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Conversations with UA

Q & A With Lael Oldmixon, Executive Director UA Scholars Program and Alaska College Savings Program

First, I’d like to know a bit about your background. I know you grew up in New Hampshire, although were born in New York and you attended college in Vermont. Was going to college something that was encouraged from childhood?

Keene, N.H., is a blue collar, factory town on the Southwestern border of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. It was an interesting place to grow up because it had a small-town feel, but it had one of the state’s large colleges, Keene State.   Generations of my family lived and grew up in the area. We were like the Smiths – we had two whole columns in the phone book with the last name Croteau.

My parents divorced when I was three and my mother, determined to provide us with a great childhood, worked full time, attended classes at Keene State, and raised my sister and I. The saying “it takes a village” pretty much describes my childhood. My sister and I were often in the care of family members or friends of my mother’s from Keene State. We rented a home and sublet rooms to college students. While my mother’s college experience was not traditional, her hard work and determination influenced me and impressed upon me the importance of education.

A representative from the Upward Bound program presented information about going to college to my 9th grade English class and asked the class one simple question that changed my life: “Who plans to go to college?”

From that point forward I set out planning my college journey. I entered into the Upward Bound Program (which serves low-income, first-generation, and at-risk students) the summer of 1993 and continued to participate as a student through high school and then as a staff member during college.

Upward Bound provided academic, emotional and social support beyond compare. I knew throughout high school that college was an expectation and that there was a team of people working to make sure I didn’t give up along the way.

What field of study did you take in college, and what drew you to it?

When I entered St. Michael’s College in 1996, I was pretty undecided about what I wanted to study. My official major until sophomore year was “Exploratory.” I decided on “American Studies” after delaying a decision as long as possible. I thought an interdisciplinary major would allow me to pursue multiple subject areas and apply them to teaching social studies. My concentration (much like a minor) was Secondary Education.

I completed the process leading to becoming a teacher, but after student teaching for a semester I didn’t feel it was the right career for me.

You worked at St. Lawrence University in New York before coming to Alaska. What unique experiences and lessons did you learn at that institution?  

St. Lawrence is an incredible institution. They have a strong community, a phenomenal support system for students, a beautiful campus, a tremendous faculty and an integrated commitment to academic success, social wellness and extra/co-curricular engagement.

I was the assistant director in the Career Services and Leadership Experience Department. I worked most closely with first-year students, but I met with one-third of the senior class to review their resumes and cover letters and talk about next steps.

While I was only at St. Lawrence for one year, I felt overwhelmingly connected to the community and to the people with whom I worked and advised. Canton, N.Y., is a small community located in a rural part of New York.

I learned lessons about being a career counselor, about building relationships, about staying fit in a remote/cold location, about hiring talented staff, about being a team player and about living alone for the first time.

"This person" meme used on social media to build engagement with the UA College Savings Plan Facebook page.

St. Lawrence was not your only experience in higher education. What other positions have you held in other universities and how has that background helped prepare you for this current role?

After I realized that I didn’t want to be a teacher, I was a little lost for what I would do. My college mentor at St. Mike’s suggested that I apply for the admissions counselor position. My admissions counselor had a profound impact on my decision to attend St. Michael’s and I had a strong desire to inspire and connect students like me (low income, first gen, etc.) to college. I also LOVED my college experience at St. Michael’s, which made the job seem like an easy first step out of college.

I worked for St. Michael’s for three years and left to pursue my graduate degree at the University of Vermont. My goal in graduate school was to pursue a career in student activities. The program is one of the best in the country of its kind and approaches the study of higher education and student affairs though theory, practical experience, research and reflection.

I had an assistantship in the Center for Student Ethics and Standards and completed a practicum in career services, residential life and orientation. I joined the Graduate Student Association and the Parking Committee. I was encouraged to research and write, apply theory and get involved. I advised the Student Judicial Board, which addressed student violations of conduct on campus.

What brought an East coaster to Alaska? How has moving to Alaska impacted your family?

I was living in New York at the time and Mark, my partner, was looking for job opportunities what would help him gain experience in outdoor education. I sent him a link with cool jobs (CoolJobs.com) and the graduate assistant position for Outdoor Adventures at the University of Alaska was at the top of the list. He thought it was a great idea; I thought it was a terrible idea. We had been dating nearly a year when he decided to move. I had made the commitment to remain in Canton for the remainder of the year and would move to Alaska if I liked it when I visited during spring break of 2006….AND if I got a job.

When I visited Fairbanks, I spent a couple of days researching job opportunities and meeting with people for informational interviews. I really liked Fairbanks and was eventually hired to work in the department of Residence Life at UAF. I was excited about the opportunity because I was getting closer to my dream of leading student activities and planning programs meant to enhance the student academic experience. After my first year living in a residence hall with 18 year olds, I was presented with the opportunity to move back into an admissions position. I took the job and spent the next seven years in admissions and recruitment.

What interested you in this position?

Access to education and college attainment are two issues that are core threads of my career. This position contains elements that align with my goals to help open pathways to college and assist students with reaching their personal goals.

When I worked in Admissions, I worked closely with the scholars department and had an awareness of the UA College Savings Plan work they did. I opened an account for my son shortly after he was born. I believed in the plan! I saw great benefit of coming into this position knowing that Linda, Bonnie, Laurie, Buffy and Jim laid the groundwork for these two phenomenal programs. For me, it was a great next step and an opportunity to gain experience in an area of the university that I had not yet explored.

Kate Ripley and Lael Oldmixon draw the name to determine the winner of a $1,500 College Savings Plan account from Tanana Valley State Fair entrants.
Oldmixon's son models the "Going to College" t-shirt as he and his father Mark participate in UAF's entry to the Golden Days parade.

What progress has been made to date since starting in the position? New policies, procedures, campaigns?

Last April we met as a group to plan out our goals and objectives for the year. We made two lists: 1. Big Goals, and 2. Low hanging fruit. The lists took up two giant wall post-it sheets. We tackled some this year and are working on many more for three to five years out.  

Said goodbye to filing cabinets. One personal goal I had was to get the record keeping system modernized. Although we had a few document types created in OnBase, we had not made changes to our business processes. In the past 12 months we have pushed many documents into OnBase, which now allows easier access for the Office of Financial Aid at each of the campuses, and our staff, to locate what they need. The process has required us to think about retention of documents, when to purge and what is necessary to keep.

Expanded 529 Day.  Our team had never actively planned events on May 29, National 529 Day. Last year we pushed the 529 Day activities higher up the list and focused on two objectives: build awareness and increase the number of employees who utilize the payroll deduction option for the College Savings Plan, known as a 529 plan under the IRS code.

Engaged more UA employees in the plan and increased the number of employees utilizing payroll deduction. We pushed payroll deduction during 529 Day. We hosted a celebration in our suite and invited Butrovich Building staff to join us. We gave participants in payroll deduction a nice tote bag and had cake. Our numbers increased. We updated the payroll deduction form to be more user friendly. Our numbers increased again; in fact we doubled our numbers. Our goal is to increase the number of employees who contribute to college savings plans by another 20 percent by the end of 2014.

Built a stronger social media presence. We set out more to engage our fans and build a stronger social media presence. In February 2013 we had fewer than 300 fans. Today we have more than 1,700. Our most exciting campaign to build the page was a T-shirt giveaway. We promoted the free T-shirts on Facebook and sent them to families across the state. The T-shirts are red with a giant arrow pointing to the kid’s head with the words, “…is going to college!” Parents posted pictures of their kids on the site, which resulted in a tremendous amount of positive feedback and engagement.

Assessed the UA Scholars Program. I was also tasked with assessing the UA Scholars and the Presidential Tuition Waiver programs to see where there might be room for alignment with the Alaska Performance Scholarship and Shaping Alaska’s Future.

As we reviewed the UA Scholars Program we decided that the look and feel needed a refresh. We recently rolled out an exciting new look and messaging to UA Scholars that express the amazing opportunities available at UA and that our vibrant campus communities can be a launching pad to anywhere they want to go.

What are your goals for the programs moving forward?

Like I said before, the programs were well-established before I came on board. I would like to maintain the momentum of these programs and continue to grow awareness of their resources.

The scholars program could attract more students (currently we yield about 40 percent) to the university. I’d like to build more recruiting into our communications with scholars. I’d also like for us to build our Scholars Facebook community a little more.

As a long-term recruitment plan, the College Savings Plan is going to begin looking at beneficiaries who are entering their college-age years to let them know we’d like them to stay in or come to Alaska and attend one of UA’s 16 campuses.

Alaska is unique with many challenges and barriers to access. Our college going rates are low. How do your programs help address these issues? What more could be done to conduct outreach and education (if budget wasn’t a concern)?

One of the things I appreciate best about joining this team is that there is an equally passionate group of people here who want to see more people gain access to college and achieve their educational goals. The UA Scholars Program and the College Savings Plan have drastically changed the landscape in Alaska already.

Where once most college-bound students headed out of state for their education, now roughly 62 percent stay and attend UA. Additionally the UA College Savings Plan has doubled the number contributors to a 529 through the PFD in the last five years. Residents who save for college are seven times more likely to go to college than those who don’t. It’s exciting to see that one in five Alaska households are saving. And that means that there has been a cultural shift around the attitude of going to college. Parents are setting the expectation that their kids will go to college, and the kids will rise to the occasion.

We sponsor several programs that focus on developing a commitment to going to college. In partnership with the Alaska Commission on Post-secondary Education we sponsor, I know I can and Kids 2 College. Both programs work to plant to seed that college is possible and accessible. If every kid can remember that experience, it’s our hope that they will be inspired to keep working toward the goal.

If budget wasn’t a concern, we would campaign to open a college savings account for every child born in Alaska. And we would pay for every child in Alaska to take the SAT or ACT with a prep course.

What’s the best or most interesting thing that has happened so far?

I have been inspired and moved by the impact of the work we do. Each fall we host a reception for the UA Scholars. While I’ve attended the UAF reception many times, I hadn’t completely realized the impact the events have on the families and the students being recognized until this year. I will own that I can be weepy during award/recognition ceremonies, but when parents walked up to me to thank me for this program, and future students expressed how excited they were to attend college, it was deeply moving for me. It’s a demonstration that this little program that was hatched and nurtured 16 years ago has made the desired impact and is shaping Alaska’s future.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work? Do you have a particular hobby or special interest?

I wish I had more time outside of work to explore my many interests! I took a Master Gardening class last year through Cooperative Extension. I have grown to love gardening. While I don’t see myself as a master gardener by any stretch, I can be found in the garden most evenings in the summer. I also find great peace, strength, focus and relaxation in yoga practice. My family and I enjoy biking to our favorite park in Ester. I enjoy immersing myself in craft projects or art projects. I love cooking. Two years ago I joined a book club. Where I never found the time to read (having two kids), this has forced me to sit and read, think and process these amazing books. I’ve also developed an extended network of female friends through the club. My secret side hobby is photography, though I have limited skill, and I have a tremendous amount to learn!

Your husband works for the university as well, and together you have two children. Tell me a little about your family and raising kids in Alaska.

Mark and I both grew up in New England (Boston, Mass., and Keene, N.H.). We dated after college (both attending St. Michael’s in Vermont). Shortly after he moved to Alaska, I followed. We’ve been working at the university since 2006 and have progressively moved into positions of leadership. We keep each other motivated to work hard and have a fun, balanced life.

We have two beautiful, intelligent and clever children who never cease to amaze us with their questions. Living in Alaska with them is a blessing and a curse. The obvious blessing is that they get to experience Alaska – big, open and adventurous space with room to grow. The curse is that we live so far from our families. For both of us, family is core to our identities. If we could move Alaska closer to New England…we’d do it.

Is there a motto, quote or inspirational saying that you like and would like to share with co-workers?

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.   I have this quote hanging in my kitchen on a plaque that a friend gave me years ago. It’s a nice reminder to be patient with the process. This is my greatest challenge in life as I’m generally one step ahead of myself. Sometimes it’s good to wait and see what happens when you follow the directions, or the process. In my kitchen, it’s as basic as following the recipe, when I skip a step or rush things, the gorgeous cake I wanted turns out to be more like goop. It’s a pretty fair metaphor, right?

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