Vicki Cook: From Wal-Mart To College Dean
by Jennifer Mosscrop
Working a cash register and stocking retail shelves was good, honest work, but Vicki Cook had bigger pursuits in mind. That's why the former Wal-Mart employee used education to pave the way toward her own American Dream, while taking others along for the ride.
Whether it's teaching literacy classes, career services, parenting strategies or tech skills, Vickie Cook is committed to helping people further their education. And, she practices what she teaches by simultaneously pursuing her own college degree via online study.
When she became store manager at an Illinois Wal-Mart, Vickie already had an associate degree from Kaskaskia College (Centralia, Ill.) and a bachelor's degree from Western Illinois University. But it was her job in retail that roused her interest in adult education. "I saw a lot of employees and customers who were desperately in need of continuing education to acquire basic literacy skills and to improve job skills," Vickie says.
After 17 years, she left Wal-Mart to take a job as director of family literacy programs at Kaskaskia. With a new job and evening community work, Vickie didn't have time to get a master's degree in adult education at a traditional college. "I did lots of research -- several months, actually -- and Capella University answered my needs," Vickie explains. "It gave me a good opportunity to complete my academic work and at the same time, advance my career."
That's because, as Vickie believes, distance learning holds the key for those who have full-time jobs, children and other responsibilities that make it difficult to complete a college degree. "The time-bound and place-bound find it hard to pursue degrees and careers," Vickie explains. "Online learning provides them with an option."
While pursuing her master's, Vickie was also taking care of her high school-age daughter. "Life still goes on around you," she says. "If a class is from 6PM to 10PM, you have to make arrangements for class time. [With online learning], you can even do your work on the weekends. I'm a morning person, so I did all my classwork before I went to work."
For the past four years, Vickie has served as dean of community education and university alliance at Kaskaskia. Her passion for improving the quality of adult education lead to her developing a partnership between Kaskaskia and Capella University. "This partnership provides a seamless transfer from Kaskaskia to Capella's online program without application fees."
Last June, Vicki received a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Capella. "It was a lot of work being both a dean and a Ph.D. student," Vicki recalls. "Many times I'd read textbooks on my lunch hour, check class postings in the evening, and have discussions with classmates after I got home from work."
But still, says Vickie, it would have been tougher on her time management earning a Ph.D. at a traditional college. "It would've required a lot more work and travel time to get it," she says.
Not to mention she wouldn't have been exposed to faculty input from around the country, including those based in Florida, California and Minnesota. "Capella creates a wonderful sense of community," Vickie recalls. "And there were many wonderful students with whom to connect."
In fact, says Vickie, a characteristic of an ideal online learning provider is one that emphasizes strong student support. She knows from experience.
"Anytime I had an issue, someone was always there to help." One challenge that sticks out in her mind was when her advisor left mid-year. The new advisor got right on track. "The administration was very helpful and the students were very interested in helping each other out," she says.
From her own experiences, Vickie advises the online-college-bound to do their research, ensuring that a potential college's accreditation is in place, and that the curriculum meets his or her needs. "If you read and write well, are self-motivated, and don't mind using the computer for a long period of time, it can work for you."
Vickie's dedication to adult education got her where she is today. Ever since she became dean, a number of private colleges have offered higher-paying positions, but she insists on staying on the community college level. "I can see the impact on people's lives," she explains. "I really enjoy it."
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