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The Importance of Telling Our Story with Allen Clarkson

Jun 9, 2023

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An insider’s perspective on the evolution of WGU.

132,000 active students.
300,000 alumni.
8,000 staff nationwide.

The numbers we use to define Western Governors University are indisputably impressive, but they only tell so much of the WGU story on their own. I had the pleasure of sitting down with my colleague Allen Clarkson, Government Relations Manager at WGU, to discover the nuance behind these numbers–the “how” and “why” behind the “what”.

Part of Something Big

As a pioneering force behind our institution, Allen has seen WGU through immense growth. While he defines pioneer as an “old person who has hung around through thick and thin,” I much prefer the definition of “one who is willing to take risks and disrupt the status quo in order to better serve the people around them”.

Allen joined WGU as a contracted employee in 2005, grading papers for the IT college. He joined the IT faculty full-time the next year, and has proceeded to hold 15 different titles in various departments. However, it was not always Allen’s intention to remain at WGU for this long.

“I meant to take this job for about nine months. I had another offer, a very impressive offer, and decided at the time that WGU sounded like a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a bigger adventure,” he told me. 

He was compelled by WGU’s innovative delivery model and the opportunity to be part of something big. Fortunately for the rest of us, once he was a part of it, he just couldn’t give it up.

“At the time, I think we had about 2,000 students and about 200 faculty and staff,” he said. “I’ve certainly seen not only growth, but absolute change in the understanding of what WGU is.”

“I’ve certainly seen not only growth, but absolute change in the understanding of what WGU is.”
– Allen Clarkson

Learning Alongside Our Students

From 2,000 students to 132,000, WGU has grown more dramatically and rapidly than Allen–or any of us, for that matter–could have ever anticipated. And it didn’t happen on its own. Allen attributes WGU’s growth to a commitment to both innovation and governmental relations–and of course, our students.

“The reason we’re at 300,000 alumni, the reason that we have so many students, is because the quality of the education that students go away with is something the graduates brag about to other folks,” Allen said.

Innovation takes many forms here at WGU. When our institution was founded, the internet was still in its infancy; we have matured in tandem with the technology, learning how to harness its power to better serve our students. We’ve developed a disaggregated faculty that provides every student with a mentor to guide them through their journey, as well as evaluation faculty, assessment faculty, program faculty, and course instructors–five different points of contact for each student. We have streamlined a process to track student progress and intervene at critical junctures.

“We’ve learned over 25 years how to support students, how to be where students need us to be, rather than having students come to us,” Allen said.

Despite WGU’s growth, we’ve never forgotten our roots. WGU was founded by states, for states. Folks like Allen have been tasked with building and maintaining meaningful relationships with elected officials. Our Government Relations team works with these state leaders to advance policies that improve access to education and emphasize the credibility of a WGU degree.

“When we partner with a state, we don’t approach the state with something that we can get for our institution. We approach the state with advocacy for our students and opportunity for our future students, and also what we can contribute back into the state,” Allen explained.

In doing so, Allen and his colleagues have established partnerships with 13 affiliate states (and counting), opening doors to thousands of potential students. They have helped build WGU into something bigger than Allen ever could have expected.

“I had no concept that I would see people in the grocery store who I did not know with a WGU t-shirt on, that I would see bumper stickers on cars,” he said. “The impact is widespread and bigger than I ever imagined it would have been. I’m glad I didn’t leave; I’d probably be kicking myself every time I saw one of those t-shirts.”

Today, my advice draws from one of Allen’s favorite phrases: “Don’t leave 10 minutes before the miracle happens.” I am certainly glad that Allen chose not to leave WGU before he could witness and contribute to WGU’s evolution. I hope that miracle continues to be elusive for many minutes to come.

And that, my friends, is my Sage Advice.

Listen to Episode 6 of the Sage Advice podcast from WGU to hear more of my conversation with Allen Clarkson.

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