Back to School

IB presents the instructive stories of three adult learners – all over 50 – who have gone back to school for personal or professional enrichment.
Madison College student Scott Kolar (suit and tie) is learning to weave the Web from instructor Nick Wilkes.

When Scott Kolar was employed as a computer programmer, working with mainframes nine or 10 hours a day, he used to think about how nice and relaxing a leisurely retirement would be. Now that he’s retired at the forever-young age of 58, he dreads the very thought of idleness.

“I don’t know about other people, but I could not just sit around and do nothing,” Kolar said. “When I was working those longer days, I often thought how nice it would be to sit around and relax, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Once you actually get into that situation, you think, ‘I’ve got to get out and do something.’”

In this look at executive education, IB spoke to three current or former supervisors or managers – Kolar, Mary Kay McDermott, and Dr. Pete Meyer – who are over 50 and who have gotten out and done something. Namely, they have gone back to school. 

In education-centered Madison, they and other adult learners have a number of choices in institutions whose executive education programs are shaped in part by local business leaders who understand the workforce needs of local employers.

Martin Preizler, dean of the business school at Edgewood College, strongly hinted that one business need is to prepare the next generation of business leaders to replace aging baby boomers. “I could look across the spectrum of leadership in this town and say folks aren’t getting any younger,” he said.

Neither are the 50-something current and former business professionals IB spoke to, but in talking about their motivations for heading back to class, it’s easy to detect a hint of youthful optimism. To their fellow quinquagenarians, they have one message about going back to school in your 50s: come on in, the water’s fine. 

“Whatever their reluctance might be, once they get into the class and start getting those first pieces of knowledge and start building those relationships, that should help them get over whatever reluctance they have,” Kolar said.

Scott Kolar: Allstate to All-Volunteer

You could say that Kolar is a transplanted Madisonian, but that plant has developed pretty strong roots for a Philadelphia-area native and his Wisconsin-born wife, Mary. 

Kolar, 58, spent 20 years of his career in information technology, serving as a programming or systems analyst, most recently with Allstate Insurance in Illinois. The job also entailed supervising other programmers and analysts. Now he’s retired and involved in volunteer activities, taking responsibility for the websites of various community organizations he serves. While he has an IT background, he’s working on Madison College’s Web design certificate program to get the needed Web-technology skills. 

Since moving to Madison in 2008, after Mary retired as a naval officer, Kolar has become involved in volunteer work with the Capitol Neighborhoods Association, which represents people who live in downtown Madison. When the individual who had been doing the association’s newsletter and website decided to step down, Kolar stepped in. Suddenly, a former mainframe programmer found himself in charge of designing websites, and he realized that he had not only come full circle, he needed to acquire more knowledge. 

At Madison College, Kolar started taking non-credit, continuing education courses, with a course here and there in a particular technology he needed to know. Within the past six months, the college came out with a basic Web design certificate program. Since Kolar already had one or two of the courses under his belt, he decided to work toward the certificate.

To earn the certificate, Kolar must complete a minimum of six courses, three of which are in the rearview mirror. Terms like Dreamweaver (Web design and HTML editor), WordPress (personal publishing platform), and Joomla! (a content management system) had not been part of his vocabulary before, but these Web-building tools have stimulated his interest in tinkering under the hood.

“When the Internet came along, I saw a lot of websites just as a user, and I noted which ones looked interesting, but getting into it and getting under the covers and seeing how and why things work, it’s really very interesting,” he said.

One of the objectives of his content management course is to build a website during the course, and while the redesign of the other sites will have to wait until he completes his certificate work, Kolar is getting some practical Web design experience for his wife’s county board campaign. Mary Kolar, who herself has made an interesting transition as the director of operations for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is campaigning for the seat left vacated by Scott McDonnell’s election to Dane County Clerk. 

Kolar’s next assignment will be to help nonprofits, but who knows where these new skills could lead? His Web-enabled public service might even turn into a business that serves nonprofits and others. “I’m thinking of doing it on a volunteer basis just to help the nonprofit organizations, and to help me get more experience,” he maintains. “In the future, if it looks like there is a market for that sort of thing, yes, I could see opening my own business.”


Mary Kay McDermott: Opening Doors

In 1977, when Mary Kay McDermott graduated from the College of St. Teresa, a women’s liberal arts college in Winona, Minn., it probably didn’t occur to her that she might someday want to head back to school. McDermott, now a supervisor of customer service representatives who manages call center operations for Alliant Energy Corp., has enjoyed a diverse work life in restaurants, health care, and now energy services.

Asked why she is pursuing an MBA at Edgewood, she says there is no specific goal in mind. It’s not necessarily for a promotion, or a career change, or to run a business, but for whatever doors it may open. And when you’ve worked for entities as diverse as Hoffman House Restaurants in Janesville, where she served as an administrative assistant, and Mercy Hospital, where she was a medical staff coordinator, you come to realize that one’s career path can take unexpected turns.

So can your interest in education. That was certainly the case a few years ago, when McDermott decided to work toward an MBA. “I got an interest in Edgewood when I took my daughter there to visit,” she recalled. “Even though she did not go to Edgewood, I was very impressed with the college and it was time for me to go back to school. Everybody there was so energetic, and I wanted to pursue my education.”

McDermott is in a general MBA program, so she’s been taking management courses, communications courses, accounting, and economics. She was attracted to its well-rounded features, and meets with an academic advisor on a periodic basis “so she knows that I’m on track.”

Rather than think ahead to helping a local nonprofit or opening a business or accommodating a hobby, McDermott believes simply earning an MBA is a great goal to have. She knows that earning the degree might give her more career options, but for now it helps her identify with co-workers who are taking courses, it helps her grow her knowledge and technology base, and it keeps her up to date in the communications and business fields.

“It also energizes you,” she noted. “It’s not for everybody, but I’ve really appreciated it. You feel such a sense of accomplishment at the end, when you complete your course or your homework. It’s so beneficial.”

As for those future doors, an MBA could provide a strong foundation of new skills and knowledge, and that broader base strengthens her ability to volunteer. McDermott already entertains thoughts of working with the United Way’s tutoring and after-school programs, and she has enjoyed taking part in the Madison Public School District’s Schools Make a Difference (SMAD) program.

McDermott already serves as president of the Alumnae Association of the College of St. Teresa, and she’s a board member for the Kilowatt Credit Union in Madison. With her growing educational experience, it has been even more enjoyable to volunteer for these roles, but she’s also mindful of the professional benefits. 

“I feel that continuing education gives you extra footing and a better knowledge base. Technology has changed so much and so fast. Our world is so intense now that any extra training you can get along the way is very helpful. It gives you a nice edge, as far as updating your skills and giving you even some confidence if you would want to pursue something different.”

Most of McDermott’s classes take place at night. She’d like to finish her MBA by the end of 2014 and wishes she could take more classes at a time, but that’s one challenge for adults going back to school, especially when you prefer classroom interaction to online learning. “You are working so many hours, absorbed in your career, and it’s hard to take several classes at one time,” she said. “As an older adult student, I feel we tend to spend a little bit more time on classes because you want to absorb everything you can. Not that the other students don’t put in time, but I think it’s more intense when you go back.”


Pete Meyer: The Doc Fix 

For Pete Meyer, the pursuit of an MBA at UW-Madison is somewhat of a homecoming. For the two weekends each month that school is in session, Meyer, a physician at the Marshfield Clinic and a graduate of the UW Medical School, makes quite a commute to attend his MBA courses. It’s not unusual for him to be in the classroom at Grainger Hall when, on a glorious football Saturday, members of the UW Marching Band parade by, horns and drums offering a prelude to the entertainment that unfolds a few blocks away at Camp Randall Stadium.

Of course, the MBA class will stop to enjoy the show, but then it’s back to work for Meyer, who specializes in urgent care and internal medicine. He’s on pace to graduate in the spring of 2014, and hopes to apply the degree to help Marshfield Clinic become more efficient and meet the mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

Meyer already has management experience, chairing Marshfield Clinic’s urgent care department and medical peer review. Peer review has taken on greater importance since the Institute of Medicine’s devastating 1999 report on medical errors, which began to move the health care industry toward a more comprehensive approach to process improvement. These days, even if an error in judgment causes no real harm – such as prescribing a medication that a patient is allergic to – it does not escape notice.

Not at Marshfield Clinic, at least, because things could have turned out differently, and that’s worth reinforcing. Conversely, if somebody makes a great save, the peer review process will recognize that. The intent is to be proactive and not wait for a bad outcome to improve the delivery of care. Providers are looking at infection rates, readmission rates, and anything else that impacts the quality of care and drives up cost. 

With government payers less likely to fully reimburse for substandard results, especially when they are preventable, administrators who make their facilities more efficient, improve results, and wring cost out of their systems will be worth their weight in gold. Meyer is pursuing an MBA to learn more about financing and marketing and business law, what he describes as the “hard-core” stuff he doesn’t run across in his daily practice or in his reading of medical journals.

“You don’t want to do things that are wasteful, but you also don’t want to do things that are clinically harmful,” he said.

In the past, Meyer, now 56, has been asked to run for the Marshfield Clinic Board and has declined, but today he’s more interested in serving, especially in this era of health care reform. He’s not looking to abandon his clinical practice, but to make a multi-faceted contribution. “We need providers who are still practicing but also have some business degree or knowledge separately on the clinic board,” he stated. “They don’t all have to be.”

Change is nothing new to Meyer. After finishing medical school at the UW, he did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He completed his residency in 1986 and has been practicing ever since, including a stint in primary care in Madison from 1988 to 2000. In 2001, he joined the Marshfield Clinic and made the transition from primary care to urgent care.

Meyer is also thinking about using his newfound knowledge outside the medical realm, including philanthropy. Down the road, serving on a charitable board or running a nonprofit clinic is a very appealing thought. “There are a ton of those,” he said, “and they are always looking for help.”

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