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Sarah Poe follows daughter’s lead, enrolls in online master’s degree program

After watching her daughter, Aurelia, transition to fully online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, single mom Sarah Poe realized she could do the same. “I work in public health, so that was a tricky time for both of us,” she said. “I remember working at my kitchen table and she was doing her schooling. “I thought, ‘If she can figure out how to do the camera, the messaging and how to submit her work as my 10-year-old, what am I waiting for?’” So, Poe enrolled in Boise State University’s online Master of Science in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning (OPWL). She is on track to graduate in May 2024.

“The idea of, ‘If you’re doing something difficult, do something more difficult,’ applied,” she said. “If I could go through this difficult time of COVID, I could do an online program. I kept that momentum. “I was working 60 hours a week, so when I started working less, I added this program in early 2022. I feel like I just blinked, and it’s almost done.”

Poe, a first-generation college graduate, is director of the Malheur County Health Department in Ontario, Oregon, but she lives in New Plymouth, Idaho. She worked as a project assistant at Boise State in 2011-12.

“Finding the OPWL program at Boise State that was entirely online was a relief to not have to figure out how to attend in person,” she said. “With how much of our work is remote now and how much we do online, I liked the idea of it being fully remote because you have the same engagement from everyone.

“Plus, I have peers from around the world in this program. Boise State University is an hour away from me, but I haven’t been on campus since I started. The program hasn’t felt like anything is lacking.”

State of Mind

Poe, who moved to New Plymouth in 1995, enrolled at the College of Idaho as a creative writing major. She left school without completing the degree in 2006, but returned to finish a decade later while working in the healthcare field.

“I pursued English because that’s where I had scholarships,” she said. “I have always loved reading, but as a working adult, I realized my ability to write was very valuable. As I moved up in my career, learning how to take on more and more responsibility, I saw that writing is often very solitary and I could do more with others.

“I realized I needed more skills like how to manage people in organizations; I don’t believe it’s all intuitive. Good managers have education and experience in management.”
After building a career in leadership, Poe found an ideal fit with the online OPWL program and its growth-centered curriculum.

“It was important to me to find a program to help me at work and make me a better supervisor,” she said. “I work in public health without a master’s degree in public health.

“I would have had school partially paid for by the State of Oregon had I gone in that direction. I decided the skills in OPWL were way more appropriate to a leadership position than a master’s in public health.”

The courses in the program have been practical and applicable to Poe and her career, beginning with a foundational course, Principles of Adult Learning, taught by the now-retired Vicki Stieha.

“I was blown away,” Poe said. “It was one of the best learning experiences of my life. I could have learned anything from her. She understood how to teach so well. Having that foundation and launch into the program made me feel like I was in the right place.

“It also helped me have the confidence that I could learn whatever was thrown at me. The practical piece of OPWL is meant to be applied into the workplace now, as opposed to other programs where you get theory, you have that background, then later apply it.”

Poe especially enjoyed the collaborative nature of the coursework. She didn’t have to wait to see the results of those collaborations at work.

“So much of this program is project-based with a team,” she said. “My team worked on a project that I had presented to build a course that applies a health equity lens for program coordinators as part of planning and review. I built that course with two accomplished graduate students.

“Now, I have been teaching that course and implementing it at my organization for over a year. I have been accepted to a conference to also teach it in September 2024. The OPWL program opened up a lot of doors and made me realize how much I learned.”

Fruits of Labor

Poe would like to walk in commencement later this year — especially since her daughter will be starting high school soon.

“I want her to see that this is doable, that graduate courses for people working with families are doable,” she said. “The online experience is so helpful for people with families.

“Besides just the flexibility of it, the fact that my child can see that this is college and what I am doing is big. Being able to share that with her has been great.

Gaining knowledge from the faculty and her classmates has made the online OPWL program an especially worthwhile endeavor for Poe.

“Whether you own your own business or work for someone else or are doing instructional design or strategic planning, these are skills that are applicable in so many ways,” she said.
“Even though it’s a big program, none of my classes have been overwhelmingly big. You get to know your peers.

“The professors have also been very available. It has the potential to have a lot of relationship opportunities you can build on. I have recommended the program to several people in similar roles — especially when it’s for smaller organizations where leadership winds up doing a lot and filling many roles.”

Poe is elated to turn a negative situation like COVID-19 into a positive one by earning an online master’s degree at Boise State.

“I have felt taken care of and also special,” she said. “Everybody in this program gets a bit of a bespoke experience. That’s not available in a lot of online learning settings — especially at giant universities.

“I’m really impressed. Boise State has been doing this for so long that it is way ahead in the field. It’s been an incredible experience. I am so glad that I did it.”

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