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Changing Trajectories for Students

Jan 3, 2023

In fall 2022, Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson was appointed as the new WGU senior vice president and executive dean of the School of Education. While she’s new to this particular role, Stacey is certainly no stranger in our virtual hallowed halls. She joined WGU in 1998 as Manager of Student Services and Registrar, and later served in a variety of leadership roles at the university in financial aid and academic services. Immediately prior to her appointment as Executive Dean, Stacey served as Vice President of Academic Operations for the School of Education, where she led faculty operations, field experience, and innovation for the school.

Follow along with us here to learn more about Stacey’s background, motivation, and her strategic focus for the school:

You joined WGU nearly 25 years ago, just as our university got off the ground. What’s the biggest change that you have noticed here between those early days and today—and what has stayed the same?

SLJ: I have always been a curious learner. One of the many things that frustrated me with my K-12 experience was the inability to accelerate, or slow down, when I needed to—and I had to attend class to meet the seat-time rules, even when I had already mastered the course content. For those courses where I needed extra time to learn the foundational concepts, it was a challenge to simply continue progressing with the class even though I had not actually mastered the content—it really left some gaps in my knowledge, particularly when courses built upon each other. As a first-generation college student, I expected my college experience to be different, but it wasn’t—seat-time still ruled and drove progress through the courses. I always felt like there had to be a better way. When I joined WGU, I was drawn to the idea of disrupting the seat-time notion of higher education with a focus on personalized learning and competency-based outcomes that were connected to the skills needed to be successful in a career. WGU has always had this relentless focus on student personalization and access—with our key success measure as student completion or graduation. The primary thing that has changed in the 25 years that I have been at WGU is the constantly evolving technology that we use to deliver our student experience and mine and analyze the student journey data. Data we then use to better understand the early signals that students are encountering friction in their learning experience which is driving deeper understanding about how we intervene to help our students stay on track. We’re using this data to help us close the gaps in attainment for underserved students across the nation. In so many ways, we are still pioneers in addressing student success outcomes. It’s really exciting!

Tell us about your career beginnings. Did you always want to work in higher education?

SLJ: I grew up in Colorado (where I currently live) and was the first in my family to pursue and complete a bachelor’s degree. I initially planned to be an elementary or special education teacher, so I worked in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado as a lead in the Before and After School programs, providing care and services for underserved elementary-aged students in three schools.

I have always wanted to work in a career that supported kids and familiies in need. But rather than teaching in K-12 schools, I was drawn to program development and leadership that focused on the adults in the family as a means to have the greatest impact on the trajectory of the family as whole. So, I earned a master’s degree in organizational management, and a doctorate in educational leadership and innovation, both from the University of Colorado. Here, I worked in the College of Business for the Professional Development Programs, which were the first University of Colorado programs to offer distance learning courses to business professionals on the state’s Eastern Slope via streaming video, and later I worked as a program coordinator for CU Online. Both of these programs focused on providing access to post-secondary education or professional development to adults that were not able to access a traditional college campus.

Stemming from your studies and earlier work, what’s an important philosophy that you carried forward in your career?

SLJ: During my graduate studies, I joined the Colorado Department of Corrections as a Team Leader and helped design Colorado’s first juvenile detention center boot camp to serve juveniles that were sentenced to weekend detention to combat the overcrowding in youth detention facilities in the state. Here, I had the opportunity to work with leaders who were committed to changing the trajectory of the most at-risk and underserved kids in the larger community.

This inspiration—the philosophy of “changing trajectories”—has never left me. I always kept getting drawn back to education as the surest path to opportunity. In Colorado, it really needed to start with the parents and other adults and role models in the community. And now at WGU, I wholeheartedly feel that regardless of one’s background, experiences, or life situations, education is still the surest path to opportunity for each and every student who calls our university home.

As the new executive dean, what strategy have you mapped out as a guide for the school’s faculty and staff?

SLJ: During the school’s Virtual Summit this past November, I was excited to share with the School of Education family my vision on “Mission, Mindset, and Metrics” – how do we all address the challenges in serving our diverse student population? I believe that if we continue to stay true to our mission in providing pathways to opportunities, shift to a mindset that one-by-one, personalized experience is how we solve for students, and focus on key results in access and attainment, our School of Education team will be better suited to support our students’ academic journeys more effectively.

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