In workplaces all over central Illinois, workers are ready to be innovative, think strategically, and take on more difficult assignments. There’s just one problem—many have not completed their college education to earn bachelor’s degrees. They may be “street-smart,” but they are not “book-smart.” For leadership positions in many companies, a B.A. is pretty much a standard requirement to even be considered for the position.
Betsy Bladel faced that dilemma in her life—and she did something about it. She finished her college education as an adult learner in the Organizational Leadership Program (OLP) at Eureka College. And now she is leading the program and recruiting others to find their paths of advancement.
Bladel, a Peoria native, was a member of the first class (called “cohort”) in this innovative program, the only one of its kind in the area. Now she is the director of Lifelong Learning, overseeing the work of the 34 students currently in OLP and guiding 42 students in the Special Education Teacher Approval program at the College. That part of her work is especially near and dear to her. She served for several years as an intervention specialist for Peoria School District 150 at Northmoor Primary School, working with special education students and their families.
“I now work to recruit students to the same program that shaped me,” Bladel said on a recent busy day on campus. “They come from all over Illinois. These potential adult students want to earn their degree and achieve a higher status in work and life. They already earned associate’s degrees at community colleges, or have accumulated 51 hours of transfer credits to enter the program.”
Many faculty members in the program are business leaders brought in alongside campus faculty to give students the best of the theoretical and practical, to process real-life experience in the classroom. “We want students then to go to a higher level at their places of work, or change careers—or, if they are unemployed in this tough time, to qualify for a new job.” Many of these jobs, she said, do require a bachelor’s degree as a starting point for consideration.
Kurt Krile, Eureka College’s director of admissions and financial aid, concurs with Bladel’s view of the potential student. “We started about four years ago with the vision of our president, David Arnold, who saw an unmet need for educational advancement in the area.” Krile says that area employers such as Caterpillar and State Farm became solid supporters of the program and saw a return on the investment of their educational dollars as students grew in their understanding of leadership. “But we find that, with Betsy’s work, she is extending the benefits of the program to smaller employers, and to the community college students that are older and more seasoned and experienced than the typical younger student that we attract.”
Neither program runs on a typical schedule, since they are geared toward people with jobs, families and other commitments. The Special Ed cohort meets on weekday evenings over three semesters, and the Organizational Leadership Program requires 15 months of alternate weekends, for four hours on Friday nights and eight hours on Saturdays. “These programs can be very demanding,” says Bladel, “and they require dedication and commitment—both of which will help [students] to be stronger leaders for the long haul.”
The Organizational Leadership cohorts take classes that focus on the great ideas and people in western civilizations, as well as in business issues such as ethics and human resources management. They also get a chance to try out their emerging leadership skills and talents in five “practicums.” These are projects and individual learning labs in which students can apply their learning and also work together as a talented and energetic group. “The group practicum, at the start, can give the students an opportunity to learn to work together—to start problem-solving right away.”
As a graduate of the program, Bladel knows firsthand about the leadership lessons that students experience. “I started in the program because I needed to work effectively in two volunteer programs and boards.” One organization in which she provided a lot of leadership—often at a gut level—was the Junior League of Peoria, where she served as the vice-president of marketing and finance. “I needed to finish the degree and commit to the weekends, since I worked full time. “The guidance counselor at Illinois Central College suggested this leadership program. I responded to a mailer, and I thought that it sounded interesting.” It turned out to be so interesting that Bladel now wants others to find the same personal and educational impact that changed her life and helped her to set ambitious goals.
The programs directed by Bladel are appealing to more mature students, as well as those who have been battered by the economy. “These students are coming here with real determination to make something out of their lives. Some of them have become unemployed after being valued workers for many years. Some have gone through the death or divorce of a spouse, or they are empty-nesters and want to do something important with their lives.” Bladel is excited to provide clear leadership and encouragement to such students, and to help them not only finish the program, but do great things with their lives and make positive contributions to their communities.
Bladel does not want to be out in front of the students, but to serve right beside them. “Servant leadership is a major principle here, and I really have been influenced by it. I am there to help not only leadership, but to help groups to see that the company or college can survive any rough time when they can problem-solve on the spot and see the bigger picture.”
Bladel gets as much—or more—out of the programs as she watches adult students grow and find hope and promise in their lives. “I love working with people, and that day-to-day administration of the policies and procedures we embrace,” she said. “It’s great to help in building a family support system when people come into the program. That’s something that nontraditional students need.” As Bladel helps that support system develop, she can watch the students uncover their leadership potential and, perhaps, succeed for the first time in their lives. iBi
John R. Throop is a frequent contributor to iBi, and has served as a national consultant and trainer for nonprofits for the past 17 years.