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October 23, 2008

CGS long-timers reminisce

As the College of General Studies (CGS) readies for its celebration of 50 years as a Pitt school this weekend, four people with long-time CGS associations reminisced about their experiences.

Tim Carr, an academic adviser on staff at CGS since 1975, recalled his early days working at the college when there were many more students and more face-to-face contact.

“In my first few years at CGS, the academic advisers were more divided into specialty areas that connected our backgrounds with specific programs and majors,” Carr said. “For example, I have a corrections background and I was the first administrator of the administration of justice program, so it made sense to have me as the adviser. The typical students in that program were full-time employees already in the criminal justice field, although we also had a few students who were interested in getting into the field. It was one of our largest majors, along with business, before the CBA (College of Business Administration) opened in the late-’90s.”

The AJ program was underwritten by the law enforcement education program, known as LEEP, a federal aid program that made tuition money available for those in the field seeking further training.

“We also wanted to encourage corrections and law enforcement personnel to go on to earn a degree,” Carr said. “We had 10-12 academic advisers in those days. Now we have four. We also had a counselor for veterans, who acted as an adviser.”

The single biggest change, Carr said, was the conversion to computer technology. “I remember having to make everything out in triplicate. We lived in a pencil-and-paper world. I’d have everything about a student spread out across the desk. There was a lot of shuffling papers.”

Carr remembered the days of pulling IBM punch cards out of a huge tray to check if a student had been registered or to see if there was still an opening in a class.

“After computerization, things really changed on how we selected classes for students. Now we have the PeopleSoft system, and they’re converting to a system that will allow students to self-register online,” Carr said.

Because registration processes have been computerized and the ways to obtain academic information have been expanded, there is much less face-to-face contact with students.

“That’s probably what I miss most,” he said. “We used to be open more hours in the evenings for nontraditional students who were working during the day and attending classes at night. We used to have two evening class sessions, one that started at 5:20 and another at 8:10 that went to 10:45.

“That’s a long day, and I think students really appreciated having someone to talk to about their degree progress available at night. I miss that, too, although we still work some evening and Saturday hours.”

Carr also has seen changes in the majors that the college offers and in other programs, including informal programs, but the administration of justice program has been a mainstay.

“In my time here, I’d say we went through two or three downsizing periods where you weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. I never felt like the college would be closed or I would lose my job, but it was certainly something people were concerned about,” Carr said.

“But you have to realize the factors contributing to that downsizing were not all negative. There was a much larger population in Pittsburgh, and for many years, we had no competition, really. A lot of the downsizing came as a result of eliminating duplicate programs, and moving some of ours to Arts and Sciences or business,” he said.

Joanne Rosol, director of enrollment management, agreed with Carr. “There’s been a huge change from the pen-and-pencil days with the computer coming in,” said Rosol, who has been on the CGS staff since 1970.

“Also students were older in the past. That had to do with the demographics and the culture of the city, which both have really changed since my early years here. People came to complete a degree, but we also offered a number of certificates. In the 1970s, nontraditional students getting a degree was not as common, or as necessary for employment opportunities as it is today, so many of the certificate programs were quite popular.”

Rosol said Susan Kinsey, who served as CGS dean from 1999 to 2005, had experience in developing continuing education programs. “When she was dean, she changed our focus to those who are changing careers and to workforce development needs, retraining needs. We’ve seen some of that paying off in our programs. So, as priorities have changed, we, as a college, have had to be flexible,” Rosol said.

“What hasn’t changed here, and I’m very proud of this, is that the staff have always been so student-service oriented. No matter how the needs of our students have changed, the personal service here is impressive,” she said.

Rosol believes that the opening of the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success has given CGS a community feeling. “With the McCarl Center we have more of a presence as a college. Students do not feel isolated, or like there’s no place to go to meet fellow students or to socialize or just to relax,” Rosol said.

The college has expanded its alumni outreach and increased the social activities for students. “We try to engage students and offer family-oriented activities. For example, a couple weeks ago, we had a picnic for our students and their families. It’s another way of looking at how we can be of service to the CGS community,” she said.

Rosol acknowledged times when rumors circulated about the college’s demise.

“I heard the rumors, but I never felt like we would be shut down. We could see for ourselves all the good we were doing, even if it was in baby steps,” Rosol said.

“I also realized that in the 1970s, we were the only game in town. There weren’t the Robert Morrises or the Point Parks. As a result, not a lot of marketing was needed. Now we need to promote ourselves much more,” she said. “But I still feel our mission is important to this region. I always say, ‘If you live in this area and you can get a Pitt degree, which is recognized everywhere for quality, why would you go to our competition?’”

Tony Novosel, a lecturer in Pitt’s history department and a CGS alumnus, had high praise for CGS, its programs and its students.

“I started in 1985 as a CGS student, and I graduated in 1989, which is pretty quick. It was a great experience for me,” Novosel said. “I was working in a factory in Duquesne when I started as a student here, and I was working the midnight-8 a.m. shift in a gas station at the time I graduated. I can tell you flat-out, I would not have had an academic career if it weren’t for CGS.”

Novosel has developed web-based courses and online syllabi for the college’s courses that are offered via distance education.

He also teaches Russian history and Irish history courses in CGS. Last spring he led a study abroad integrated field trip to Ireland that included both traditional-age and nontraditional students. (See May 29 University Times.)

The trip abroad was a sequel to Novosel’s “Ireland: The Troubles, 1969-1994” course.

“The nontraditional students I teach are basically the same as the ones I went to school with,” Novosel said. “It’s a mixed bag, but usually they’re between 23 and 55. The quality of their work is comparable to traditional undergraduates. In most cases, they’re very focused students, they bring life experience to the classroom. They have to have great time-management skills in order to balance their lives and their educations, and that shows.”

Cheryl Tomko, director of organizational development in Human Resources, attended CGS from 1975 to 1982, earning a degree in business administration. Later, she completed a master’s degree in the School of Education.

“I didn’t go to college right after high school, even though I was accepted in a couple places,” Tomko recalled. “In that era, it wasn’t a given that you would go to college. In fact, I’m the first one in my family to earn a degree. It wasn’t that uncommon to think you didn’t need a degree to get a good job. I worked as a bank teller for three years after high school. As the saying goes, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Tomko said going to CGS was part determination and part serendipity.

“I almost never started college. Mainly, that was the fear of a North Versailles suburbanite girl who was afraid of going to Oakland. The city was just too different from the pace I was used to,” she said.

“Of course I knew about Pitt. One day I said to myself, ‘Pitt is available if you just get off your butt and go there.’ I made up my mind to go to the 4th floor of the Cathedral if and only if when I drive by there’s an open parking spot. Luckily, there was. What are the odds of that?”

Tomko fondly remembers meeting with her academic adviser for the first time.

“I was nervous, but he helped me relax. ‘How am I going to pay for this?’ I asked him.

“‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘we have Pell Grants available and it will all work out,’” Tomko recalled.

“Really, all the staff were amazing. They helped you find the right courses, and they boosted your confidence,” she said.

Initially, her goals were modest. “I never thought I’d actually graduate. That was outside my thinking,” Tomko said.

“I felt really a part of a community of students who were all in similar situations, but I had to admire my classmates who were doing way more and had many other obligations, like having a family.”

Initially timid, but with her confidence growing, Tomko became an officer of the CGS student government. “It was very lively and active in those days. It was not really political, except once I remember during the apartheid [controversy] when we supported urging the University to divest from South Africa,” she recalled. “But we were concerned more with academic things and student services. I remember we used to meet in the old Tuck Shop [on the ground floor of the Cathedral],” she said.

“I often think how different my life would have been if I wouldn’t have found that parking space.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 5

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