CARMEL — It’s not uncommon for life to get in the way when students are attending college.
That was the case for Putnam County Unit member Diana Ascone, who took college classes years ago, but didn’t get the chance to finish her degree.
So, when Ascone received an email from Putnam County Local President Jane Meunier informing members about the new member-only AFSCME Free College Benefit, Ascone realized a college degree wasn’t out of reach.
Ascone is the first CSEA Southern Region member to obtain a degree through the AFSCME Free College Benefit, earning her associate’s degree in business management from Eastern Gateway Community College.
“My grandfather used to tell me to learn everything you possibly can,” said Ascone, a senior account clerk at the county Department of Social Services’ fiscal services division. “Just the fact that this program is free should be something that members should consider. I think it’s a wonderful benefit for being part of our union.”
Degree programs through Eastern Gateway Community College are done entirely online, which is a growing trend in higher education and particularly convenient for our members juggling work and school.
Getting used to online learning versus sitting in the classroom was an adjustment for Ascone, especially when occasional technical glitches arose, but she said it made the back to school adjustment much easier.
“I actually enjoy the online courses,” Ascone said. “I’m not one to travel after work and sit in a classroom. It was so much easier for me to earn my degree this way.”
Ascone’s previous college credits allowed her to earn her business management degree in just a little over a year, though the program generally takes longer for students starting from the beginning.
The experience was such a positive one for Ascone that, once she saw AFSCME expanded the degree offerings, she enrolled again. Now, she is working toward an accounting degree.
Ascone isn’t the only student in her office. Four of the seven CSEA members working in her division are also enrolled in Eastern Gateway degree programs, with the workers often using their lunch breaks to study together.
Two of those members’ adult children are also taking classes, as the benefit is also open to our members’ families.
“If you have a child who didn’t go to college, they can give this program a try and it’ll help them to move forward, and then they don’t have to worry about student loans for those first two years of school,” Ascone said.
When someone asks what workers get by being part of a union, it’s easy to focus on contract language or wage increases, but Ascone said added benefits such as the AFSCME Free College Benefit play a big role in making the union difference.
“If you’re older and wanted to go to school, and never had the opportunity to go, it gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Ascone said. “That’s how I felt. I had gone to school, but didn’t complete a degree. Now, I feel like I have really accomplished something.”
— Jessica Ladlee