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April 17, 2008

Staff share career advancement tips

“Regarding career advancement, you have to have patience. Nothing happens fast at the University of Pittsburgh. We don’t do anything quickly,” advised Sherry Miller Brown, director of the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success at the College of General Studies.

That was just one bit of advice from Miller Brown, who was one of five panelists at the April 9 spring assembly, “Staff Mentoring and Career Development,” along with long-time staff members Patty Antenucci, Dale Lewis, Barbara “Babs” Mowery and Deborah Walker.

The quintet recounted their employment experiences at Pitt and offered a range of recommendations for staff career advancement.

The event was facilitated by Patti Mathay, assistant University registrar and a member of the University Senate ad hoc gender equity committee, co-sponsor of the spring assembly with the Staff Association Council (SAC).

“Are any of you soap opera fans? My career here has had more twists and turns than ‘The Young and the Restless,’ ‘The Bold and Beautiful’ and ‘Days of Our Lives’,” said Walker, who is an assistant to the dean of Student Affairs.

“In 1983 I was walking through Posvar Hall and I saw an announcement for the University of Pittsburgh security force: $4.95 an hour! I said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money. And benefits? Gee,’” she said.

So she took the job. A year later, she applied for a position as a Pitt police officer and trained at the Allegheny County Police Academy.

For the next 16 years she answered emergency calls from resident students as a member of the Pitt police force. In 1999 she was promoted to community relations officer. “This was a defining moment in my career: One, being the community relations officer and, two, going back to school,” Walker said.

She earned her BA in criminal justice and legal studies in 2001 and followed that with a master’s in public policy and management at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

“If I can leave you with anything, please, please take advantage of your educational benefits,” Walker advised.

Following her master’s, she got restless. “I really enjoyed doing police work, but I knew there was something other than that I could do, so I began to send out applications, but I was turned down. I was very disheartened, very dejected at first,” Walker said.

“But since that time I’ve had a revelation: When God closes a door, a window will be open.”

Sure enough, in October 2003, she was hired as assistant director of community standards in Residence Life.

“I didn’t have a clue, to be honest with you, about what community standards meant,” Walker said. “I didn’t have supervisory skills. Now I had 116 people that report to me. It was a challenge. Often times I would think, this is not for me. But I stayed there and kept at it.”

In 2007 she moved to the Division of Student Affairs as student conduct officer and last November was named director of the student judicial system and of RISE, a mentoring and retention program for under-represented, under-served students.

Walker told the audience: “My first recommendation would be to plan your work, then work your plan. Plan what you want to do. You don’t have to have all the answers, but at least have a plan.”

Walker’s other advice to Pitt employees included:

• “Network with people in your chosen profession; attend conferences and workshops and read everything that you can.”

• Volunteer. “The opportunities that you receive from volunteering are tremendous, and it’s also a networking opportunity,” she said.

• Take advantage of Human Resources workshops.

• When applying for a particular job, be assertive. Sell yourself.

• “Setbacks are set-ups for a comeback,” Walker said. “You will have some setbacks. You will have some people in your circle who will say, ‘Why do you want to change careers?’ I was asked, ‘Why do you want to leave police work?’ But I wanted to do something different with my career.”

• “Finally, something my mother used to tell me: Remember it’s what you learn after you know everything that counts.”

A staff member in the Department of Human Genetics in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), Lewis earned a BS from Pitt and has held numerous positions at the University and UPMC since the 1970s.

His eclectic employment history runs from short-order cook to his current position as a lab manager and senior technologist at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s Cytogenetics Core Laboratory.

That career path was part serendipitous and part his own initiative, but always was driven by financial necessity, Lewis said.

“I actually started at the University just a few months after I graduated high school, and I started by accident. A neighbor of mine asked me if I was interested in working in a records department in one of the university hospitals,” he said. “I had never even given a thought to the fact that there were medical records. But the job paid more than I was making as a short-order cook, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

When he arrived for work he was shocked to discover thousands of records stacked indiscriminately that needed to be filed.

“That was a little scary. This is not what I expected. But I took it as a challenge. And it took me the better part of a year to actually get all of these medical records in order,” Lewis said.

The accomplishment did not go unrecognized and he was promoted.

“Great. So now I’m still in a records department and I’m thinking this is probably not what I want to do the rest of my life. So, what exactly is it that I want to do?”

Some Pitt dental student friends urged him to consider dental school.

“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So, I started to work on my bachelor’s degree in biology,” Lewis said.

He continued to work full time and go to school part time, then tried work and school full time, which nearly wore him out. After six years he earned his bachelor’s degree and paused to take stock. “Okay, I’m ready to go to dental school. Except at this point I was in my late 20s, married with one child and the second one on the way. It seemed very unrealistic that I was going to be able to go to dental school. I needed to work; I had a family to support,” he said.

“So I did a little self-reflection: What are the courses you took that you found to be the most interesting? I realized I had a very strong interest in genetics. I contacted a genetics lab in Pittsburgh, not a University lab. They told me, ‘You don’t have the experience,’” Lewis said.

“Well, how do you get experience? You volunteer. So I signed on as a volunteer there for about nine months. During that time I learned how to do all the cytogenetics procedures,” he said. “So now I was qualified, I had some experience, but by then they didn’t have a position. However, there was a position open at Pitt. And because it’s a small community [of scientists], they all know each other, and they recommended me for the position of cytogenetics technologist.”

Still, that job primarily involved patients with developmental or reproductive problems in a clinical setting, he said, which was not his interest.

“My passion was the cancer end of things. I heard of another cytogenetics facility that was opening up across town, with a focus on cancer. So I contacted them and moved there. I worked there a couple of years, and eventually, the supervisor left, and I took that position.

“I stayed there about five years,” Lewis said.

A scientist at that facility was friends with Lewis’s current boss, Susanne M. Gollin, professor of human genetics at GSPH, who was having trouble finding someone to manage her research lab.

“She offered me the position that I’m in now. I moved from a clinical setting to a research lab, which is a very different environment,” Lewis said.

“My message is that one of the biggest thing that got me the position I have was volunteering. If there’s a position you’re interested in doing, find someone in that position, set up a meeting with them, talk to them, find out what they did to get into the position and if there’s anything possible that you can volunteer for. It’s a great way to get experience and it certainly opened doors for me down the road.”

“I don’t want everyone to fall off your chairs, but I started at the University in 1970,” Miller Brown said, quipping, “I started when I was 2 years old.”

She had worked in industry for a half-dozen years before she joined the staff in the Graduate School of Business, which then was on the 21st floor of the Cathedral of Learning.

“I still vividly remember my first day. I was so intimidated that I was going to work at the University of Pittsburgh. I looked up at that Cathedral and my heart just leaped. I couldn’t believe this, since in 1965 I was kicked out of high school. Although I have to add that in 1965 it was the dawn of the Age of Aquarius and to get kicked out of high school was cool. I did eventually get my diploma.”

Her first job at the business school was coordinating the clerical and administrative work with the business faculty, she said. “One of the things that occurred to me is that if these guys can get a PhD, I know I can probably get an undergraduate degree, so I started to take classes.”

Ten years later she earned her undergraduate degree in writing, two years after that she got a master’s degree in education and six years after that she earned a PhD in counselor education.

During that time, Miller Brown had transferred to the College of General Studies and held various administrative positions including director of registration and records, director of new student programs and director of recruiting, before being named director of the McCarl Center.

“In 1988 when I got my PhD, someone discovered that I was the first staff person who ever went through from day one to a PhD on Pitt’s tuition benefits. The University Times contacted me and said they’d like to write a story about this. It was a beautiful story,” Miller Brown said.

For a year after the story appeared, she was stopped on campus by people who wanted to know how she was able to achieve such a feat while working full time.

“I really didn’t have an answer: I would say: ‘I just did it,’” she said. “But, in a way, that story really got my professional life started, because I realized that at the University we put all of our attention and all our efforts to the traditional student. Not a lot was done, if anything, for the students who come back part time, or who come from community colleges, or those who have GEDs and are a little older.

“So, I went to the dean and I made a proposal that we open a center for nontraditional students,” she said.

The dean thought the idea was great, but had no funding. Ditto for the next four deans over 17 years. In 1999, the University launched a capital campaign, and CGS hired a new dean with fundraising experience, who asked the staff for ideas.

“So I pulled out my old proposal, which had dust on it, re-worded it a little bit, and the next week, we had raised close to a million dollars from a donor to open our McCarl Center. I always say to visitors, ‘Welcome to my Taj Mahal.’”

Miller Brown leads a Human Resources workshop on career development. “The first thing I do is give a quiz about Pitt. And I’m always dumbstruck about how much people don’t know. So I tell people: ‘Get out and understand our culture, understand our system,’” she said.

“We have so many opportunities here, particularly educational opportunities. We are a credential-granting institution, so it stands to reason that the more credentials we can get for ourselves the better place we’re in to promote ourselves and to get better jobs.”

Non-degree credentials also are available, such as certificates, seminars and workshops.

“As an individual, you need to develop your skill sets. When I’ve heard these other stories, what they’re really talking about is developing a skill set, developing an area of expertise and then keep building on it,” she said.

“My other advice is that sometimes people make the mistake of attaching themselves to an administrator or their director. When that director moves on, the person is stuck because it wasn’t skill sets they were relying on. When you’re developing your skills, you’re probably also developing an opportunity for yourself,” Miller Brown said.

“Finally, I see networking as operating on three levels: First, let people know you, meet other people; second, let people know what your interests are; find out if there are jobs available, and third, go directly to the supervisor of the position to apply,” Miller Brown said.

She also cautioned staff to be careful when sharing news of a job search. “Some overbearing supervisors can actually cause you to lose your job if they find out you’re looking. But some supervisors will actually help you find a new job. Be judicious.”

Antenucci, director of personnel in the Graduate School of Public Health, has worked at Pitt for 28 years.

“I started at the student employment office and worked on planning and placement, and then I transferred to GSPH in the dean’s office,” she said. “As I was preparing this talk, I’m thinking I have been with the public health dean’s office for 25 years! But I didn’t stay doing the same jobs, I just kept growing; they gave me opportunities.”

Antenucci credits a mentor with allowing her to assume increasingly important positions in the office.

“I had a tremendous mentor — the associate dean at that time — who recognized that I wanted to do more and always gave me the opportunity to prove myself and advance,” Antenucci said.

In 1990 the director of personnel announced that she planned to retire. “That was almost 20 years ago; there weren’t computers. When you needed information about a faculty or staff member, you would go up and visit Accounting and ask them. So we needed a system and I told the dean I would take over those responsibilities. I said, ‘Look, I can do a database, we can have all this on file.’

“I feel I experienced the traditional method of mentoring: The person was willing to train me, he was willing to go out and tell others that I was a good fit for a job, that they needed to give me that opportunity,” Antenucci said. “If you work hard, you can do it.”

She earned an associate’s degree in psychology and a professional certification in human resources management, which was offered by the business school through CGS.

After she received her certificate, the mentor asked her to bring it into the office because he wanted to see it.

“I thought, he doesn’t believe I finished it,” Antenucci said. “What he really wanted was to frame it for me. He was as proud of me for finishing that as I was.

“What I want to suggest to those who have been at the University is that we need to carry this forward. Mentors are the people who recognize your talent. If you’re willing to work hard and give 100 percent, take initiative, I really think the University is a great place to work and those advantages will be given to you. Those of us who have had an opportunity to advance and grow at the University, like the panelists here, need to identify people who are willing to work hard and we need to mentor them.”

Mowery has worked at the University for 35 years, mostly in the Advising Center in Arts and Sciences. She started there as a secretary, became an administrative aide, an administrative assistant, an administrative director and now is a senior academic adviser.

“The one thing we’ve heard from everybody is the value of education we’ve gotten here,” Mowery said. “The truth is when I was coming out of high school nobody even mentioned college. The guidance counselor said, ‘You have a good business sense, go to the Allegheny Ludlum accounts payable department.’ For a while I worked there, then I moved to Boston and got a job at Boston University.”

That job whetted her appetite for working in a student environment, she said.

“There was always something going on — It was fun! So when I moved back to Pittsburgh I wanted to work for a university,” Mowery said. “I got a job here in the library, but it was in a room with walls and nowhere near students.”

Six months later, out of the blue, Human Resources called her about taking a position in the Arts and Sciences Advising Center, an opportunity Mowery jumped on. “I love working with students.”

When Mowery began using her tuition benefit to take classes, at first she did it just for fun. “Then all of a sudden I said to myself, ‘I can get a degree here.’ So I started taking one or two courses each semester.”

It took Mowery 18 years to complete her undergraduate degree. She went on to earn a doctorate in education.

“I used my benefits for those degrees, so I don’t have any student loans to pay back,” she said. More education meant promotions, more money and new responsibilities which, in turn expanded her reach throughout the University, she added.

“I started doing a lot of different things, working with the admissions office recruiting students. I had the opportunity to be on the Solaris project, a UNIX-based operating system, and when we started to look at PeopleSoft, we mapped out every single process. I met with different vendors, so I was meeting a lot of people. I learned about computers, and I was working with people from the Registrar’s office and CIDDE,” all of which expanded her horizons, Mowery said.

She took several workshops that helped with her various positions and duties.

“I also was on the Staff Association Council and through SAC I learned a lot about what goes on in the University, by being on all these committees and subcommittees and meeting people from all over the University, faculty and administrative people. After a while you learn the culture here, and it’s a very good educational experience to do that,” she said.

“One of the things I really want to stress is that you have to be persistent in what you do. I could have said I want to get these degrees but then quit after so many years, but I kept plugging away,” Mowery said. Her persistence has even inspired co-workers to pursue degrees, she said.

Persistence and adapting to change are the two keys to career success, Mowery maintained.

“There’s so much change that goes on over time. The culture is so much different now from what it was. The students are different, the people are different,” she said. “We are competitive, we’re a business just like anybody else now. You have to adapt to that type of environment. If change comes, you have to roll with it. You may even have the opportunity to make change.”

Despite earning a salary that would pale in comparison to a private sector position, Mowery said her job is gratifying.

“While you don’t make a the kind of money you would at U.S. Steel or wherever, there are so many benefits here: all the things around campus that I’ve been exposed to, the speakers. As you get to know more people you appreciate what goes on at the University. I would stress that you learn the value of education, how important it is. Even if you don’t earn a degree, you learn and we all have to keep learning, or we should. You don’t want to get static, you want to keep learning to grow.”

—Peter Hart

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