Education Futures Podcast 19: Creating a path to college with Monica Epperson from Oklahoma Wesleyan University

Sep 16, 2020 | Education Futures Podcast, Higher Education

“I tell my incoming freshman, when you find what you love, you are going to apply it with your whole heart and soul. But until then, know that you need to keep cranking it out so that you can get to that place, because you want to be ready.”
 
In this interview, Dr. Reynolds talks with Monica Epperson, Director of Academic Enhancement & Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, about the importance of finding a fit in your college experience. They also discuss OKWU Prep, a new program launching later this fall, to help high school students save money on their college credit and better understand what it’s like to be an OKWU student.
 

Full Transcript:

Rob Reynolds:

Greetings everybody. Robert Reynolds here with Tel Education and I’m joined today by Monica Epperson. Monica is the director of academic enhancement and an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Greetings and welcome Monica.

 

Monica Epperson:

No. Thank you Rob, for having me. I’m so excited to have this conversation.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, I am too. It’s good to catch up. We’ve run across each other a couple of times and been able to spend some time together as we’ve worked on OKWU Prep with Oklahoma Wesleyan. And so it’s great to have you on this call today. I want to take advantage of this time together to talk about your experiences in OKWU Prep. But I always like to create a context for anybody watching or listening because learning is so individual to everyone, our own experiences, where we went to school, how we even define learning in our lives and what that means. So I thought it might be fun for you to share with us a little bit about your own personal journey and learning and education and how you got to be where you are today.

 

Monica Epperson:

Yeah, well, interesting Rob, I do have a story like everybody, and I think the power of a story is, can be inspirational and it also can be a learning tool. So my story with my educational journey started with my single mom. So my single mom, I’m a sophomore in high school and I attended, my mom was a first generation college grad while I was a sophomore in high school. So I attended her graduation and President Bush Sr because I’m old. He was actually the speaker and he was the reigning president at the time. And I remember sitting in the stadium, watching my mom graduate college and saying, I don’t want it to stop with her. I want to be that next generation that goes to school. And so I never questioned if going to college was for me. I always knew it was going for me. But what I did question is, what on earth was I going to do? I think I was like every 18 year old that I loved my friends and I loved social activities, but I thought, can you make a profession out of being social?

 

Rob Reynolds:

Exactly.

 

Monica Epperson:

So that’s where it started. My undergrad, I did in education and that was in Tahlequah. It was at Northeastern State Education or Northeastern State University at their teacher’s college. So I went there first, then ended up later realizing that more than teaching, I loved writing stories for children of divorce, because that had been my background. So I went back to school, went to grad school in Lynchburg, Virginia, went to Liberty University, got a graduate degree in counseling and realized that that was something I was passionate about. And then I know we’re going to talk more about my journey at Oklahoma Wesleyan, but Oklahoma Wesleyan is who sent me back to school for a doctorate, which is the thing I said I would never do. Everything I’ve said I would never do by the way I’ve done, so.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, one of the things I find so interesting as I talk to people who’ve gone on and gotten advanced degrees and often become college professors is so many of them never planned to do that. I know that a lot of people do think in that term, but so many started doing one thing, they didn’t realize that wasn’t exactly for them. And it became a feeling out process and it was a journey that just evolved over time. And it certainly sounds like that was your case.

 

Monica Epperson:

Oh, absolutely. My journey was so much fun. I’ve loved every bit of the education journey. One of the beautiful things about education is it teaches us about ourselves. My undergraduate degree, this is confession for all of your viewers. Confession is, my undergraduate degree was do the minimum, get the maximum because I was social. So what I did was I went into my guidance counselor and I said, what do I need to be able to go to grad school? And bless her ever loving heart she said a 3.0. My transcript in my undergrad is 3.0000, no more, no less. I was task-oriented, that’s what I needed, so that’s what I did. Grad school, totally different experience because I had really found my niche, I had found the why, I knew why I was going to grad school. I had already had a nonprofit for children of divorce, I knew I was passionate about it, I knew counseling was for me. And when I went to grad school, it was a strong 4.0, and it was all the way through and doctorate, same thing.

Emotional intelligence has been my study. It’s been my area. Love it. And 4.0 again for the last three years. So when you find what you love, and I always tell my incoming freshmen this at Oklahoma Wesleyan. And I always say, when you find what you love, you’re going to apply it with your whole heart and soul. But until then, know that you need to keep cranking it out so that you can get to that place because you want to be ready.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, hearing your journey brings me to my next question. So now you’ve gone that whole journey and you are a professor, you teach incoming freshmen and you work with students. So how have you translated your own journey into working with students? Maybe not the traditional student who comes in who already feels very focused, but how has that really helped you connect with students and understand their journeys as you work with them?

 

Monica Epperson:

Well, just like I believe that our greatest asset before God is humility. So when he tells us to love Him first and love others as ourselves, I come to my students with a great deal of humility. I share that 18 year old journey of, I remember sitting in class going, I just want to be outside, but what do I do? And telling them it’s great. I mean, it’s wonderful to get to really know students, to get to know what they like. One of the things I have students do a lot is I have them write their eulogy and ask them, okay, let’s talk about where you want to end up. And that is so much fun for me because getting to see what they care about, it’s cute because knowing lifespan development and that most of them, their frontal lobe is not developed yet. No, it just is not going to be there yet. It’s so fun to see that eulogy include sports accomplishments or fashion, which I know is completely developmentally appropriate.

So I really, I just enjoy. Our students are great at Oklahoma Wesleyan and a lot of them, which I know we’ve talked about this before in the past, because we’ve been able to have some conversations. We have wonderful first generation students that they’re learning the college experience for the first time. They’re learning about themselves for the first time. And I love just being a part of it. Truthfully, just candidly opening up to talk about where I’ve been and where I’m going and how this journey is, it’s dynamic.

 

Rob Reynolds:

So, as someone who’s spent a good part of her adult life really focused on the particular needs of children, of divorced families, what have you learned in that study and in working with those particular kids and has really helped you identify or work with up even students who aren’t part of divorce families as they’re going through this experience?

 

Monica Epperson:

Right. Well, and with the psychology journey, what’s been interesting is I’ve learned as human beings, all human beings, all age groups, we love homeostasis. We love having things be constant. And the change of coming to college is a really big deal. And so one of the things that I offer my students is pretty much a, hey, I see you and I know this is tough, but you getting out of your comfort zone means you’re going to have opportunities that you wouldn’t have necessarily had if you didn’t do it. And so help me help you get comfortable in your new surroundings. So I feel like that’s probably one of my greatest assets with all the research, is helping them get to a new norm because we all like our norm. And I want them to do the four years. I want them to walk away and have something, I want a creme Wesleyan or tell services. I want those to be their new norm. I want that.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yes. I always talk organizationally a lot about change, someone who’s done several startups and you take, you’re going through all these stages of change. And again, your employees at that stage are all like your family and you’re going through it. And no matter how old we get, we want some form of structure stability. And that, we get a lot of our identity from that and our feeling of forward momentum and feeling chaotic is tough. I mean, I think a lot of people in today’s society with all of the things happening, COVID-19 et cetera, are really suffering with that lack of homeostasis. Right? We’re like, please slow it down. Just give me a week where it’s like, I think it should be. And not one more change, please.

 

Monica Epperson:

Yes. I mean, so Rob, you’ve got the same entrepreneurial spirit and I see it in my students. It’s pretty easy to identify and I liken it to a rubber band and just bear with me for a minute on this analogy because I am an educator. So when we stretch a rubber band, if we keep just stretching over and over again, it can go farther and farther and farther without popping. But if we take a rubber band and we never stretch it and we just max it out, it will pop. You have that same spirit of bringing this beautiful, having been stretched so many times with all these amazing life experiences. And you’re now giving that to other people, your legacy is now being built. And what’s fun for me is I can identify people like you as 18, 19 year olds sitting in my classroom that they’ve started the stretching process. And I love to help them understand the stretch. It’s so much.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No, I appreciate that. And one of the things about feeling that way and being someone who stretches, when you’re young and I was telling this story last week to someone, you don’t even know why you’re stretching, which is cool, who you are and what you do, you’re causing tornadoes around you sometimes. And you realize looking back in your life over decades, going, wow, I was probably making some of the people around me feel pretty uncomfortable and I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but I could deal with it because that’s what I do. And I think even as a leader, one of the challenges I’ve faced over the years is making sure that I’m being incredibly empathetic with the people around me, who haven’t got there yet. They’re not at the same place I am in feeling comfortable with the stretching and saying, okay, I get it just because I am feeling comfortable and can adapt, that doesn’t mean you are. So how do I create an environment to make everyone feel comfortable? And that’s so important. So what is a director of academic enhancement? What does that entail?

 

Monica Epperson:

Well, it’s just something that’s on a business card truthfully. But the idea behind why the position at Oklahoma Wesleyan even exist is because we really care about being a place of serious study. And so enhancing the academic experience for our students is incredibly important. Some of the things that I oversee is, we have a honors program and that’s been a fun thing to be a part of. Dr. Fisher leads that, and she’s just been brilliant as our assistant provost, but that’s a great program that we offer. And also the OKWU Prep getting to build it as part of our serious place of study and being able to give high school students our way of thought, our way of life and our way of faith. And those things are really important at Oklahoma Wesleyan because we identify and we recognize that we’re not a university for everybody, but we are a university for students who are wanting to learn more and understand about their faith as it is integrated with their academic enhancement or experience. That’s important

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s fine. No, that’s incredibly important. And not the purpose of this particular video or podcast, but for anyone who hasn’t been to the Oklahoma Wesleyan campus first, I would say it’s worth the detour is one of the most beautiful idyllic settings for learning I can imagine. But more importantly, what you see on the outside, I would say is rare in this case is reflected on what you see on the inside. From the staff to the students. There really is this sense of place, identity, and purpose that I feel like the faculty, the administration, students have really, that they embody and that those things you talked about really are important and take the lead in all considerations. And I find that really fascinating as we’ve talked about OKWU Prep, because a lot of people think of dual enrollment, for example, it’s a way to make some money, it’s a way to increase the enrollment funnel. And yes, those are things that are important.

But I feel like OKWU has taken a slightly different approach and saying, yes, those things are important, but what’s really happening here is it gives us an opportunity to extend our identity and connect with others that are aligned with us, who are interested in those same things. I think, I wouldn’t say you’re absolutely truly unique, but you certainly, as a term as the only ones doing that, but I really find what you’re doing exemplary. And so how do you see OKWUs, its essence, your belief in spirit, et cetera, and faith, how do you see that translated in what you’re trying to put out there in this dual enrollment program?

 

Monica Epperson:

One of the beautiful things about Oklahoma Wesleyan and OKWU Prep and where we fall into that mission, is we’re a legacy school. Miranda Lambert has a great song called The House That Built Me. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. Are you a country fan?

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yes.

 

Monica Epperson:

So this song is great because it’s about her going back and seeing the place that built her. And we have that legacy, when our alumni come home or when we see what our alumni have done, when we expose our students to the great things that have come out of Oklahoma Wesleyan, it is a beautiful experience. And our goal is that our high school students are our next generation of potential alumni to have that legacy, to be able to come back to our school. So we don’t look at them as just a source of revenue or that they’re just, we look at them as our future legacy holders of our way of thought, our way of life, and our way of fake. So, so much more than just a revenue stream.

 

Rob Reynolds:

That’s really powerful. So what would you say, and I do happen to know quite a bit about OKWU Prep, but if I didn’t, what would you say to me about what makes it great and why it’s such a great opportunity for students?

 

Monica Epperson:

Well, we can appeal to parents on so many levels. First of all, I had a daughter that went through before it was named OKWU Prep. She went through our as a concurrent student. And so I can speak too as a parent, my first concern was protecting that her dad and I raised her in a Christian environment and a Christian school. So I love the fact that her college experience didn’t challenge that, but actually continued to advocate some of the values and beliefs that we shared. So that was really important to me. The other thing that I can say as a parent who is financially savvy, is it’s a third of the price, which is great because private Christian education is expensive, it can be. And so the experience to know that she got a year of schooling under her belt before she attended full-price university was, I mean, it’s a beautiful thing. So that’s great.

Now, OKWU Prep, what I really love about the design of OKWU Prep and why we’re doing what we’re doing, is we are really addressing three different fronts, which is great, versus our concurrent students that just want to have concurrent enrollment. They can do that anywhere in the nation, right? Because of TEL Library, thank goodness, we’re able to offer a national platform to them, which is amazing. Secondly, we still have our on ground classes. So I know my daughter as a 16 year old was attending 18 and 19 year old weddings because those became her friends and they were good kids. And I was delighted to have that. Then also we have our dual credit courses. So we partnered with so many different Christian high schools and the relationship that we have with them, we’re able to actually look at their teachers and say, can we make them an OKWU professor? Would they qualify to be a dual enrollment teacher? So I love that we’re so versatile, that we really can meet the needs of a lot of students, which is great.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. And I think another thing that’s really important to me is it’s such a personal experience. And so many times when I talk, when I work with institutions or talk to administrators and they’re looking at these types of programs, while they may be effective academically, often they lack this true personal touch. And I think you’re doing so well with that. And I know your efforts to even involve current students and to make it a real experience for these students.

 

Monica Epperson:

Absolutely. If you’re a concurrent student, you’re still an Oklahoma Wesleyan student and we value our students.

 

Rob Reynolds:

No, absolutely. So Monica, wrapping this up, I appreciate your heart so much and your passion and compassion. It’s just such a wonderful, just wonderful attribute and characteristic for a person to have. And I know as you look out in the US society and culture today, you see the conflicts that are going on. And taking it back to all the study that you’ve done about students and kids who have experienced the disruption of divorce, but in many ways, things that are happening today, the divisiveness in society probably makes some of those kids who didn’t have parents who got divorced, feel uneasy in many ways. So give me a current situation of things or the situation we’re encountering. What do you think some of the struggles that students may have, and what’s the most important thing we can offer?

 

Monica Epperson:

Well, as a human being, love and dignity, I mean, to me, the patience and the kindness and the gentleness that we show to our students and the dignity that we give them to say, we don’t expect perfection. I mean, on this side of heaven, perfection is not the goal. What the goal is, is imitate the love that we give to you, to others. I mean, isn’t that really where our society is hurting is we’re at a place that kindness and gentleness and being patient with one another has become something that is becoming more and more rare.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. I think in many ways I would say where we’ve all become so concerned with being right, that we’ve forgotten about how to love, how to be kind and how to be gentle with one another, which were much more important. And so if you start from that, if that’s your starting point, kindness and gentleness and love, right may be important, but it’s always an easy thing to get to with one another.

 

Monica Epperson:

Right. And whether a Christian and in that faith or whether an atheist and in that faith, what we have in common as human beings is we all seek love and purpose. We all do. I mean, how many studies, peer reviewed articles, research, longitudinal studies, how many of them point to the same thing that the human experience we desire regardless of who and what we are, we desire, love, and purpose.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Well, thank you so much. Your students are incredibly lucky to get to experience what you’re offering. I find your attitude really inspirational. And I’m glad we got to do this today. Monica, thank you so much for joining.

 

Monica Epperson:

Well, thank you, Rob. It was great to have the conversation and as usual, I always look forward to hanging out with you, so.

 

Rob Reynolds:

Absolutely.

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