The College Life for Any Age
By Tiffany King
Erika Ward graduated from the College of Coastal Georgia with more than just a degree—she enjoyed the full college experience that she thought had passed her by.
Ward, 37, attended the College as a non-traditional student and is married with three children. She previously earned an online associate's degree in business management from the College, then worked in banking and took time off to raise her children. Ward was going to pursue medical coding through the American Academy of Professional Coder's online courses when she learned that employers in that career field wanted prospective employees to have one to two years of experience for entry-level positions. Unsure about how to proceed, she inquired at the College and was informed about internship opportunities and the health informatics program that included medical coding. She returned to the College in spring 2018 to major in health informatics.
"I decided I would rather have a village behind me than go at it alone," Ward said. "All I knew about health informatics was the medical coding, but the more I learned about the administrative side of healthcare and the IT side—because this degree combines both—it fit me to a T. It's been great."
Ward graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Health Informatics. In June, she was named a winner of the 2020 Georgia Health Information and Management Systems Society's David Cowan scholarship for $3,000. Ward is the third Coastal Georgia student to be awarded the scholarship since 2016. The previous winners were Felicia Baggs (spring 2016) and Alexis Bell (spring 2017.) More than 25 applications were submitted for the scholarship, and the top eight scoring students were selected based on the quality of their written essays on different topics. Ward and the rest of this year's recipients will be honored with a virtual ceremony on July 8. Winning the scholarship was a very big surprise for Ward, but it also had a deeper meaning.
"To get recognition outside of the College on a state-level gave me hopes for the future. It gave me confidence to make the next step, make a mark in this career field, and embark on what the College has prepared me for," she said.
Ward hopes to one day work at a physician's practice or in a hospital. She intends to use the scholarship toward furthering her education in graduate school.
A Turning Point
The decision to step out of her comfort zone and get involved in organizations after returning to the College was a turning point for Ward. She is grateful that professors Lee McKinley, associate professor of health informatics, and Dr. Ian Easton, assistant professor of health informatics and healthcare administration, encouraged students to get involved with professional organizations such as the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).
"They were right, not only because of the scholarship, but also because I got to see what my job looks like in real life and I met people who are actually doing it," Ward said. "I've gone to several HIMSS conferences that enhanced what I learned at school. I met people in the field, which gave me connections, practical applications, and were good resources for projects."
When Ward first started her classes on campus, she planned to stay to herself.
"I had the feeling that this is not my time—it's for the younger students. I thought that I just needed to get through this and catch up. Everything I thought about what college life would be, I thought had passed me by because I got my associate's online," she said.
She became active in the Health Informatics Association (HIA) campus organization to know more about her field, and once she did, she started to feel a part of something bigger. Ward eventually became president of HIA and then was encouraged to apply for the Presidential Student Ambassador Program. She served as president of that organization and was a senator in the Student Government Association.
"I did have the college experience I missed way back then. You can experience it even at this age. It's so much more than an education. There's so much more than classes. Because of those relationships I made in those organizations, I feel like I am better prepared for what's next," Ward said. "It's all the extras that the College offers too—like the education training with interviews and resumes. They go above and beyond to prepare us. I'm so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone even though I thought I was too old and that this wasn't my time—it actually was. It doesn't matter how old you are."
Part of Something Bigger
Ward enjoyed her time at the College and shared two of her favorite moments. During her first semester on campus, Ward took statistics with Dr. Syvillia Averett, assistant professor of mathematics. She was nervous because math was not her best subject in school.
"Dr. Averett told me that no one had ever gotten a 100 on her final exam—but I got a 106," Ward said while laughing. "She did a great job. She was an awesome professor. I overcame that first hurdle of thinking 'Can I do this?'"
Another favorite moment was her involvement with HIA. HIA is a small organization, she said, and like most clubs it is sometimes difficult to attract new members. Ward and her officers tried a new tactic. They visited classes related to the health informatics field and introduced themselves and the club to students.
"We had multiple people show up to the next meeting from doing that. I was excited that other people were becoming involved. My officers and I had a part in that and were part of something bigger. That was the first time I felt that feeling and it only continued to grow with each thing we did," she said.
Ward advises students—especially non-traditional students—to challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zone.
"College is more than just a classroom," she said. "You're going to be scared at first, but you will be so thankful later—I promise."
Knowing that no one is ever too old to enjoy college, Ward encouraged her husband Andrew Ward to attend the College. He is now a student at Coastal Georgia studying environmental science with dreams of being a park ranger.