Kay Zimmerman is leaving NC State behind when she retires Jan. 1, but the work she did for current and prospective students will endure.
The associate vice provost for marketing and partnership development at DELTA has dedicated two decades to online and distance education. When she came to NC State in August 2001, electronic distance learning meant VHS tapes and DVDs, and marketing was print and traditional media. Now high-speed internet, search-engine optimization and websites that are one-stop shops for information are tools to help students identify their best educational paths.
“I came to NC State because of the opportunities I saw,” Zimmerman says. “Working together and bringing resources and technologies together to meet the needs of our changing student body.” And she stayed because the opportunities to expand access to an NC State education kept growing.
“I didn’t think in terms of 20 years,” she says. “I was thinking in terms of the strategy, the changes that would take place and the opportunities to be involved in those initiatives, working with the best people. It’s always a team.”
Looking Through Students’ Eyes
What do students need? What do students want?
Zimmerman has asked those questions continuously over the years, using market research and data to guide the answers — and putting herself in the shoes of today’s young adults.
“What is the return on investment for our students? From my perspective and working with my colleagues, obviously an education is an ROI,” she says. “But what are our students thinking? What do prospective students look for?”
The answer, she says, is a career. And that prompted the creation of an online and distance education website unique in higher ed. DELTA used a platform called Burning Glass to compile employment data and trends in the state, region and nation across a variety of career fields and occupations, such as aerospace engineering management, blood bank technology and public relations. Students, current and otherwise, can learn about salary ranges, educational requirements, job outlook, related programs and more. They can then use that information to find the right academic path to their career goals. How much of a difference does a master’s degree make? Are job prospects better in North Carolina or out of state? DELTA’s website is a resource to help answer those questions.
“Our students may not know about all of their career opportunities. We had to think big,” Zimmerman says of the website that launched in March 2020. “We created a website that is used for all 120 programs of all colleges that offer online programs. This helps our students begin to understand we have the best and most highly qualified faculty. We have a curriculum that is relevant.”
It’s not Zimmerman’s first foray into online learning. In 2006 she was the lead in the development of UNC Online, a website developed by the University of North Carolina System to help people figure out what they wanted to study and what their options were across the system’s 16 campuses, whether they were looking into an undergraduate or graduate degree. In 2009 she co-led the development of the governor’s eLearningNC.gov portal for online programs.
“Even though it’s been a long time and it’s changed and transformed, UNC Online is still alive,” Zimmerman says. “That to me is exciting because our future students — our high school students, even our middle school students — if we can inform them and educate them about higher education opportunities? Wow, that’s great. I hope that my involvement and engagement in those initiatives have really helped individuals to make a difference in their lives.”
It Takes a Learning Village
Opportunities are one pillar of Zimmerman’s career. The other is teamwork.
“It’s all about, how do you build a team? How do you get people to work together for the best outcome?” Zimmerman says. “The strengths that each person has that they bring to an initiative to make it successful and sustainable, that’s powerful.”
So many of her achievements at NC State are because of collaboration, Zimmerman says, whether with former Vice Provost Tom Miller back when she arrived in 2001, with colleagues systemwide on UNC Online or with DELTA co-workers on a multitude of projects over the decades.
“I’ll miss the collaboration, the great people, their knowledge and their strengths,” she says. “Even more so now than previously, this is a time of change. We need innovation. We need to work together. We need to be willing to envision new initiatives and new capabilities that will prepare our students for their future.”
But she’s looking forward to a new phase of life, with plans to travel with her husband and spend more time with her four grandchildren — “I’ve got to make certain they’re techies,” she says with a laugh.
And maybe there will be opportunities to use the knowledge and skills she gained at NC State and DELTA down the road. Zimmerman hasn’t ruled it out. She’s leaving the university behind, but not her passion for education, technology and helping people.
“It’s the first time in my life that I’m taking a step forward without having a master plan and everything laid out,” she says. “It’s going to be even more exciting for my retirement adventures.”
This post was originally published in NC State News.