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VOL. 41 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 24, 2017

WGU students say mentors are their key to success

By Kathy Carlson

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Every morning, Western Governors University course mentor Linda Knieps checks her roster of students to learn what they’ve been accomplishing. One may have aced an exam; another, not so much.

Depending on what she sees, she’ll get in touch by email or phone, offering additional reading materials or perhaps setting up a time to talk further. At any given time, she supports about 200 students taking two WGU psychology courses.

Knieps earned a doctorate in psychology from Vanderbilt University and taught at Tennessee State University for 17 years. She is in her fourth year as a course mentor at Western Governors University.

At WGU, students work with subject-matter experts like Knieps and with program mentors (formerly called student mentors) who advise and support students about how academic programs operate and on WGU policies and procedures.

WGU’s 2016 annual report says it has 2,904 faculty members, but doesn’t specify how many are course mentors and how many are program mentors, who don’t teach courses.

Course mentors generally have doctoral degrees in a subject, while program mentors generally have master’s degrees and may or may not have a background in the subject the student is learning.

There’s no information on the WGU web site about salaries and benefits. (Currently, WGU has 16 openings for course mentors listed on its website, out of a total of 98 open positions.)

The jobs website glassdoor states: “The typical Western Governors University course mentor salary is $59,644. Course mentor salaries can range from $49,749-$72,000. This estimate is based upon 47 Western Governors University course mentor salary report(s) provided by employees or estimated based upon statistical methods.’’

The 200 students on Knieps’s list are each working their way through a course at different rates of progress, measured both by their personal learning styles and by when they entered the course. Six-month terms at WGU start on the first of every month, so students are continually coming onto and going off Knieps’ list.

How students work on their courses during each six-month term is up to them, WGU Tennessee Chancellor Kimberly Estep adds.

Most will work on one course at a time and complete several during the term. It’s possible for a student to work on one course for a full term, but the suggested pace is at least 12 competency units – the equivalent of 12 semester credits of learning – in a term.

Students can take as many courses as they want during each term, which will cost at least $3,190 in tuition in 2018, plus additional fees.

WGU advises students to spend 15 to 20 hours a week on their studies, Estep continues. Students who don’t put in that time won’t obtain their degree as quickly.

“Our students are typically managing a full-time job, a family, and going to school full time,” she says. “We have some students who get up at 4 in the morning to study. Some sit down and do their homework with their kids. Some set aside every Saturday or Sunday and just hit it.”

Cynthia Turner of Grundy County finished her R.N.-to-B.S.N. program at WGU in about a year, finishing in September 2016. She became a registered nurse through an associate’s degree program in Texas from which she graduated in 2013.

At WGU, she says, “they lay everything out for you. The courses are extremely structured, in my opinion,” which she likes. Course mentors are there if a student needs help or has questions or needs clarifications.

There were no clinical requirements for the B.S.N. program.

Turner adds she worked three 12-hour nursing shifts per week while pursuing her bachelor’s degree. “Every single day I was off, all I did was work on classes.”

She had multiple course mentors for her courses. Once, her primary course mentor was out of town when she had a question, but “I still had the opportunity of contacting the other. … For one of my classes I think there were four or five” course mentors.

She praised her student mentor, David Statum, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from WGU.

Two of five students contacted for this article said they had more than one student mentor during their time at WGU, but both had praise for all of their student mentors and neither say that having more than one student mentor adversely affected their progress.

Turner has begun working at her hospital as a dedicated charge nurse in the medical surgical unit on nights since Turner earned her bachelor’s degree. She starts in January at WGU in its master’s in health care management program.

Course mentor Knieps says she tries to reach students as they begin a course, sending them a welcome email that includes helpful links and course information. She adds she also contacts students if they are nearing the end of their term to help make sure they finish on time.

Recent WGU graduates explain that they can reach more than one course mentor at any given time if they have questions about their studies. So, if their primary course mentor contact isn’t available, they can turn to others on the team. One student adds WGU made four or five course mentors available for a single course.

Knieps works a couple of evenings a week to be available. She may have six to eight student appointments set up on one evening and she or the student can set up the appointment.

Information about student assessments and notes from program mentors or course mentors are available to her online before the appointment, which can run from 15-30 minutes each. She and a student can look at a shared computer screen while they’re talking on the phone, so she can present them with visual information.

Knieps organizes live workshops and webinars a couple of times a week, in which she will teach on a topic for 30 minutes. Students can watch the webinar on their computers and call in with questions or comments. Some webinars will be recorded and made available to students. There also are opportunities for students to chat during webinars.

Knieps notes she works with other mentors, including program mentors, to support students’ studies.

“Communication between course mentors and student mentors is really vital,” she acknowledges. “They’re aware of any concerns that students have. They may instant-message me and conference me right in” on their calls to students.

Recent MBA graduate David Saulsbury says working with his student mentor was very helpful.

“My mentor had been through (an) MBA program,” he says. “He could talk about the subject matter,” Saulsbury says. His mentor checked on his progress, talked about course content, explained the program and helped guide him around any obstacles.

Saulsbury had earned an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee in 1984 and was working in management with Eastman Chemical when he enrolled in WGU’s MBA program. He continues to work at Eastman.

He wants to earn an MBA both for personal growth and also to gain tools he could use on the job. He says that because of family and job responsibilities, including travel requirements, he “could not commit to (being in a classroom) every Wednesday or Thursday night.” WGU’s flexibility allowed him to earn an MBA.

He worked mainly at night and on weekends on his MBA. In addition to working with his student mentor, Saulsbury worked with course mentors. The amount of time he spent with them varied with each class.

In a couple of courses, a data-driven, decision-making course in particular, Saulsbury explains he had a lot of interaction with the course mentor. “Some of the others I frankly didn’t need help with,” he says.

Completing the MBA, he points out, has given him “a better set of tools and opportunities to do other things. ... A lot of projects I’m working on have links to the financial side that I wouldn’t be working on before.”

Course mentor Knieps also sees a good future ahead at WGU.

She enjoys her work and hopes to continue there. She says WGU President Scott Pulsipher is a “strong supporter of clear pathways for advancing careers and professional development at WGU.” One possibility for her may be in a management position, perhaps training new course mentors.

“We take the training and support of new mentors very seriously,” she continues.

“… I’m very thankful that I made the decision (to join WGU) four years ago.”

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