Wescoe School accelerated degree candidates rely on instructors, mentors and – above all – each other

By Lisa Horvath

Forming, storming, norming and performing… it may sound like drills from a military sergeant at boot camp, but these are the stages of team growth that students experience while they are enrolled in the Wescoe School’s accelerated degree program at Muhlenberg College.

Instituted in 1995, the 22-month program thrives, as many individuals choose Muhlenberg College as the vehicle to attain their academic goals.

One of the many selling points of the accelerated program is its decision to use the “cohort-team approach,” placing emphasis on forming cohesive teams and working together in a collaborative effort. Another strong selling point for this program is its unprecedented success rate. Accelerated degree programs are popping up all over the country and boast a national graduation rate of 68%. The Wescoe School proudly claims a success rate of 93%, due in no small part to great team-building, formal mentoring and strict admission guidelines, not to mention an outstanding faculty of professionals – and a unique network of mentors.

How does it all work? Once admitted into the program (with strict admission standards, including a requisite five years of business experience, a 500-word essay about career goals and the equivalent of an associate’s degree), highly motivated professionals begin the nearly two-year journey toward their degrees; many of the students work full- or part-time and have families. Only truly dedicated individuals make the commitment to a rewarding – but sometimes brutal – program.

Accelerated degree candidate Deidre Bilger, a paralegal at PPL in Allentown, plans to complete her business administration degree this summer. Here, she meets with mentor Phil Howe.

The accelerated program currently offers degrees in business administration, human resources management and information systems. In each degree program offered, there are cohort groups of approximately 12 to 15 students each; within a cohort, two or three “teams” are formed. These teams work together weekly learning through discussion, sharing ideas and collaborating on class presentations.

In the early stages of the program, Joe Kornfeind, director of the business administration program, teaches a module dedicated to team development and leadership styles. During this module, students learn the concept of “forming, storming, norming and performing,” the four phases these teams will experience during their 22-month journey together. They start the program together as individuals trying to become a team – or forming – and finish together as a team, performing.

Forming is the beginning, learning about what a team is and making the transition from individual to team member status; storming occurs when there are challenges to face and conflicts to resolve and is the most difficult stage of team development. Norming occurs when emotional conflict is reduced and the team begins to experience cohesion. The end result is performing, when a team that has worked together consistently reaches an efficient level of productivity.

Accelerated students Valerie Adamchak, Deidre Bilger and Mari Glass-Clarke each had different professional aspirations when they began their search for continuing education, but all turned to the Wescoe School to help them achieve their objectives.

For Adamchak, the journey began last fall when she started to work on her goal of a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was drawn to Muhlenberg’s academic reputation as well as the accelerated program’s emphasis on collaborative learning. She hasn’t been disappointed. “So far it’s been a positive experience,” she says, noting that the program is “interesting, challenging and allows for creativity.”

Adamchak is in the forming stage of the teaming process right now, and plans to complete the program in July 2005 as an expert in all four phases of teaming.

This summer, Bilger will complete the accelerated program and receive her degree in business administration. She has made it through forming and storming and has reached the norming phase. Shortly after joining the program, Bilger experienced the unusual – but sometimes unavoidable – circumstance of having her team reassigned. It doesn’t happen often, but when absolutely necessary, teams may be restructured, according to instructor and mentor Phil Howe.

“You can’t force fit a team,” he says. When a team doesn’t work well together, adjustments may be needed; in Bilger’s case, teams were split up and reassigned.

Unlike candidates for the traditional, liberal arts program, who may or may not have completed any college coursework before coming to Muhlenberg, students admitted to the accelerated program must already have completed the equivalent of 17 courses through other means. When Bilger enrolled at Muhlenberg four years ago, she took a few classes before becoming eligible for the accelerated program. “The accelerated program is quite a different educational option than the traditional route. One has to weigh the differences carefully,” she says. “It was a great choice for me and I have no doubts – although it’s certainly not an easy out as some might think.”

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