Park and recreation professionals are afforded many opportunities to engage in professional development. The biggest undertaking of these is often the decision and commitment to pursue a master’s degree. Achieving this next level of higher education offers the benefits of personal and professional growth, qualifying for higher administrative positions, higher salaries and future career-change opportunities. After deciding to take this next step in career advancement, the question is whether to go the route of an online or on-campus program. Anthony Iracki, MS, CPRP, and Derek Donlevy, M. Ed., both graduates of master’s degree programs and both currently serving in positions with the Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Recreation and Community Services, highlight the personal benefits and challenges they encountered when pursuing a master’s degree through differing paths.
Anthony Iracki — Obtained a Master’s Degree Online
Having previously earned a bachelor’s degree, I knew I wanted a master’s degree that would equip me with the necessary tools to succeed in a leadership position. My role with Milwaukee Recreation requires me to work afternoons during the week and on Saturdays. Because of this, I knew night school was out and finding a traditional, on-campus program to fit my schedule would be challenging, so I decided to pursue the online option. I chose to enroll in an online degree program from a local university in Milwaukee because of its established reputation for offering quality programs for working adults. Additionally, I liked that I had the option to visit campus to seek assistance if needed.
There were multiple benefits of pursing a degree online. An online program allowed me to work on my classwork on my own time. I was able to respond to discussion questions at my leisure through an app or on my computer and work on papers whenever I was free between my busy work schedule and personal commitments. I read the course materials when it suited me and I could work ahead if I knew I had busy weeks coming up. I enjoyed the mobile aspect of an online program and the opportunity it allowed me to focus on all areas of my life and create balance.
The challenge of pursuing a degree online was that it was very much a self-guided study. The role of the instructor was to act more as a conversation facilitator and not a lecturer. Lecture notes and PowerPoints sometimes were posted, but it varied instructor to instructor. Additionally, each weekly set of discussion questions and responses required a great deal of time writing and editing. Think of all the conversations you have at work in a staff meeting and then imagine typing all those conversations out word for word. Finally, it felt very isolating. Interactions with your instructor and your cohort exist solely online. Without face-to-face interaction, it was difficult to connect to my instructors and peers. I will admit the experience finally felt real and complete when I received my diploma in the mail.
Derek Donlevy — Obtained a Master’s Degree on Campus
After my undergraduate studies, my first position working in the park and recreation field lasted only seven months because of budget cuts. With minimal full-time opportunities available in Wisconsin at the time, I decided to obtain a master’s degree to continue moving forward with my career aspirations. Remembering an online course I had taken in high school, and finding the format antithetical to my learning style, I made the decision enroll in a traditional, on-campus program and commit to once again being a full-time student. It was the best decision I ever made in my life.
Being on campus made me feel like a part of the university and kept me accountable to attend class and do my homework. I enjoyed being part of classroom discussions and group presentations at the graduate level — the topics were more challenging and thought-provoking than my undergraduate studies. I felt the professors invested more in me as a student and I took advantage of it, viewing them more as mentors and visiting during their office hours.
Aside from my education, the greatest benefit I received was serving as a graduate assistant at the campus recreation center. This allowed me to work part-time, gaining valuable experience equivalent to an entry-level professional position, and it paid for the full cost of my tuition. I was able to build on the knowledge I gained from the classroom, which made me a very competitive candidate when I re-entered the job market after two-and-a-half years of school.
The greatest challenge of being a full-time graduate student is the delay it caused, both professionally and personally. Classmates from my bachelor’s degree program are further along in their professional careers and some have already advanced to administrative positions. The loss of a salary and benefits during that time means I am behind my peers in saving for retirement and a mortgage down payment. In the long run, I know the benefits of my experience and the opportunity of free tuition will continue to outweigh the drawbacks as my career advances.
Anthony Iracki, MS, CPRP, is a Recreation Supervisor for Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Recreation and Community Services. Derek Donlevy, M. Ed., is a Recreation Supervisor for Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Recreation and Community Services.