Navigating Work and School: One HECM’s Advice on Getting Your Terminal Degree

When Jennifer Henkle reached out to ask me to write a blog on navigating professional life and working toward a doctorate degree, I laughed out loud. I couldn’t at that moment imagine what I would have to offer. But for the first time in two years, I really thought about my time in school.

If I could give three pieces of advice:

  • You can always go home. In my family that means that fear of failure should not dictate your decisions.
  • You will be __________ either way. You will be older, busier, stretched no matter what decision you make. So you might as well be better educated and preparing for your next opportunity.
  • You will need a team.

You can always come home. I joined the University of Tennessee in 2008 after having worked on an inpatient psych unit, a sexual assault center, and with international child protection. I remember my interview with the Vice Chancellor of Student Life like it was yesterday. He was discussing the role, expectations and the emerging field of Case Management. I was thinking to myself, even if I could pull this off for only a year, I would get a full week off at Christmas for the first time in my adult life. I took a deep breath, reminded myself of my mother’s mantra – you can always come home – and answered confidently that I could do the job (fingers crossed).

You will be 38 either way. Fast forward five years, two kids and more than a full time job as the Director of the Center for Health Education and Wellness. The University’s College of Social Work invited applications for the inaugural class of the Doctorate of Social Work Program. By now, I knew that I wanted to be in higher education. I knew to grow in higher education most positions required a terminal degree. I said to my mother, “I will be 38 when I finish.” She accurately replied, “You will be 38 either way.” Over the course of three years, there were times I doubted myself more than I ever have doubted myself. There were times that I thought I could not go one step further. There were days that I drank too much coffee and cried at my desk. But, I did it. I turned 38, got a doctorate and had a third baby within 4 months of each other.

You will need a team. So here is what I would tell you, if you are considering another degree, you can do it. Without doubt, if you are an effective Case Manager in Higher Education – you have the ability. AND you will need to ask for and accept help. Case Managers have a tendency to want to do and be everything. In fact, it is why we are good at our jobs. But this leap, will take a team. My colleagues proof read my papers. My supervisor brought two bean burritos with extra sour cream every Sunday at lunch to my office. My husband entertained, dressed and distracted our girls. My friends forgave me and loved me from afar when I had no time for a social life. My classmates inspired me, challenged me and became my second family. My mom made food, did laundry, and when I needed it reminded me why I made this commitment.

Congratulations on being at a place in your life where further education is possible.

Dr. Ashley Blamey works for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as the Director of the Center for Health Education & Wellness and was the inaugural president of HECMA from 2012 to 2014.