her Master of Public Affairs (MPA) in Nonprofit Management in December 2023, normalizing the feat and paving the way for others on the team to do the same.

During her 23 years at Cornerstones of Care, Dusty moved her way up from IIS/IFRS Specialist to manager but needed an advanced degree to fill an open leadership role.

“My classes focused on making me a stronger leader, providing me with the knowledge and resources necessary to work towards change on a community level as well as the larger legislative/policy level,” said Dusty. “We all want to help families, and continuing our education offers us new approaches and opportunities to make an impact.”

“All my classes were focused on how I can be a better leader in my nonprofit and give me chances to make changes on a legislative level,” said Dusty. “We all want to help families, and we’ve chosen different ways of doing it.”

Amanda Johnson, Manager of IIS/IFRS, had a similar intention when she decided to pursue her MBA in Management and Organizational Leadership. Seventeen years earlier, Amanda began working on a master’s degree but never finished and has had the urge to go back to school since.

“There’s no time like the present,” said Amanda, now just eight months from graduation. “I kept pushing it off and pushing it off, and then I just had to do it.”

For Amanda, there were many reasons why going back to school just made sense.

“I love being a manager, and having classes that support it every day has been really helpful,” she said. “The hope is to stay with the same agency long-term and grow with Cornerstones of Care. While I love what I do, I need a master’s degree to move up.”

Going back to school for an advanced degree can feel significant for many reasons, including the sense of pride that comes from intentionally choosing the degree as an adult.

“This degree means a lot more to me on so many levels,” said Amanda. “The financial piece, trying to grow my career, and getting to choose and take classes that are one hundred percent dedicated to what I’m trying to learn about.”

Dusty was the first person in her family to get a bachelor’s degree – which was a big accomplishment – but completing her master’s was special in a different way.

“This one was all for me,” said Dusty. “My bachelor’s degree was for everyone else who helped me on my path, but my master’s degree was my personal growth goal.”

For younger degree seekers like Melody Taylor, IIS/IFRS Specialist, the more experienced team members can serve a valuable role as mentors and supporters.

Melody started on her master’s in social work just recently and is already feeling the stress of the new workload.

“This is where the time management piece comes in,” said Melody. “From a specialist perspective, it’s so nice to have the team support. My manager, Ryan, is always like, ‘Take the time if you need it.’ It’s been very supportive, for sure.”

Returning to the classroom as an adult also brings with it many unique challenges, including financial payments and balancing work, school, and home life responsibilities.

Schedule flexibility is one way the IIS/IFRS team supports degree seekers.

In 2022, Cornerstones of Care switched to Time Away, which no longer ties work absences to an accrued bank of time. This added flexibility helps team members adjust their schedules to do things like this that will better their careers.

Specialists like Melody, who often see families in the evenings or at scattered times during the week, can coordinate their schedules to make room for classes and other school commitments.

Another added benefit of pursuing a degree at Cornerstones of Care is the opportunity to partner with other programs within the organization to complete school requirements.

Theresa’s coworker, Shelby, is collaborating with the school counseling program at Cornerstones of Care to complete her practicum. This is a big perk for the school counseling team because Shelby brings insider knowledge of the organization and comfort working in the home with families.

“Something that also helps our program is that as people get those master’s degrees, they can then supervise their peers,” said Amanda. “We have this camaraderie amongst everyone going to school because we know what everyone is going through as far as managing schedules, and we have a support system to lean on.”

Cornerstones of Care also supports the educational advancement of team members through a tuition reimbursement fund. Every semester, full-time employees can apply for reimbursement after submitting a short essay and recommendation letter.

In recent years, the application and disbursement process has been championed by Jamie Stevens, Chief Human Resources Officer, who recently advocated for an increase in the amount offered to employees.

“I personally believe that investing in our employees is important, whether that is education or financial support,” said Jamie. “Providing employees with a better life, a better experience, and upward mobility opportunities are important not only for employee retention but growth.”

This investment into employee development also includes collaborative learning and training opportunities and opportunities to do training outside the organization. In the future, Jamie hopes to do more for employees in school, such as increasing the amount of tuition reimbursement available to employees.

“We have to care for our people – that’s just number one in my heart,” said Jamie.

That level of care, flexibility, and support has made a tangible difference for people like Theresa, who is now a passionate advocate for other team members interested in going back to school.

“If I was not working for Cornerstones of Care, I can honestly say that I would not have pursued this degree,” said Theresa. “With what I’m learning in school, I can help my clients better. I’m learning a whole new way of talking to them and helping them meet their goals to be successful in life and in their future with their children.”

And when team members like Theresa feel equipped and empowered to address the challenges they are faced with, then everyone wins – the organization, the team members, and the children and families that benefit from the increased quality of care.

“I love that there are so many people seeking advancement,” said Dusty. “I hope that continues and we keep helping one another grow. Furthering our education provides us with new skills and tools that we can use to push families toward positive growth and change. It also allows us to expand our own abilities and become the best versions of ourselves.”