Family and professional support energized employees to earn degrees while working

University Communications

Daria Baker, with her family at the Spring 2017 Commencement
Daria Baker, with her family at the Spring 2017 Commencement

For many CU Denver graduates, the commencement ceremony signals the beginning of a job hunt.  But for 18 of the nearly 2,000 students who walked in the Spring 2017 Commencement, no job search was necessary—they obtained their degrees while working full-time for CU Denver.

These CU Denver staff members obtained degrees from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Architecture & Planning, the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences, the School of Business, the School of Public Affairs, and the School of Education & Human Development.

As they prepared to walk in the commencement ceremony, three of these full-time staff members reflected on their journeys and on how family, co-workers and CU Denver helped them achieve their goals.

Parent decided to ‘practice what she preaches’

Daria Baker was working full-time for CU Denver’s Risk Management Department when her 7-year-old son began to ask pointed questions. Would he have to go to college to be paleontologist when he grew up? Would he have to finish college? Did she finish college?

The conversation reminded Baker of a refrain in their family. “I always encourage my children to finish what they started,” said Baker. “I realized to set an example, I would have to finish what I started years earlier—my bachelor’s degree in Sociology.”

Baker was inspired by her own mother, who graduated with a bachelor’s in Education when Baker was 7 years old. After her family pledged their support, Baker enrolled in classes through CU Online in fall 2014. Her schedule was intense: homework in the early morning before her three children woke, a full day of work, and then back to the books in the evenings and on weekends. The ability to log into classes during non-traditional hours and the availability of professors via email were crucial to her success.

“We made a lot of sacrifices during the school year, including summer semester,” Baker said. “But what kept me going was that I wanted to have something to show for all our compromises.”

When Baker walked in the commencement ceremony on May 13, she had the distinction of being the only staff member who received an undergraduate degree. Reflecting on the example she set for her children, she said, “If I’m going to be the mother of a paleontologist, I need my degree.”

Technology Director volunteered at her own commencement ceremony

Ashley Cooper, Director of Creative Technology in Student Affairs
Ashley Cooper, Director of Creative Technology in Student Affairs

Since 2014, Ashley Cooper has been the Director of Creative Technology in Student Affairs at CU Denver. In the tech field, the skills and software “change non-stop,” she said. “If you’re not learning, then you’re not going anywhere.”

One year into her job, Cooper’s co-workers, as well as the tuition benefit available to staff, motivated her to enroll in the School of Business for her MS in Information Systems with an emphasis in Enterprise Technology Management.

“Online classes made it possible to work traditional hours,” Cooper said. “And my co-workers offered emotional support, checked on my well-being, and shared my belief in the importance of education.”

Because of her respect for education, Cooper has volunteered at each commencement since she began working for CU Denver, seven in total—including her own commencement day. The day before the ceremony, she plants flags, moves risers, and places signage on the Tivoli Quad. On commencement day, she serves as a Faculty Marshall Coordinator directing the graduates onto the stage.

This year her volunteer responsibilities included directing herself onto the stage. The extra hustle was worth it to Cooper, who loves volunteering at the ceremony. “Commencement is a refreshing reminder of why we do it,” she said. “This is the end goal—why we work at CU Denver and why I went to back to school.”

‘Undercover research geek’ is first in family to earn a doctoral degree  

Sam Kim, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Retention and Success
Sam Kim, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Retention and Success

Samuel Kim, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Retention and Success at CU Denver, enrolled in the EdD (Doctorate of Education) program in 2013 to fulfill a lifelong dream of obtaining a terminal degree. Working full time, while earning his EdD in Leadership for Educational Equity with an emphasis in Professional Learning and Technology, pushed him to his limits, but he discovered he was up for the challenge.

“I learned firsthand what I’m capable of,” Kim said. “This process taught me that I can truly do anything if I put my heart and soul into it.”

Even though Kim describes himself as an “undercover research geek,” he knew the process would be arduous. Kim’s full-time course load required many early mornings, late evenings, and plenty of sacrifices made during the weekends and holidays. The full support of his wife, daughter and supervisor, Vice Chancellor Raul Cardenas, Jr., made it all possible.

“My wife did so much for the family by filling in the gaps when I wasn’t present,” Kim said. “And Raul has been a tremendous supporter of my degree path. He was supportive 110 percent of the time.”

Having gone through the formal dissertation process, Kim plans to help colleagues with their research. “My degree gave me tools to further my research, as well as lifelong relationships with other members from the CU community,” he said. “Both will be valuable to my work as Assistant Vice Chancellor.”