When Barbara Elfman was 18, she had a difficult decision to make. She wanted to pursue her bachelor’s degree, but needed to begin earning an income.
“I completed a two-year nursing degree,” Elfman said. “I worked as a nurse for 10 years, got married, and started my family. But I always felt this loss at not having a bachelor’s degree.”
After leaving nursing to raise her children, Elfman returned to her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College in 2001 — when her children were then 8, 11, and 14 — and graduated with a B.A. in art history in 2005. When she joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) as administrative director of the Advanced Studies Program in 2006, Elfman was intrigued by the opportunity to pursue her master’s degree at Harvard.
“After a year of getting comfortable in my position, I started taking courses,” Elfman said. “I was fortunate in that I was not only allowed, but encouraged, to take classes. Richard Light, the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education, and Sally Schwager, former faculty member of the Teaching Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), both strongly encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree.”
“Their encouragement definitely reinforced my interest in continuing my education,” Elfman said. “There are a lot of people like me who didn’t have the opportunity to attain their degrees in the early part of their lives, and students of a nontraditional age have a lot to offer in the classroom as well.”
Elfman applied to HGSE to pursue her master’s degree parttime, and took advantage of Harvard’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to defray the cost. Deciding to continue her education, however, was the easy part.
“My greatest concern was how I would manage it,” Elfman said. “It wasn’t just being part of a master’s program, but also taking the GRE, which was an immense undertaking. I studied for a whole summer to prepare for it. I also had my three children, a husband, a house, and a dog, so I had a lot on my plate. I ultimately felt that, if I was accepted to the program, it would not just be an unbelievable opportunity, but an incredible benefit.”
Accepted into the HGSE degree program in 2009, with some of the course work she had already completed at Harvard counting toward her degree, Elfman took three classes per year and became a master of time management.
“The most difficult part of being a full-time employee and pursuing a master’s degree parttime is that you just don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of a lot of interactions outside of the classroom,” Elfman said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to stay after class and go to lunch with my fellow students, for example, or go out a lot in the evenings, because I have a family. So it can sometimes be a lonely experience in that respect.”
In May, Elfman graduated with a master’s in education, with a focus in arts and education. “I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to study with some amazing professors, and students in the class added such richness to the experience,” Elfman said. “I was very proud that I had the opportunity and that I completed the degree.”
Although Elfman takes pride in her achievement, she cautions that the program may not work for those who aren’t willing to make sacrifices. “You’re going to have to give things up, and you have to be prepared for that,” she said. “You have to prioritize. You have to do a lot of soul-searching and make sure that this is something you’re going to dedicate a lot of time to. Your family, your work, and your education need to be your top three priorities, and other things may have to fall by the wayside.”
Professionally, Elfman said the academic achievement has not only enriched her understanding and appreciation of Harvard, but also her grasp of the student point of view.
“I can now deeply connect with the students I see,” Elfman said. “As an employee, it’s wonderful to get to know Harvard from the student perspective — and I’m that much better as an administrator because I can now see things from both sides. I’ve also learned a lot about the pedagogical side of teaching. When students ask me questions, I can draw upon what I’ve learned to give better answers. And because I’ve been a student myself, I have a very strong understanding of what they’re going through.”
“It’s lovely that HGSE offers this opportunity to employees,” Elfman said.
Asked if she had any interest in pursuing an additional master’s or even a doctorate, Elfman laughed. “I oversee two doctorate programs, the Doctor of Design Ph.D. program and the Master in Design Studies program, so I think this is it,” she said. “But if I have the luxury of sitting in on a lecture or auditing a class, I’ll do it.”