Like every other student, Melissa Mahannah ’18 was admitted to Cornell after writing an essay and requesting letters of recommendation. But unlike most undergraduate students, she was also a full-time employee at Cornell when she applied.
Mary Beth Martini-Lyons ’19, a project manager at Cornell Library, was first rejected when she applied, even though she had been taking classes at Cornell for a few years prior. After explaining her circumstances to admissions counselors and six and a half years of studying, she received her Bachelor’s degree in communication from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in May.
Mahannah, an academic administrative assistant for the School of Hotel Administration, received her Bachelor’s in applied economics and management last year while working full-time.
Mahannah and Martini-Lyons were two of a number of employees who chose to take advantage of the Employee Degree Program. As one of the benefits of being an employee, staff members can receive full tuition toward both undergraduate and graduate degrees through the program, after being admitted and one year of employment.
“Something I always wanted to do was get a degree from Cornell,” Mahannah told The Sun. “So I decided to apply … and just applied like a regular student.”
Both employees came in with some credits from prior education, which helped speed up their process. Mahannah had an Associate’s degree, which transferred a lot of credits.
But as employees, these students also needed supervisor approval each semester, because they take classes during work hours. This leads to drastically varying experiences for employees.
For Mahannah, there were some semesters where she was unable to take classes because of discouraging bosses.
“One of [my supervisors] told me I was a burden to my co-workers, when I asked to take a class,” Mahannah recalled. “There were a few years where I wasn’t able to take classes … Eventually, I got really good supervisors, who were encouraging, excited and happy for me doing this.”
On the other hand, Martini-Lyons said that her “incredibly supportive” supervisors were crucial in helping her complete her degree. They prioritized her education and even let her take two classes in a semester, once she got used to taking classes and balancing everything.
“My supervisor completed her PhD while she worked here,” Martini-Lyons told The Sun. “It was nice to have somebody who was familiar with [the process] and just to have her support in doing it. She would often tell me, ‘I’m really proud of you.’”
For both, the balance between a full-time job, raising a family and being a student proved challenging.
“My kids did homework while I did homework,” Mahannah said. “They learned a lot from mom doing homework and getting it done. It was hard to balance — you just have to want it bad enough.”
For Martini-Lyons, her son was a motivator for her to complete her degree.
“I felt like it could be a really good example for [my son],” she said. “I think education is really important, and I really hope it inspired him that even if it was something difficult, it was worth doing. You just have to stick with it and keep pursuing your dreams.”
Being in the classroom as a nontraditional student was occasionally “awkward,” because of the age gap, Mahannah said. She mentioned that while no one was outwardly rude, she thought they may be wondering why she was “sitting in their class.”
Sometimes it could be a lonely and “intimidating” process, Martini-Lyons said, but she found a wealth of online resources that were helpful. Ones designed for non-traditional students were especially comforting, because they reminded her she wasn’t the only one going through it.
But her experiences weren’t all different from undergraduate students, as she explained struggling through distribution requirements, chemistry and group projects.
“Nobody likes group projects, but I have to say one of my best experiences was actually a group project,” she said. “I’m still in touch with the other four women who were in my group, and that was six years ago.”
Interacting with students was one of Martini-Lyons’s favorite parts about the process — it gave her a difference experience of Cornell.
“It just helped make me feel more connected to the community,” she said. “Had I not done this process, I would have never been able to experience that.”
For both new alumni, working to get a degree at Cornell was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up and ultimately a rewarding process that they would do all over again.
“This is not just my employer now,” Martini-Lyons said. “It’s my alma mater.”