Early in the pandemic in 2020, Doreen Connelly decided she wanted to advance her education past her undergraduate degree. Searching online, she found UMass Boston’s Management of Aging Services graduate certificate program. The five-course program is designed for professionals who want to enhance their knowledge and take a few courses before committing to a master’s program.

Connelly works as the wellness coordinator for Morningstar Living, which offers a number of living communities for older adults in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. She oversees a well-rounded fitness program including gym and pool exercise classes. Thanks to Morningstar’s membership in LeadingAge PA, the statewide industry association of aging services providers, she had just earned a wellness management certificate from the International Council on Active Aging. 

“I got an A in the ICAA certificate program,” Connelly remembers, “so I wondered if I could handle a ‘real’ graduate course. I haven’t been in a classroom in eons, and I saw what my kids went through in COVID [when their classes moved online]. But I really liked what I was reading and learning.”

Helping three kids pay for college also leaves Connelly fairly cash strapped. When she saw that LeadingAgePA was offering $1,200 professional development scholarships for staff at its member communities, she decided to go for it. But enrolling in an online post-graduate program along with applying for the scholarship proved challenging. She needed to find and send her undergraduate transcript from decades ago, back when she had used her first initial and maiden name for official records. Through phone calls and emails to the UMass Boston gerontology department, she connected with Ellen Birchander, graduate program director of the Management of Aging Services program, and Martin Hansen-Verma, manager of enrollment & recruitment.

Enrollment challenges are familiar to Birchander, who has helped many applicants for the MAS master’s and certificate programs. “Our students are not traditional students. They are out in the real world, many of them working full time and carrying family responsibilities,” she says. “To apply, they have to go back 15, 20 years or more to find documents from a time before most records were electronic.”

Connelly first looked at the LeadingAgePA scholarship application a year ago, before she was officially enrolled at UMass. In February 2022, enrolled and with one class under her belt, she was ready to apply. She thought the online application looked streamlined, but actually she had neglected to click past the first screen. One Friday afternoon she found an email alerting her that her application was incomplete—and she had until midnight to complete it.

“Talk about panic!” Connelly remembers. She frantically emailed her UMass Boston professor, a mentor, and her Morningstar Living boss for recommendations. Amazingly, all three women were able to send letters in by the midnight deadline.

Months went by and Connelly never heard back, so “I really thought I’d blown it,” she says. Fast forward to June 2022 and Morningstar’s company picnic. For two weeks Connelly had been working remotely because she’d been exposed to someone with COVID. She told her coworkers she was too busy catching up on work to go to the picnic. One coworker insisted, telling her their boss said it was important to attend. Reluctantly she agreed to change out of her bathing suit after leading a fitness class and go. “I was just being such a brat because I wanted to get caught up,” Connelly laughs. When she saw her husband and son at the event, she asked them, “What are you doing here? I didn’t invite you!”

“When my CEO and Megan from LeadingAge called my name, my mouth dropped and I turned beet red,” she remembers. “My boss, my coworkers, and my family all knew. They really got me.”

The award paid for Connelly’s certificate class, Healthy Aging Perspectives, taught by Birchander over the summer. She plans to take two more courses in the fall and complete the certificate in the spring.

“I love the program, everything I read is so interesting,” Connelly says. “The professors are fabulous, and very understanding with an adult who is coming back to school after a long time out.”

She hopes to continue on in the master’s program. In particular, Connelly recognizes the challenges of the coming decades, when the numbers of people 65 and older will swell—and many of them will be stretched financially. “We’ve got to roll up our sleeves. The program has got me sparked.”

Connelly’s passion for the course content is as familiar to Birchander as her frustrations with navigating her college application process. “Our program is so incredibly applied,” says Birchander, who counsels the MAS students as they graduate and look for jobs. “When our students leave us, they’re ready to go out and change the world.”