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Orchestrating Graduation

Several stacks of papers occupy the surface of Betsy Taylor’s desk, but it seems that infinitely more clutter ought to crowd her workspace.

At first glance, her job seems so simple — review the requirements for all candidates applying to graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences, and send the cap-and-gown-clad adolescent out into the world.

PLAYING A DUET Trained in music, Massey Award winner Betsy Taylor is student services manager in the College of Arts & Sciences, but she makes time to moonlight in what might be her true calling, as director of music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham.
But when one considers that more than 70 percent of the University’s undergraduates — thousands and thousands of students every year — earn a degree from the College of Arts & Sciences’ many offerings, it’s incredible Taylor performs her job with the dedication and precision she does.

The real wonder, though, can be found in her enthusiasm for her work and her compassion for her students, and that’s why so many faculty members, administrators and staff endorsed her nomination for a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“Always her attitude is positive, her encouragement sincere, her dedication unlimited, and her smile and laughter infectious,” said Steve Dobbins, whose office adjoins Taylor’s on the third floor of Steele Building, in his nomination letter. “Still more remarkable is the fact that she does all this while advising students all day.”

She doesn’t just juggle her graduation responsibilities with her appointments with students, though. She serves as the director of music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, a position she’s held since 1981.

That’s the same Trinity United Methodist Church of which C. Knox Massey was an active member. Massey, in fact, left a fund designated for music and youth, and Taylor has made good use of the fund through the years.

That’s the same Trinity United Methodist Church of which C. Knox Massey was an active member. Massey, in fact, left a fund designated for music and youth, and Taylor has made good use of the fund through the years.

Her job, technically, is of the part-time variety, but that’s not always the case.

“It’s supposed to be 20 hours per week,” she said. “Other times, it’s 80 hours — or that’s where it feels like.”

Taylor works every weekend, including all day every Sunday, and she holds rehearsals on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Her immense time commitment to both the church and to the University might intimidate some, but it has a hidden side benefit for her.

“I’ve always worked,” she said. “It’s the way I live. If I stay at home, I’ll have to do housework. That’s boring.”

Conducting a dual lifestyle

While Taylor was growing up in Beckley, W.Va., working as an academic advisor wasn’t exactly in her plans.

Her educational background, in fact, consists more of music than of academia. She graduated from West Virginia University and has a master’s degree in music from Union Theological Seminary.

“People will often ask me, `Why do you work two jobs?'” Taylor said. “I do one because I’m trained to do it, and I really love working with music and the church. But I love working with students here.”

Her focus on music allowed her to avoid many of the registration hassles that some of her students now face.

“My adviser was the choir director at the Presbyterian Church,” she said. “(He said), `If you sing in my choir, then I’ll take care of you.'”

That hasn’t prevented her, though, from becoming a cherished member of the University’s staff of academic advisers.

She moved to North Carolina from East Lansing, Mich., with her husband, David, Carolina’s undergraduate librarian until his retirement two years ago.

She took her first campus job 28 years ago at the Health Services Research Center, a job requiring 30 hours per week. When that position became full-time, however, her son and daughter still were too young for her to take on the demands of a full-time position. She transferred, then, to the political science department, where she worked as an editorial assistant.

When the position of administrative assistant for graduate studies came open, though, she took advantage of the opportunity to advance her own career. Her children, by then, were old enough that she could work 40 hours per week, and she jumped wholeheartedly into her new job.

And in 1988, when her current position became open, she switched from working with graduate students to working with undergraduate students. The biggest difference, she said, was the pure change in quantity of students involved.

But in the end, students are students, and those eager faces have kept her around for all of these years.

“I love working with students,” she said. “They’re just joyful. There are some times they aren’t as joyful as others, but you see everything under the sun.”

Diplomas and diplomacy

Aside from reviewing each and every student’s transcript before graduation, a complex and time-consuming job in itself, Taylor also reviews the automated degree-audit system for accuracy and inserts corrections manually when necessary.

The program often does not account for requirement replacements approved by individual departments. When that happens, the student fails the automated degree audit and Taylor must fill out one of the many substitution forms that cross her desk.

But students don’t only fail the audit because they’ve substituted requirements or had requirements overlooked by the computer.

Sometimes, the student just didn’t fulfill all of the graduation requirements.

The most difficult part of the job of a student services manager in the academic advising program comes when students come oh-so-close to graduating only to discover a missing requirement or a few missing hours at the last minute.

“That’s very sad,” she said. “It doesn’t make life very easy here for any of us.”

But Taylor possesses a gift for helping distraught students through the crisis period, and her colleagues often send their own advisees to Taylor for emotional support.

“I am moved every time I observe students who enter Betsy’s office crying, feeling helpless, hopeless and alone, and who leave smiling with a plan of action to reach their goal,” Dobbins wrote.

The most traumatic discoveries usually come late in the spring semester, as students planning to graduate have already invited friends and family to the area to celebrate their impending graduation.

But if they’ve made as simple a mistake as failing to add their credit hours correctly and it’s too late to add a class, there’s not much the academic advisers can do. That student usually will have to take a class or two in summer school and officially graduate in August.

That’s not to say, though, that the student can’t participate in the commencement exercises of his or her class.

In fact, Taylor says she often encourages that participation.

“They don’t really need to tell everybody in the world that they’re really not a graduate,” she said. “A lot of students will come in, crying, `Oh, Granny and Granddaddy are coming in from Idaho.’

“I’ll say, `Tell your mom. Tell your dad. You don’t need to tell all these other people. You can just enjoy the day.'”

Said one faculty member in appreciation of Taylor’s efforts: “She is one of the reasons that an institution as large as this one wears a human face.”

And when students come to Taylor early in their senior year for help in organizing and understanding their progress toward graduation, she serves as a valuable — and reliable — resource.

“The University’s innumerable layers of overlapping and sometimes contradictory curricular rules are so complex that few advisers or deans are willing to offer students a definitive statement of their remaining requirements in their final semester,” Dobbins wrote. “She spells out terms with unblemished accuracy, one student at a time.”

The comfort and assurance she provides doesn’t just apply to students, though.

Taylor remembers a phone call she received from the mother of a recent graduate during her first year at Carolina.

“She said, `My daughter just finished her bachelor of arts in political science. We are so proud of her, because she’s the first member of our family to graduate from college. But I have a really, really, really stupid question. What does that mean, that she has a major in political science?'”

Hearing Taylor’s voice at the other end of the phone must have been music to her ears.

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 6, 2004

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