How does one go from being a history major with dreams of becoming a National Geographic reporter and end by becoming the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Institutional Effectiveness for the Virginia Community College System? Catherine Finnegan can tell you all about that journey.
“I had no interest in numbers or planning as a UGA undergraduate,” says Finnegan. I failed my first statistics and computer technologies course!” But a chance encounter between her father and a congressman in a grocery store led her to becoming an intern in Washington, D.C.
“I really enjoyed digging up data to answer constituent concerns and to support legislative initiatives. This interest led me to pursue a master’s degree in public administration at UGA.” Subsequently, after an enlightening stay at the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center as a strategic planner, Finnegan decided to pursue her doctorate.
“Minutes into my first conversation with Dr. Parker Young (of the IHE), I knew I had found a home that would combine my interests in administration with my love of colleges,” says Finnegan.
Upon her completion of her degree from the IHE, Finnegan assisted Dr. Libby Morris in her statewide healthcare personnel supply and demand study. “I found I had a knack for negotiating the pitfalls of large-scale surveying and for analyzing diverse data sources.” That work led her to a position with North Georgia College as the director of the college’s first Office of Institutional Research and Planning.
In 1990, Finnegan was hired by the University System of Georgia to head up a system wide SACS (Southern Association of Colleges & Schools) substantive change review for distance learning courses for 60 programs at 15 institutions. In addition, the SACS asked the University System of Georgia to develop and pilot techniques that would allow for their first fully distant review of such programs. “Luckily, we were successful in gaining approval for those programs and were an example for review changes at SACS,” says Finnegan.
Over the following ten years Finnegan continued her work assessing the effectiveness of information technology and online programs, also implementing the Georgia ONmyLINE program — a program dedicated to increasing access to public education by providing a database of on-line and distance education programs.
In 2010, Finnegan took the latest step in her on-going adventure when she moved to Richmond, Virginia. “I missed the challenge of working daily with college decision makers on strategic issues and wanted to return to institutional research. Luckily, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) was looking for a candidate with my unique set of skills and experiences to head up their Office of Institutional Effectiveness.” She goes on to explain, “The 23 colleges in the VCCS enroll over 400,000 students annually in academic and workforce courses. Presidents in the VCCS report to the Chancellor of the System, who is accountable to the 16-person appointed State Board. The System Office provides centralized support and policy development for the colleges. My role in institutional effectiveness at the VCCS has three major components: IR, datawarehousing and assessment.”
When thinking back on her time at the Institute of Higher Education, Finnegan reflects that, “The IHE program grounded me in the theories and practice of higher education, but (it) also gave me the tools to continue to study the field as I have progressed through my career.”
Finnegan’s words of advice to students come from her own life’s lessons. “Experience as much as you can in different fields that may not necessarily be the field you are in. You never know where your career will lead.”
A good lesson to learn from a former history major.