Arts & Culture

Passion for lifelong learning spurs return to online ‘classroom’ for arts admin grad

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photo of Anne Stephens in her cap and gown with performance posters on wall behind her

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 14, 2022)  As one of the nation’s only community arts extension agents, it is Anne Stephens' job to provide a variety of educational experiences to residents of all ages in Greenup County, Kentucky.

So, it was only natural for her to “walk the walk” and pursue a graduate degree made possible by her employer, the University of Kentucky.  

Stephens, the UK extension agent for community arts and development in Greenup County, was first attracted to the arts at an early age.

“My parents say that I was always singing as a child — that has never changed!" she said. "I took piano lessons all through elementary school and still enjoy playing piano and organ at church.”

In high school, Stephens played the clarinet in concert band and trombone in marching band. She was also in choir, show choir and jazz band, which changed her life.

“The best thing that ever happened was when my (high school) band director, Terry Thompson, asked me to sing with the jazz band," she said. "I learned that it was something that I truly loved. I still love singing with a Big Band to this day.”

Thompson’s mentorship, as well as a strong connection with choir director, Sydonna Hobbs, helped Stephens become a leader and gave her the skills to work in a well-organized, high level performing group.

With a passion for the arts, Stephens knew she would pursue music at the collegiate level. She studied voice and piano as a music student and sang in Concert Choir, Chamber Singers and the Jazz Fusion Ensemble at Morehead State University. She also sang with a rock/country band on weekends. At Morehead, Stephens expanded her repertoire under the guidance and encouragement of Jay Flippin.

Stephens’ targeted interest in arts administration came after years of experience working as a performing artist. She decided to hone her management skills to help fellow artists succeed.

“Many musicians and artists are not skilled at marketing and managing themselves and many event organizers or community leaders are not skilled in hiring professional musicians," she said. "I realized that I could be the person to bridge that gap and make sure that the arts stay valued.

“I also became interested in connecting professional and amateur musicians as well as public and private studio arts education. I knew that my years of piano lessons made me a better band and choir student, but there was no formal connection between any of those experiences.”

Stephens worked with several artists, schools and organizations to make these connections, and made a connection of her own that would open her world up to UK Cooperative Extension.

“I was never part of extension programming as a kid growing up. It wasn’t until Greenup County hired the second extension arts agent in the state, Cora Hughes, that I learned about extension,” Stephens said. “I was working at a local school as the director of a performing arts center when Cora asked me to join her advisory council. I quickly learned that Cora was the person I wanted to be when I grew up (although I was already an adult)! I continue to strive to honor her professionalism, drive, work ethic and encouraging personality. She taught me that you can love being a musician and being an arts administrator at the same time without one taking away from the other.”

And now it was time to put together all those skills she acquired teaching others to return to the classroom — but this time, virtually.

“Working for UK Extension is the best job I have ever had. I plan to keep this job and grow with this job until I retire,” Stephens said. “None of my previous employers offered tuition assistance and I never took it upon myself to invest in my own continued formal education. When I became a full-time extension agent, I qualified for the Employee Education Program (EEP) that pays 100% tuition at UK. I immediately started researching online programs at UK.

“When I learned that the M.A. in Arts Administration was built to be completely online, I was excited to get started,” Stephens said. “It is the perfect fit for my job and a great way for me to expand my skills to do my job better. UK, as an employer, rewards continuing education with pay scale increases that will help my family. I very much appreciate that opportunity.”

The online master’s degree in arts administration worked well for Stephens because she could organize her schedule without the need to attend in-person classes, and with the assistance of her team and local arts supporters. She also could look at the entire semester at once and plan out her schedule to allow for each week’s work. Stephens particularly enjoyed sharing ideas and projects with her fellow classmates. Many courses encouraged group Zoom meetings which made the online communication much more personal.

With these connections, the online program often fit in to the work she was already doing, benefiting her in real time.

“Every professor I had in the UK Department of Arts Administration brought to the class real-world experience in the arts from across the country. I learned of many real-world and current examples of how the curriculum connects to jobs and arts organizations.

“I always tried to do projects in my classes that I could put into practice in my job. Currently, I am working on a project to design the interior of a new farmers market pavilion. I will be using my final class presentation in our construction project with our own county market structure,” Stephens explained.

With the opportunity to network and use class to explore ways to better her own extension programming, Stephens found many benefits to her EEP experience.

“I can truly say that my graduate studies were relevant and useful to my career in arts extension," she said. "I have made new contacts with professors, other students, and learned about aspects of my job that I didn’t even know I could do. I feel more qualified to lead my program and have the resources to answer questions and help grow the creative economy in my community.”

And Stephens would encourage others to explore online education and other lifelong learning opportunities, too.

“I believe that it is important to keep pursuing advancement throughout life," she said. "We never get too old to learn and to have new experiences. Exercising the mind has the same result as exercising the body. The more we do, the more we are able to do. I believe that if we embrace learning, we are better equipped to continue contributing to the culture of our communities whether we are working or volunteering. Both are important!”  

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $501 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.