More Than A Name Change
HEAT Center. Higher Education and Conference Center. Northeastern Maryland Higher Education Center.
Most Harford County residents are familiar with at least one of these names for the County’s higher education center in Aberdeen where local residents can further their education by attaining a degree from one of a number of esteemed universities without having to leave the County. Recently, however, a new name was announced via a sophisticated marketing campaign that clearly states the mission of the Center.
The name ‘University Center’ succinctly demonstrates what is offered here, but after spending time with University Center Director Nancy J. Spence, it’s even more clear that this is much more than just a name change.
Spence recognizes that there has been a lot of confusion over the years with the various name changes since the facility opened in 1995. “Originally the entire property was called the Higher Education and Applied Technology (HEAT) Center, but since there was only one building here, it was also referred to as the HEAT Center. In the winter, we actually got a few calls from people asking us if we could fix the heat in their homes,” Spence laughs. She adds that later it became the Higher Education and Conference Center (HECC) and then the Northeastern Maryland Higher Education Center after legislation was passed in 2012 creating the Northeast Maryland Higher Education Advisory Board.
“The name University Center will tell people who we are and what we do,” Spence says. “We need to do a better job of educating the region on what we offer because people are still leaving Harford County and driving to Baltimore or College Park to take classes that they can take here. We need to inform them that they don’t need to leave Harford County to advance their education.” Spence says she believes that with the exception of those who utilize the Center, most Harford County residents don’t fully understand what is offered at University Center.
“People are trying to juggle school, work and family, especially at the master’s level. Who wants to work all day and then drive an hour to Baltimore to take night classes two times a week?” she asks rhetorically. Spence adds that since the majority of the students at University Center are adult learners, they offer a variety of formats – distance learning, hybrid classes (a mix of online and classroom instruction), traditional 15-week courses and accelerated programs. “I teach a class here for Notre Dame of Maryland University that is a seven-week course with classes lasting three to four hours, so you are done in seven weeks. You can finish a degree quickly.”
University Center is also unique in that the buildings are owned by Harford County, the land is owned by the State of Maryland, and Harford Community College is the manager for the facility. “It all works because of the collaborative nature. It benefits everyone involved to work together in continually moving University Center forward.”
Forming Critical Partnerships
In addition to providing access to higher education in Northeastern Maryland, University Center will also expand its lineup of business and education partners as well as significantly expand its relationship with Aberdeen Proving Ground. Deftly steering the ship on this new course is Spence, who brings a background in higher education, the corporate world and non-profit management, allowing her to tap into her varied skill sets to form greater partnerships between University Center, the business community and APG.
Spence, who has a bachelor’s degree from Salisbury University and a master’s degree in education from Pennsylvania State University, is originally from Long Island, N.Y., but has resided in Harford County since 1980. Her first professional job was at Harford Community College as the coordinator for student activities, alumni relations and facilities, and she brings more than 30 years in higher education, nonprofit management and corporate experience to her job as Director of University Center. “Even when I was in the corporate world, I always had a hand in higher education as an adjunct faculty member. I was named Director in October 2012, and I see this as a great opportunity to utilize my skills from all areas – facilitating partnerships, collaborating, and working with government agencies, businesses, higher education partners and APG.”
Helping Train Area Businesses
The partnerships with area businesses and defense contractors is especially critical to the success of University Center. “We have business meetings and training sessions going on here every day,” says Spence. “Some are looking for specific types of training that are offered through the continuing education department at Harford Community College – computer training or contractual training. Businesses also have the opportunity to come to us if they need a trainer, technical assistance or some direction on what they need. First and foremost, we see ourselves as a resource for businesses.” Spence adds that she is also looking to offer free training for businesses and nonprofits that utilize the facilities often for meetings. “We’d like to offer training on how to hold web-based meetings, for example, so that businesses know how to utilize our technology and are not afraid to try it on their own.”
Mason Colbert, a training technologist with Dynamics Research Corporation and a contractor working for the Department of Defense High Performance Modernization Computing Program in the User Productivity Enhancement, Technology Transfer and Training division, utilizes University Center for training purposes. “We use the Center primarily for the computer training rooms for some of our software training,” says Colbert, adding that they sometimes use the Center for seminars and meetings. Dynamics Research Corporation provides advanced computational assistance for users of the DoD’s high performance computing centers.
“The Army Research Lab at Aberdeen has had a long-standing relationship with the Center. It is competitively priced as compared to other facilities, the location is very convenient to ARL, and the service and support, both for the space and the IT support, are top-notch. We’ve used the Center for probably over a decade for various training events and have always been pleased with the level of support and pricing,” Colbert says.
Meanwhile, Jamie Leitch, director of career development and training for American Infrastructure, a heavy civil construction, mining and manufacturing company, says she discovered University Center’s training facilities via a simple Internet search for offsite training venues in Northeastern Maryland. Leitch says American Infrastructure has used the Center for over five years for training events and credits the location, cost, caliber of services and top-notch personnel as the reasons why University Center has been an asset to their company.
Perhaps one of the biggest companies to rely on University Center is Upper Chesapeake Health System. At the rededication event for University Center on Oct. 24, Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health System, said, “Health care is a complex field and requires continuous education and training so that our workforce is best positioned to serve the needs of our community.” Sheldon noted that Upper Chesapeake Health team members have accessed University Center to achieve nursing degrees.
He credited the convenient location of University Center. “Many of our team members work full time and have a family, so being able to earn their degrees here, close to home, has motivated our employees to continue their education. In addition to the formal bachelor’s and master’s programs, as an organization we have also benefited tremendously from the resources of University Center by being able to host many senior management meetings, information services training sessions and other educational needs to benefit our team members.”
Spence, too, recognizes the importance for businesses to encourage their employees to advance their education endeavors and to access specialized training. “For businesses, the retention of skilled employees is critical. If employees can see their career path and they can advance their career in your company, they will stay. Also, it’s important for businesses to make sure their employees are up to speed with the latest technology, training and education,” she says.
Closer Collaboration with APG
At the rededication event in October, the U.S. Army Communication-Electronic Command (CECOM), DoD Aberdeen Proving Ground Tenants and University Center unveiled an educational partnership to “encourage and enhance study in scientific disciplines in Northeastern Maryland. The overall goal of the partnership is for University Center to provide a single point of entry into higher education and training opportunities for APG Tenants’ training coordinators and employees.”
ABOUT UNIVERSITY CENTER
“The APG community is comprised of a large workforce consisting of government and industry partners. This workforce consists of a very technically diverse set of skills required to execute the research, contracting, logistics, testing and program management missions on the installation,” says Gary Martin, U.S. Army Deputy to the Commander at CECOM. “The complexity and breadth of these missions require a variety of training and educational programs to build and retain the skills needed by the various tenants. University Center will provide a means for access to universities, colleges and training providers to support our training needs.”
“The challenge for APG tenants is that they all have their own training coordinators and while sometimes their training needs overlap, they may not be aware that they could combine their resources and work together. Part of this new partnership will create a more streamlined system where University Center will act as a broker. We can find the best partners and then go back and promote these offerings to the tenants and contractors to see if there are similar educational and training needs,” says Spence.
Martin agrees. “Establishing a single point for coordinating training needs and programs will greatly simplify the entire process for obtaining desired training. There are more than 80 individual tenant organizations at APG and a large number of companies in and around the installation. It is very difficult today to coordinate training needs and opportunities,” Martin says. “Many of the industry partners that support APG require very similar training for their workforces. Leveraging University Center’s offerings provides opportunities for establishing training programs to meet a much broader need than just that of the installation’s civilian workforce by expanding the programs to government and industry partners. University Center will reduce much of the duplicative efforts that exist today across the community and provide greater visibility of collaborative training and education opportunities.”
The new agreement will also provide a fundamental advantage for APG in its quest for new educational and training programs. “Individual organizations at APG have traditionally sought educational/training programs to meet their individual organization’s needs. Often times, they have had to meet with many universities or providers in order to initiate the program they desire. University Center provides us an opportunity to aggregate training needs and to reach out to the broader higher education system to identify and bring forward training programs in support of APG,” says Martin.
Martin notes that the APG workforce consists of more than 200 occupations providing a very broad range of technical, business, contracting, scientific and logistics disciplines, and that educational needs range from individual courses to master’s level programs. He expects that the majority of classes and training will be held at University Center.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Like any institute of higher education, University Center must also constantly adapt to what students want and how educational instruction is delivered to them. “One of the biggest trends we are seeing is that students want collaborative learning – courses with students working together in groups. They also want alternative formats such as weekend classes, accelerated programs and online courses. They want choices customized to their needs,” says Spence. “They also want hands-on experiences that will give them the edge when applying for jobs. However, the greatest need remains accessibility to higher education close to where they live. While the majority of our skilled workforce works outside of Harford County, they still live here, so they want classes close to home.”
It was that convenience factor that lured Bonnie Wohlfort of Harford County, and her daughter, Jamie Stromberg, to attend University Center to earn their master’s degree in nursing from Notre Dame of Maryland University. And better yet, they went through the program together, even sitting next to each other in class.
Wohlfort earned an associate’s degree in nursing in the 1970s and after her last son had graduated college, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. While she loves her job as a nurse at Mercy Medical Center, she says that she knew a master’s degree could open more doors for her to advance her career. “I’ve been a nurse for 35 years and love clinical nursing, but I may want to go into teaching, too. Notre Dame is a great school, and we were lucky in that the nurse education track is offered at University Center. It’s still a college campus, but there is ample parking, the classrooms have top-of-the-line technology, and there is security to make sure you get to your car, which is nice at night,” Wohlfort says.
Stromberg, who works at St. Joseph Medical Center, also wants to pursue nurse education. Though she moved to Baltimore City after her wedding, she lived at home while enrolled at University Center. “It was great. I would work, go to class and then have a quick, 20-minute drive home all on back roads.”
The flexibility of the program was also key, Wohlfort says. “We were able to move an online informatics class from August to January so that we would have time off to plan Jaime’s wedding.”
Last year, University Center had over 11,000 meeting/training attendees and students for classes/meetings.
She says that going through the program with her daughter was a great bonding experience. “Who else gets to sit next to their daughter in a college class? Although I am a front row type of student, I moved to the back to be with her,” she laughs. “We have a totally different style of learning, which we didn’t know before taking classes together,” says Stromberg. Both cherished the ability to commiserate about the stresses involved with working full time and going to class. Adds Wohlfort, “The opportunity to watch her grow academically was wonderful. She’s a natural teacher, and I got to see that side of her for the first time. I will never forget this experience.”
While University Center has already made great strides as evidence by the new partnership with APG and a growing list of top-notch colleges and universities, Spence is enthusiastic about the future. She wants to utilize the existing partners such as the Northeastern Maryland Higher Education Advisory Board, Office of Economic Development in Harford County, APG, area businesses and the University Center Advisory Board to aptly determine the specific higher education and training needs – more advanced degrees, certain courses to address workforce needs and training programs that will help residents advance their careers. “We also want to explore partnerships with the Harford Business Innovation Center, The GroundFloor and the University Research Park,” she says.
University Center is also looking to expand its roster of higher education partners. “We are in conversations with Florida Institute of Technology. They are moving forward with a ‘2 + 2’ program with Harford Community College on a bachelor’s degree in logistics with the first two years at HCC and the second two years at University Center. Then possibly adding a master’s degree,” says Spence, noting that FIT already has a presence on APG.
Spence says that University Center is also exploring partnerships with the University of Baltimore in areas of business, entrepreneurship and innovation; Salisbury University for interdisciplinary studies;
McDaniel College for new areas of K-12 Education; University of Maryland, Baltimore County for specialized institutes; and expanding Morgan State’s
offerings at UC to include a 2+2 Social Work program and a potential master’s of social work.
“I am most excited about all the new opportunities on the horizon and providing a higher level of service to students and help them reach their education and career goals. I want to explore career coaching, experiential learning, a mentor program for students … I’m excited to explore all these possibilities for more meaningful learning. It’s truly a new day at University Center.” I95