Fellow Spotlight: Adam Giery, Class VI

A recent report that studied the education levels of 15-year-olds in 34 industrialized countries revealed some concerning numbers for the U.S. educational system: Of the 34 countries, U.S. students ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Scary numbers, no doubt about it.

Here’s the good news: After chatting on the phone just 15 minutes with Adam Giery, you’re convinced he’s exactly who we need to turn that around.

Heck, he might just get it turned around before you get off the phone.

Case in point: Ask Adam for a copy of his resume, because it could come in handy if, for example, you’re writing a spotlight on him for the Florida Fellows website. Check your email 10 minutes later-while you’re still on the phone with Adam-and the resume is sitting in your inbox.

There’s some 21st-century multitasking for you.

Productivity is a big deal for this Class VI Florida Fellow, who is completing his master’s degree in Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Adam has a passion for finding ways to help students excel.

As a graduate student in 2008, he created the Study Union, an event in which the Student Union provides 24 study space during finals week . It wasn’t just a matter of providing space, the Study Union – now an ongoing program – provides tutors, food, group exercise classes, Scantron forms, free test booklets, writing services, and much more.

“We had a need for student study space,” Adam explained. “The bottom line is that we have 56,000 students. The library does a fantastic job of accommodating as many students as possible, but we needed to have a space that could the overwhelming demand for study space, while incorporating other educational entities.”

To call it a success would be a massive understatement. This program won local and national awards in 2008 and 2009. In addition, the Student Union concept has multiplied exponentially. Representatives from other Florida schools and schools around the nation have adopted his program to improve their exam study services.

When Adam decided to apply for the Fellows program, he was no less ambitious. He met with a dozen professors and mentors in putting together his policy proposal. “I wanted to develop something so encompassing that it could actually happen,” he said. “I would launch that proposal right now. It’s something I feel strongly about.”

The concept is to create a learning commons at the University level – one that’s both virtual and brick-and-mortar – for students who are taking all (or mostly) online courses.

“In my opinion what’s lacking in online courses is the human element, the face-to-face interaction, that can affect the overall retention level of the information,” Adam explained. “Online students also miss out on a myriad of other services such as being able to connect with the campus staff and other students. The idea would be to create a virtual learning commons, a 24-hour one-stop shop that would also have a physical locale at the same time. It would allow online students to the opportunity to meet and study together, Skype in the professor, or even provide them access to student affairs professionals.”

This broad range of diverse tools is needed, he said, because different students need different options: “In America, we’re no longer seeing a one-size-fits-all form of education. It’s becoming personalized, even at the K-12 level.”

Adam’s been interested in finding better ways to do things since he was a child, and his specific interest in education can be tracked back to his mother Linda, who teaches advertising art to high school students. “She’s always been an innovator in her classrooms,” Adam said.

Similarly, “I can look at something and find a way that it could be improved, creativity has always been my niche. I just sit and come up with things. It actually sometimes keeps me up at night. I keep a pen and pencil by the bed.”

Adam’s Fellows placement is with the Division of Florida Colleges, part of the state Department of Education. He’s working on a statewide initiative to address adult degree completion, something that fits in well with his skill set. It’s also a critical need, Adam said, in a state where 50,000 people have 36 or more college credit hours, but no degree.

“These students have 24 credits of less until their Associates degree can be conferred. Which is basically a year, four courses in the fall, four spring. That’s all they need. There’s an additional 10,000 who have 60 credit hours with no degree. To me, that 10,000, is unbelievable as we must do whatever we can to help these students finish up their degrees.”

The initiative will become an interactive website customized to these students, helping them return to college.

“We can’t just put up a website and say, ‘You want to go back? Go,” Adam said, explaining that it has to be a straightforward process, because small frustrations could be enough to scare off potential students.

“We have to remove the technological barriers, and the institutional barriers,” he said. “We have to create something that is easy to use and accessible at all times. We need to be able to say, your school needs you to do X, Y, Z, and here’s a direct contact person at this college. You don’t want these people to call up the school and get someone who doesn’t know what they need to do. They hang up and that’s it.”

It’s pretty clear the Fellows program had no question about the “leadership” criterion when considering Adam. He’s similarly impressed with the program.

“The Fellowship has exceeded all expectations,” he said. “Usually when you run into internships, they want you for either of two roles. You’re the guy who does the busy work, or you’re an assistant. The Fellowship has none of those aspects.”

Instead, Adam said, you hit the ground running: “Day one, I walk in the door. I’ve got my suit on, they give me my badge, give me my office, here’s Outlook, your logins, you have meetings already planned. My very first week, I’m sitting with the Commissioner of Education, and we’re chatting.”

The Fellowship “allows you this amazing insight into a system that is often very difficult to get inside. And at the same time, they still respect your scholastic responsibilities. I’m in school, but I’m still working on state policy. At no time does one have to be sacrificed for the other. It’s such an amazing program.”

Adam talked about meeting state Governors both present and past, and noted how the words of former Governor Reubin Askew stuck with him. “He told us, ‘The most important thing any public service officer can do is act with integrity.’ It reminds you that no matter what situations you’re placed in, if a position challenges the person you are inside, the position itself isn’t worth it.”

After finishing school this spring, Adam plans to pursue a law degree: “I want to couple that with my interest in higher education. I think no matter what you do; knowing the law is like having a handful of aces. Knowing the law will help in education policy, educational reform, and creating educational programs. That’s what I want to do.. I like helping people.”

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