When Mary Welker ’20 graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in creative leadership last May, she celebrated with some very special Orangewomen—her four daughters. Bridget Welker Moore ’13, Caitlin Welker ’16, Abbey Welker ’20 and Martha Welker ’23 have had a powerful role model throughout their lives, and seeing their mother fulfill her dream of a college degree was the ultimate reward. “Nothing is more motivating than watching your successful mother challenge herself to learn and grow and accomplish something for herself,” says Abbey, who graduated alongside her mother with a bachelor’s degree in communications and rhetorical studies from the College of Visual and Performing Arts .
For Welker, the route to a degree was long and winding. “I attended a four-year college right out of high school, but I wasn’t ready for that experience and came home after a year,” she recalls. She earned an associate degree in business from Onondaga Community College 20 years ago, but it was hard to find the time or the bandwidth to complete a bachelor’s degree while raising four girls and working. “I needed to prove to myself that I could do it,” she says, so she explored part-time study options at University College and learned that she could earn a Syracuse University degree entirely online. It seemed like an ideal option for Welker, who works as a research coordinator in the School of Education ’s Office of Professional Research and Development.
Initially Welker was concerned that online study might be too impersonal, but she found it quite the opposite. “The online format allowed for a more personal experience with my instructors and classmates. We all got to know each other, and by the end of the semester I always felt like I had made a few new friends and had an instructor that I could reach out to in the future.”
Kal Srinivas was one such instructor. She is the director for retention in the office of the associate provost of academic affairs and also teaches a class Welker took called Change Management. “Professor Srinivas was very generous with her time,” Welker recalls. “She mentored me professionally and as a student, and although the class was online she met with me in person to discuss and clarify theories taught in class. She was able to illustrate nuances involved in leading change in an organization and brought the theory to life by sharing her own experiences with me.”
The online format allowed for a more personal experience with my instructors and classmates. We all got to know each other, and by the end of the semester I always felt like I had made a few new friends and had an instructor that I could reach out to in the future.—Mary Welker
Srinivas was impressed with Welker’s willingness to go beyond the requirements of the course so that she could incorporate her learning into her work life. “Mary was in the midst of implementing a change in her work unit, and she recognized the importance of understanding the culture and context in which the change was being made,” Srinivas says. “We engaged in deep conversations about the value of being respectful when overseeing change in diverse communities like Syracuse University.”
Welker attributes some of her success to the online support team at University College. “They anticipate where a student might need assistance and put supports in place to address those areas. If you’ve never taken an online class, the platform can be intimidating,” she says. “But University College offers practice sessions where they walk you through the online tools and give you the opportunity to try things out before class starts. They were there at the beginning of every semester and in every classroom to make sure everyone was comfortable online. It took away some of the anxiety for me.”
The academic advisors at University College helped her stay on track throughout the five years it took to complete her degree. “They understood the challenges of the adult learner,” she says. “When I was confused about what major to pursue, they didn’t tell me what I should study, they asked me questions that allowed me to follow my passions. If it wasn’t for the advisors, I’m not sure I would have graduated.”
Credit for Prior Learning
Welker took part in a unique pilot program created through a partnership between University College and the School of Education. The Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) program evaluates students’ knowledge gained through professional experience to determine if they qualify for college credits. Welker says the PLA courses were among the most valuable classes she took. Her work in the School of Education has provided a great deal of experience that is translatable to college credits, and she earned 18 credits upon completion of the program.
Reflecting on past educational experiences, Welker realized that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom or office. “As a mother of a child with learning disabilities, you become an expert in learning disabilities. As a mother of a child with an autoimmune disease, you become an expert in that area as well,” she explains. “These experiences require research, management and communication skills—all of which are required in college classrooms.”
“Mary is an insatiable learner,” says Scott Shablak, research professor and director of the Office of Professional Research and Development. “She has a deep interest in education—she scours journals, seeks out experts and looks to increase her skills. Mary has identified her core values and does her best to live a life reflective of those values and standards—at work and at home.”
Welker’s degree in creative leadership was completed with many accolades. University College designated her a prestigious Alumni Scholar, and she was the 2020 recipient of the Nancy Gelling Award, which recognizes the part-time student with the highest GPA in the graduating class. “I realized it isn’t just about the degree; it’s about so much more than that,” Welker reflects. “I needed to prove to myself that I could do it, and I learned so much about myself in the process.” The thrill of learning remains strong, and Welker plans to pursue a master’s degree. “I’m still researching possibilities. There are so many areas I’m interested in that would complement my degree.”
Abbey Welker is mindful of the impact Syracuse University has had on her sisters, her mother and herself. “Being Orange means being proud of who you are and where you come from,” she says. “It’s about being part of a community of hard-working people who aren’t afraid to be who they are.” Her mother shares her gratitude. “Syracuse University has helped me and my family in so many ways,” she says. “I’m so appreciative of all the experiences I’ve had.”