As she takes out a paper from a notebook, Deborah Harkins tells a classmate across the table she was confused about where to find a source for the assignment. At the classmate’s answer, Harkins face goes from concerned to relief. “Oh good,” she says. “I was wondering where I was supposed to get that. I’m so glad I’m not the only one.”
Smiling, Harkins turns back to the front of the room, where her professor, Amanda Russell (pictured above with Harkins), is about to launch into a power point about influencer marketing on social media.
Harkins may not be the only one in this class of 25 students on the University of Texas campus who had a question about the homework. But she is the only one who has had a 30-year career in public policy. The only one who has testified before legislative committees and met with governors and senators on a regular basis. The only one with swooping gray streaks of hair framing her face, and surely the only one who didn’t know what a hashtag was before the semester started.
Dressed in a smart cream-and-navy-flecked jacket, crisp navy culottes, bold burgundy glasses, and a rope of pearls around her neck, Harkins, 69, is back in a classroom for the first time since she received her law degree in 1979. She is here to add to the knowledge and expertise she acquired over her years in government and the corporate world and “take it to another level,” as she says. She is here as a TOWER Fellow.
Getting to Austin
The TOWER Fellows Program is an innovative new initiative at the University of Texas that provides people at the end of their careers the chance to discover, reflect, and prepare for whatever they decide comes next. Harkins and the 11 other fellows in the program for the 2019-2020 academic year are able to pick from 12,000 courses with more than 2,000 curated recommendations, both undergraduate and graduate, in a wide range of subjects. TOWER Fellows receive individualized guidance as they plan a curriculum and make their way in a higher education system that has changed drastically since the last time they sat in a lecture hall.
Harkins found her way to Austin from her long-time hometown of New Orleans, where she worked for a law firm and government relations group, served on the zoning board, and on the board for the Jazz Festival. A couple of years ago, she was feeling restless at her job. Her husband, Corky, had retired from his orthodontist practice. Her two sons were long grown and on their own. She had an itch and the means to scratch it took shape when she read a story about four university programs, including UT TOWER Fellows, for those at the end of one career who are looking to pivot to the next phase. “I cut it out, stuck it on the wall and told my husband, `This is what I want to do.’”
The TOWER Fellows program was the most appealing, she says, because because it focused on the individual’s path, and because Austin has a vibrant business culture.
Back on Campus
For her first semester, she worked with her faculty mentor (each fellow is assigned one) to choose her courses. Picking among the many options, so many of which were enticing to her, was the hardest part of the program, she says. She ended up taking mostly business and finance classes. Her idea has been to supplement her experience in government and regulation with an education on the business side. Harkins would like to work with startups, either as a consultant, on the board, or as an investor. “The missing link for me was the business side,” she ways. Last fall she took courses on venture capital, investment theory, and cybersecurity law and privacy.
“I really like being pushed in areas I never have been before,” she says, reporting that she didn’t know what “block chain” was before she started in her new studies.
She did take one class last semester that was in familiar territory–public policy. She signed up for the class because she has such respect for the professor, Bobby Inman, a retired Navy Admiral who served as director of the National Security Administration. Since she had experience in the area, Inman asked her to be a mentor to a group of students on a project. “I was happy I could do something for the students. I think they loved it too, and they all made As,” she says, beaming.
Freedom to Explore
The first couple of weeks of classes were a hefty readjustment for Harkins. “You’re figuring out where your classes are and are getting back into the rhythm of studying,” she says. But the transition was helped along by being part of the TOWER Fellows program. Around her were other students in the same circumstances—starting a new phase of their lives after notable careers—and the camaraderie was important for easing the way. “We’re all in the same mindset,” Harkins says, speaking of the other fellows. “Being surrounded by young people could be very intimidating, but doing this together makes all the difference. We’ve created a network and made friends for life.”
In addition to the classes and the regular program lectures, the fellows get special access to campus activities. For instance, on the day of the interview, Harkins and the other fellows were attending an Evening with Brené Brown on campus. They also participate in mentoring, volunteering, field trips, and social gatherings featuring noted authors, scholars, and industry experts. Spouses are invited to attend these extracurricular events, and Harkins reports that her husband is having a great time, meeting new friends and getting a taste of Austin. It all adds up to about 40 hours of work per week—even though Harkins is officially auditing the classes, though she does complete most assignments.
“I didn’t want to be stressed out,” she says. “I feel like a freshman in many ways, but the big difference is I don’t have that anxiety of, `What will I do? Will I succeed?’ Everything I’m doing is fresh and new but at the same time accommodating and relaxing.”
This semester, Harkins allowed herself one “fun” class, which she chose from the dizzying number of options under the Global Culture category in the catalog. Art and Architecture in Ancient Peru indulges both her love for art and South America. The rest of her classes are geared to improving her knowledge of technology and social media, such as the influencer marketing class.
Always an achiever, Harkins has taken on more demands this semester. She is working with a startup nanotechnology company, helping the sales team get the company’s products to market. “I’m sowing some seeds, seeing what sprouts,” she says.
Back at her class on influencer marketing, the professor Amanda Russell compliments Harkins on her progress. “I brag to everyone about you!” she exclaims. “I can’t believe you didn’t know how to use Instagram before this. You’ve got a really good eye.”
Harkins smiles and mimes typing on her smart phone. “Well, what takes everyone else two seconds, takes me forever. I’m always thinking, `Now, what was that I’m supposed to do?’ But I truly believe—never stop learning.”
This article is the second of a three-part series sponsored by UT’s TOWER Fellows program.
Photos by Lori Gola.
The TOWER Fellows program is seeking exceptional individuals for the 2020-21 academic year who:
After decades of success now seek to embrace a new life learning path
Are ready to explore, consider, and experience new ways of thinking and learning
Are eager to actively contribute to a unique, multigenerational university
Want to experience the energy, fun, and camaraderie of being part of a campus community again