Professional development: A win-win for CLAS AND its employees

Jen Knights received a Mary Jo Small Staff Fellowship to pursue her professional goals
Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Jen KnightsExcelling at a job in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences means simply completing a bulleted list of job tasks which—presumably—taps into skills and education the employee already has, right? Doesn’t a degree in hand and work experience under the belt equate to a smooth career path?

“Professionals are increasingly called upon to do more with less—not just at Iowa but in the work world in general,” says Jen Knights, a marketing and community engagement specialist in the School of Social Work.

An advocate for professional development, Knights believes that cross-training and broadening an existing skill set increases an employee’s value and flexibility both in their current positions and in their future careers. “Professional development is just a smart investment for the UI.”

“Being supported with the Mary Jo Small Fellowship monies tells me that the UI values me as a person and contributes to my job satisfaction and feelings of empowerment.”  —Jen Knights, School of Social Work

Learn more about the Mary Jo Small Staff Fellowship—and how to apply—on the UI Human Resources website. Also, check out the Mary Louise Kelley Staff Development Award, a similar program housed in CLAS HR.

Knights isn’t just speaking theoretically about professional growth; she’s living it.

“In my job, I’m a one-woman marketing operation. I learned on my own how to ‘make things’ like ads, videos, and social media posts, all without the formal training of a graphic designer,” she said.

Yet, without proficiencies in the powerful software that graphic designers typically use—Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and PhotoShop—Knights felt her career path was narrowed.

Leaning in, she sought resources to fortify her knowledge through Iowa’s Mary Jo Small Staff Fellowship. The award defrays educational costs for UI staff members who hold a regular appointment of 50 percent or greater and have been currently employed for two or more consecutive years.

Armed with funding from the fellowship, Knights headed back to the classroom at Kirkwood Community College last spring where she’s earning a certificate in graphic design.

“The graphic design coursework helps me learn the language of graphic design. This in turn will make me a better collaborator and client of designers that I may work with in the future,” she said. “And it gives me more sophisticated tools in my toolbox to execute the DIY design work that I will continue to do as part of my job.”

Knights contends that her enriched skill set extends beyond the walls of her department in North Hall, however, including her membership on the CLAS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; Campus Communications Council; the Inclusive Marketing Guide Work Group; and Council on Disabilities Awareness.

“I bring my whole self (and all my skills) to all areas of my employment. As I gain proficiency, learn current techniques, and update my knowledge, my new skills benefit the University of Iowa as a whole,” she said.

While the help with tuition fees is welcomed, Knights also acknowledges that a sacrifice of personal time is a different cost, as she lives in Iowa City and attends evening classes at Kirkwood’s main campus in Cedar Rapids. Luckily, her family is “totally supportive,” of her professional development, adding that her 16-year-old son thinks it’s “cool” that she’s learning graphic design.

“I realize I’m adding hours of work to my week, but it helps me to remember that this is for me, too,” she said. “If I think of it in terms of self-love and personal growth, it helps me accommodate the extra labor that I’ve invited into my life. Being supported with the fellowship monies tells me that the UI values me as a person and contributes to my job satisfaction and feelings of empowerment.”

CLAS staffers are encouraged to use the Resource Guide for Professional Development compiled by the Education Committee of the CLAS Staff Council. Each month during the 2021-22 academic year, a different topic will be featured.

Jen’s story highlights the “Degrees of Success” section.


The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.