Four Awarded LEAP Fellowships | Thomas Nelson Community College

Four Awarded LEAP Fellowships

January 15, 2021
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Valerie Burge-Hall enjoys working at Thomas Nelson, where faculty and staff often join students as learners. She has thought about exploring a position with more of a leadership role but didn’t know how to test the waters without taking on a different job with a different employer. What would happen if that new job didn’t work out? She would then be out of work, a risk she couldn’t afford to take.

“You always are wondering what the other side is like, but you’re like, ‘I’m going to have to jump out of what I’m currently doing to go full force for administration,’” she said.

Looking to remain in her current job while gaining leadership experience without risk, she found just what she was looking for with the Thomas Nelson Community College Leadership Education and Ascension Program (LEAP).

“This presented the opportunity that I can actually see if it’s something that’s going to work for me and my family without this idea of if I don’t like it, I’m going to have to find another job,” she said. “That was most appealing for me.”

Burge-Hall, an associate professor and department chair in Health, Physical Education, and Wellness, along with Michelle Alexander (assistant professor Health, Physical Education and Wellness), Stacey Schneider (assistant history professor) and, Nick Pierce (STEM instructor) were accepted into the College’s LEAP program this year.

Burge-Hall, who has been at Thomas Nelson since 2011, will be working with Institutional Research and Effectiveness Director Steven Felker. One of her assignments is gathering information for a report required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which grants accreditation for higher education institutions in the Southern states.

Admittedly, she’s just learning about SACSCOC and the report, but said, “If we don’t pass this SACSCOC accreditation, then we don’t have doors to open. It will be important for me to see how that really does work on the other side.”

Felker and the rest of the IRE department gather data that are behind many academic decisions at the College. Their research examines the students coming into a program, as well as those who are graduating. They examine the needs for particular programs, and if they should be expanded or eliminated.

“It really is a big deal, even though it’s a small office and you don’t hear about it, but it really does drive some of the decisions,” Burge-Hall said. “I don’t think people know how big a deal it is because they don’t make a lot of fuss. It’s kind of like the wizard behind the curtain.”

The work she is doing for the fellowship dovetails well into her current position as a professor and department chair.

“As faculty, we’re constantly trying to tweak our program or make different assignments to make sure we’re actually assessing that our students can do this before they finish with our program,” she said.

Burge-Hall noted one of the great things about the program is that if it doesn’t work out for the College or the professor (for whatever reason), either side can opt out. The program also allows the College to look at the potential of its current employees. It won’t have to look outside, and take risks, on hires they aren’t as familiar with.

“As I said in my interview, I think this program is a win-win for the College because it allows people who have an interest in emerging as leaders this opportunity to be able to experience it,” Burge-Hall said. “And it also gives the College an opportunity to experience some skills and some experiences and perspectives that they may never have been able to tap into if we were all serving in our previous positions full time.”

Alexander, who has had leadership roles at the College with her involvement in the faculty senate and VCCS projects, will be working with Paul Long, dean of Public Safety, Allied Health, and Human Services. The two are working out details of her assignments. But she, too, was drawn to the fellowship because she didn’t have to give up teaching to learn leadership skills.

“This fellowship allows me to get these experiences without leaving the classroom. I am not ready to leave the classroom,” she said. “Teaching remains my No. 1 priority and passion.”

She also is using the fellowship to help decide her future. She has been a full-time faculty member at Thomas Nelson for 11 years but said she’s at a “crossroads” in her career.

“If I want to pursue my doctorate, I have to make a decision,” she said. “I need to make a decision on whether that doctorate is in public health and I continue to work in the field as a faculty member, or whether I want to pursue a doctorate in administration and leadership. I want to have some more opportunities to really help me make that decision. I thought that this fellowship would be a good opportunity to do that.”

Alexander added the fellowship will provide her with another perspective on her profession and higher education.

“If, ultimately, I decide that the classroom is where I want to be, I think that it’s always important to have an understanding of the different roles individuals play at an institution,” she said.

Burge-Hall agreed.

I think this will give me a fresh vantage point of the College,” she said. “I think that’s always helpful when you see things from multiple perspectives. It makes you more of an advocate.”

And Alexander also likes the flexibility of the program and the fact there is no long-term commitment.

“If I get to the end of this semester, I know Dr. English and Paul would be in support of me saying that I’m ready to go back into the classroom if that’s what I decide,” Alexander said. “But I also know that there would be an opportunity to continue it.”

Burge-Hall said the College benefits, too, by tapping into the talent it already has.

“I appreciate Dr. English and the administration for having the foresight to say, ‘Hey, let’s allow people to grow right where they are,’” she said.

That is far better than people taking those skills someplace else. With the LEAP Fellowship, said, Burge-Hall, “We all reap the benefits.”

Schneider will be working with Communications, Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Ursula Bock, and Pierce has been assigned to Beth Dickens, assistant dean in STEM. The length of the fellowships can vary from one to three semesters. And while there is no financial compensation, the teaching requirements of those selected for the program will be reduced by 7.5 credit hours per semester. Any full-time faculty member in good standing is eligible for the program.