- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

The institution, which has little to do with the U.S. Department of Agricultureapart from its title, functions as a sort of community college for many of the federal agencies that give the school the majority of its business, since most of its programs are geared to government workers who need or want specialized training. Certain courses also are offered online and in nearly 100 cities around the country.
To "civilians," and especially those in the Washington area taking advantage of an eclectic variety of courses offered evenings and weekends, the school means an opportunity to pursue a bevy of interests in relatively small classes for nearly half the price charged at many better-known local colleges.
The catch is that a successful completion of a course does not translate into credit hours at mainstream institutions of higher learning, except for a few certificates that can be used toward an undergraduate degree through special arrangements with Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University and Trinity College. Details are spelled out in catalogs and the www.grad.usda.gov Web site.
"We're almost 24/7 and 365 days a year," says Deborah Smith, head of communications for a school that is a well-organized hierarchy, with 16 so-called business units and a different head for each unit. Its official status in government-speak is "a non-appropriated fund instrumentality," or a "NAFI," also known as a quasigovernment institution similar to the post exchange stores sponsored by the Department of Defense. Although founded, back in 1921, by Agriculture Secretary Henry C. Wallace to provide after-hours graduate training for department research scientists, the school is self-supporting and receives no money directly from Congress.
More than two dozen languages are taught here, along with horticulture, photography, sailing, paralegal studies, speed reading, bird-watching and information-technology courses, for example. (Not all are available all year, every year.) There is even a free foreign film festival, with a different language film offered each week in the summer. The current two-part 10-week session that began June 26 ends Sept. 10, after which begins an even busier winter schedule.
The main campus, a self-contained four-story beige building at 600 Maryland Ave. SW, fronting L'Enfant Plaza Metro, is an impressive physical plant; classrooms are cheerful and well-equipped. A bookstore on the ground floor handles orders across the curriculum. More than 1,200 part-time faculty members serve 145,000 students annually — an enormous figure considering the Graduate School's own modest real estate.
"I consider my USDA certificate above all other degrees," says horticulturalist Sally Sullivan of Arlington, who took a series of courses winter and summer beginning in fall 1997 after retiring from the Navy.
"A certificate from there probably is considered almost as highly as a college degree. Whether it was my luck or USDA's luck, people that teach classes are great. I only had one that wasn't really organized. Most [horticulture] classes are in the field. I paid $300 instead of the $500 I'd pay at a university that would only have three field trips a session. My fellow students were a melting pot. And for a non-driver like me, the location next to Metro was perfect."
Management control is paramount, it would seem. School officials objected to the idea of a reporter roaming freely in halls during class hours, although the entrance isn't guarded, and offered a list of names and the phone numbers of selected students and teachers. Ms. Smith, who previously was in charge of technology training at the government's Office of Personnel Management, said some students would be concerned about their privacy and the teachers feared interruption.
Nearly all the people contacted on the phone outside school hours were uniformly positive about their association with the school.
One student volunteered that its computer classes are more expensive than elsewhere. A few teachers suggested that pay scales are too low. All teachers are adjuncts, many of them government employees who are experts in their fields. Faculty members are monitored early in their jobs, and, while participation is not obligatory, in-house faculty development workshops take place regularly.
At least one language teacher of some 26 years standing has only a bachelor of arts degree that would not have qualified her to teach even part time at most state-run institutions.
A testimonial from one of her students who wasn't aware of this, proves that a degree on paper is not always relevant. "Mme. Dowling was the best French teacher I ever had, being very enthusiastic and interested in her students," says Kerry Boyd, just one year out of college and working in international relations, who signed up for conversational French "largely for career goals." A potential university graduate student, she needed to refresh her French and may take a vocabulary course in the fall.
The teacher, Catherine Dowling, whose French mother married a U.S. soldier in World War II, has been a recipient of the Faculty Excellence Award. She is equally high on her students, who have included of sous chefs from the Inn at Little Washington wanting to work on vocabulary, a concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel and "your basic Washington person who wants to further himself." She breaks the monotony of a three-hour class session by introducing physical movement: "I usually have more advanced students teach something to illustrate swim strokes or fencing moves.
"The best part is truly the students who come to our classes really want to be there," she observes, noting that "it is a completely different group by day since day classes usually are arranged for students by a boss or manager" and therefore those students "don't have the motivation night students have." Teachers have a greater challenge, she says, since the students' level of proficiency in the classroom is so varied.
Day students interviewed, however, appeared highly motivated.
Nikolaos Apostolides, who was trained as an art historian and archaeologist at Wesleyan College before switching to financial management, works as a budget analyst at the Department of Labor, which has paid for him to take several courses in the past 14 months. Most of them were concentrated into eight hours a day, three or four days at a time.
"Few graduate programs would teach the kind of essential fundamental tools of federal budgeting that USDA does," he says. His department has "to assure that all analysts working for them are up to speed on standard practices governing federal appropriations, including law. Congress tasks us to live according to the federal laws, and they change."
Mr. Apostolides cites past teachers "with long C.V.s," or curriculum vitae, and government jobs that made the classroom experience especially meaningful. "For someone trying to find a career path in government, it is a great place to network."
Maria Pressley, a licensed clinical social worker and former D.C. Superior Court probationary officer, echoes his praise about teaching quality at the school. Currently a Department of Justice employee interested in the field of workplace disputes, she says "government offers training every year for $500, and not everyone takes advantage. I take several courses a year. It definitely helps in terms of promotion and career."
Joe Gardella, who asked not to name the government agency he works for, says the variety in the curriculum and the mix of theory and practice in the classroom are strong points. "The other nice thing is the federal government, like private industry, has recognized the war for talent and is taking some action."
"Try to teach 'cost-benefit analysis' to a bunch of people and make the numbers come alive is an interesting challenge," says Robert Rugolo, a supervisor in the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration. "Every teacher has his or her own style, using visual aids, group leadership and team building. I've been in one (class) where we had a bunch of squeaky rubber toys being thrown around representing tasks, to get the team to work together."
By trying to meet so many needs simultaneously, the Graduate School — open to all adults regardless of their work status or educational background — is something of an anomaly, as well as largely a mystery to a public not familiar with its dual mission.
Present-day operations aren't so unusual considering the school's origins, says Acting Executive Director Lynn Edwards in an interview in his office in the Agriculture Department's South Building. Its mission couldn't be more timely, he says, in an era when the federal government is worried about attracting and keeping managerial personnel.
"Initially, the experience in the Department of Agriculture was the same. They had a turnover between 1910 and 1919, where they lost 400 scientists. The issue at that time was both salary and opportunity to strength one's skills. The same challenge exists today, with the work force looking to strengthen one's skills."
A younger generation, he says, "tend to be focused on the here and now, on short-term rewards for their efforts as opposed to a long-term career. The work force today is looking for 'what is in it for me.' If it isn't in the salary, then hopefully there is opportunity to better oneself through on-job experience and training."
Defining the school's special niche as the "areas of human resources and financial management," Mr. Edwards, a District native who has been with the school for 30 years, doesn't completely agree with a description of the institution as an ad-hoc community college.
"Federal agencies are able to go to traditional community colleges (for training courses), but we tend to offer courses that may not be seen as a priority by other providers. We make a conscientious effort to stay current, as in the latest policies and procedures that come from the executive office or Congress. We are a provider of choice. No one is required to use us. Hence our constant change of catalogs."

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