Educate to Elevate Goes Virtual

Customer Service Associate Kyle Zuchniewicz (l.) speaks with a Stark State College representative at a 2019 Educate to Elevate open house event in Fairlawn. He decided to enroll in the program and will complete his first year of college coursework this December. ‚Äč

October 28, 2020

Going back to school while working full time is a challenging task for anyone – and even more so during the COVID-19 emergency, as traditional classrooms have transitioned to virtual environments.

But the FirstEnergy employees enrolled in the company’s Educate to Elevate program have embraced the change and are poised to successfully complete their first year of college coursework this December.

Educate to Elevate is currently available to Akron Contact Center and Self-Service employees through a partnership with Stark State College and The University of Akron, with a goal of helping FirstEnergy develop a highly skilled workforce of the future through pursuit of a college degree.

The program, which started its inaugural semester earlier this year, allows employees to attend business and information technology courses taught onsite at FirstEnergy facilities by college professors after work hours. Participants who complete and pass one course every eight weeks can earn an associate degree in four years, with the option to complete another four years to acquire a bachelor’s degree.

Sixteen participants are currently enrolled as part of the initial student group. They had just finished their first eight weeks of in-person classes at the CAET building before they transitioned to online learning due to COVID-19 preventive measures.

“The pandemic has changed the format of our program significantly,” said Wally Hartory, special assignment, Learning & Development, who helps facilitate Educate to Elevate. “However, our students have risen to the occasion, exceeded expectations and proven they are very motivated and able to adapt to a virtual setting. They’re working as hard as ever to complete their coursework and I’m proud of the progress they’ve made so far.”

Additional help is available to them along the way.

Wally adds: “Many of our students have zero college experience and are the first in their families to attend college. We wanted each student to have a mentor they could reach out to for guidance throughout the experience, so we partnered with FirstEnergy’s Employee Business Resource Groups (EBRGs) to recruit employee ambassadors with college experience to help our students.”

Every student is paired with an ambassador, who is on call to help with general questions related to coursework, college success, study habits and more.

With their first year of coursework almost complete, employees who are part of the inaugural Educate to Elevate class say their decision to enroll has been worthwhile – stretching them to grow, expand their knowledge base and collaborate with their peers.

“I had been considering school for a while but wasn’t sure how it would work out while working full time,” said Anaise Rafford, Customer Service associate, who considers the program setup a perfect fit. “I would highly recommend it to others.”

So would fellow students Kyle Zuchniewicz, Customer Service associate, and Riley Kline, Customer Service assistant.

“Working full time and taking college classes is difficult, but FirstEnergy and Stark State College are doing their best to make it as simple as possible,” said Kyle. “Being in a class with coworkers is a big benefit of the program. Everyone is going through some of the same challenges you are experiencing, and you can reach out to them for help.”

He also likes the financial benefits of participation. In addition to utilizing FirstEnergy’s tuition reimbursement policy, Educate to Elevate participants are only required to pay 10% of course tuition costs upfront, with the remaining balance billed after the course is completed.

“It’s nice knowing you do not have to pay a large amount at first,” Riley agreed. “As for the transition to virtual classes, it was a tricky adjustment learning to work from home and learning to do online classes all at once. Educate to Elevate is still working through some kinks, but I would definitely recommend this program to other employees who are looking to further their education.”

Program Expanding to Pa., W.Va.

Plans are in the works to expand the Educate to Elevate program to the Reading, Pa., and Fairmont, W.Va., areas, with a formal announcement expected early next year.

“We’re still finalizing partnership plans with several colleges but are getting closer to formalizing education programs for employees in Pennsylvania and West Virginia,” said Wally. “The ultimate goal is to expand the program companywide, but the COVID-19 emergency has slowed our progress a bit. Still, we’re hopeful expansion will happen so all employees who are interested in participating have that chance.”​​