Palmer College Attracts Trailblazing National Talent

August 3, 2022

MBU has attracted trailblazing talent to spearhead development of the Palmer College of Professional Studies (from left): Sarah Cochran, Assistant Vice President of Learning Experience; Vice President & Chief Academic Strategist, Will Webb; Bridget Stearns, Senior Director of Business, Strategy, and Operations.

MBU Chief Academic Strategist Will Webb is leading the charge to revamp online offerings and align Palmer College with the needs of tomorrow’s students — but he isn’t doing it alone. Arriving at MBU he quickly reached out to veteran online learning colleagues at major U.S. universities that have “big ideas, are hungry for innovation, and understand that student outcomes are the real benchmark for success.”   

For them, helping to build a groundbreaking new opportunity engine where every facet of the learning experience is designed to drive and accelerate those outcomes was a dream-come-true. 

Below, we talk with Webb’s leadership bench about their professional backgrounds, what attracted them to Mary Baldwin, and some of what they hope to achieve.  

MBU has attracted trailblazing talent to spearhead development of the Palmer College of Professional Studies (from left): Sarah Cochran, Assistant Vice President of Learning Experience; Vice President & Chief Academic Strategist, Will Webb; Bridget Stearns, Senior Director of Business, Strategy, and Operations.

Sarah Cochran
Assistant Vice President of Learning Experience

What made you want to join MBU? 

When Will approached me about this role, what got me to say yes was the opportunity to build something amazingly special from scratch. The culture was such a big factor too: It was like I was joining this fast-paced mini startup within a university that has the respect and support to move things forward remarkably quickly. 

In my experience, this kind of environment is ideal — but virtually impossible to find. Working at other institutions, the most frustrating element was dealing with the crazy amounts of red tape and political hoops to implement simple changes and move good ideas forward. MBU’s size inherently limits that. But the overwhelming support of the administration really fastracks things. They’re pushing us to bring our best ideas — even those that involve brand new ways of doing things — to the table. 

Here, everyone is wearing multiple hats and pitch in to help create something unprecedented. Can it be stressful? Oh yeah. But here’s the reality: Am I ever going to get another opportunity to exercise this degree of creativity again? Probably not. 

You referenced the project’s uniqueness several times. Give us an example of something that’s going to make MBU’s online learning experience really stand out?

When I think of our future online courses, I imagine this special balance that delivers a consistent experience while building close connections between faculty and learners. For instance, I have no desire for us to be like some of the bigger schools, where professors have to follow generic course templates that are intended to ensure learners all have the same course experience. But in practice, this approach can leave students feeling disengaged, and alienated from peers and professors alike. 

MBU is a small school that focuses on delivering incredibly individualized, engaging, and hands-on student experiences within an authentic learning community. That’s desirable. Let’s capitalize on that. 

So, if you’re taking online classes from Mary Baldwin, not only are you going to get high-quality courses, you’ll also get a professor who’s bringing real-world experiences, professional context, and expertise to the material. There’s going to be engaging synchronous activities, internships, co-ops — and everything will be tied to workforce readiness. Everything inside the learning experience will center around the question: “How will this help me level-up professionally and achieve my goals?” A big part of that mission is helping students connect with mentors and expand their professional network in a truly meaningful way. 

Bridget Stearns
Senior Director of Business, Strategy, and Operations

What convinced you to join MBU? What made the opportunity so exciting? 

When Will asked me if I’d like to become a key collaborator in an entrepreneurial organization at a really pivotal moment, I jumped at the opportunity to help create something new and different. 

Mary Baldwin is at an inflection point in its history. It has both the institutional longevity — 180 years! — and size to be able to move quickly to establish itself as a preferred workforce partner. What that means is creating talent pipelines that will serve students by placing them in up-and-coming jobs, and benefit employers by filling a sorely needed gap in their workforce. 

As an alum and former employee of a university with the nation’s largest co-op network, and having experience partnering with top companies to create talent solutions to support their next generation of leaders, I can attest there’s a critical gap between the way most higher-ed institutions prepare students for the workforce and what employers actually need. This leaves a wide open lane for a small, agile, fast-moving education provider like MBU to disrupt the status quo and take advantage of an untapped opportunity. 

What do you think is going to be particularly special about taking classes through the new Palmer College?

Palmer College was intentionally founded to support workforce readiness. Our core demographic is working professionals who’re juggling job responsibilities, family, and personal commitments in addition to classes. These students can often feel overwhelmed and forgotten in a traditional university setting — or worse, taken advantage of to turn a profit. Not only are we going to make sure that doesn’t happen, we’re going to make sure they’re getting an education that prepares and plugs them into the kinds of  career opportunities that inspired them to go back to school in the first place. 

… We’ve already commissioned and performed job market research specific to Virginia and identified some major opportunities. For instance: About 65 percent of children entering kindergarten today will likely wind up working in jobs that don’t currently exist. That’s a staggering statistic! It means employers are already becoming desperate to find talent with relevant skills and experience, and the problem is projected to get worse as time goes on.  

That’s where we come in. Right now, we’re simultaneously reimagining our portfolio of degrees and certificates, and changing the way we connect with students to support their academic success and professional development goals. We’re also starting to engage with employers in Virginia and surrounding regions to create opportunities to connect employers and students, and pivot toward the future of work.

How does that look? We’ve been — and will continue to be — extremely thoughtful in designing our degree programs to have real-life applications and emphasize connections to professional skills. We’re in the process of creating unique opportunities like internships for college credit, where learners will get a taste of working in their desired field while accelerating their trajectory toward graduation and developing cutting-edge skills that are highly marketable and highly in-demand.

“We’re creating a learning experience that’s going to redefine what’s possible in and outside the classroom, by creating an education platform for the future of work.”
Will Webb, Vice President Palmer College of Professional Studies

INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE ABOUT MBU’s groundbreaking new Palmer College of Professional Studies? Click HERE.