Free courses add an upside to downtime


Elyssa Wenzel, left, of the Federal Trade Commission, Erika Brown of the Peace Corps and Samson Teffera, right, of the Labor Department, are seen during a Georgetown University social media strategy class for furloughed federal workers. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Glenda Crunk said she was forced to make difficult choices when the government shutdown began, such as whether she should spend her limited funds on medicine, food or gas for her car. She called it her “ramen noodle budget.”

But instead of worrying at home, watching television for the latest updates on the nation’s budget stalemate, the 53-year-old Defense Department employee chose to broaden her horizons during the downtime. She and about 240 other furloughed workers enrolled in free courses at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Many of them say it has been a welcome break.

“It’s like heaven on earth,” said Crunk, an equal opportunity specialist.

The furloughed workers have been taking classes at the school’s Massachusetts Avenue NW campus since Oct. 8, enrolling in one of six courses ranging from project management to patient navigation, which teaches students how to be a patient advocate and help people navigate health-care systems.


Adjunct faculty member Larry Joseph addresses his project management fundamentals class as Georgetown University offers classes for furloughed federal workers on Oct. 10. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“I just thought it was a wonderful opportunity to learn something new,” said Jennifer Kaplan, who was furloughed from her public affairs job at the Environmental Protection Agency. She is taking a social media strategy course through the Georgetown program.

Walter Rankin, the school’s dean, knows the realities of the shutdown all too well. His longtime partner was furloughed. Just 48 hours after a conversation with other university leaders about how many people at Georgetown knew a furloughed worker, the free courses were born.

“If they can take this time and actually have genuine time for themselves to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have time to do, I think that would be the perfect thing for them to get,” Rankin said.

The “furlough” courses run from one day to four days, depending on the subject, and they are taught by volunteers and paid adjunct faculty who teach certificate programs at the school.

Andrew Lewandowski, the school of continuing education’s director of communications, said the university first offered 100 free seats to furloughed workers. Demand for the courses was so great that the school added an additional 140 seats to fit people into the six courses. There is now a wait list.

This week, Georgetown plans to offer twice as many courses and twice as many seats to furloughed workers. The free courses will continue even though the shutdown is ending, and some furloughed workers stayed with the courses even after they were recalled to their jobs.

The university announced that it will offer a total of 485 seats in 13 courses, including online political organizing, leadership communication and career visioning for managers.

Rankin said he hoped that the courses would help federal workers stay connected and engaged and that workers would come to understand, through the courses, that the school looks at each of them as a whole person.

“We understand your job, your family, your work, your feelings of anxiety about the furlough,” Rankin said. “And if they’re able to take [that] with them . . . and have these real conversations with each other, we will have really accomplished something.”

Course instructors said they didn’t know what to expect when classes began. What Georgetown got was a steady stream of people, of widely varying ages, from many federal agencies and from across the region. Some said that getting up early to commute into the city made them feel as if there wasn’t a shutdown.

“This was a very positive, reactive group,” said Larry Joseph, an adjunct professor who taught a project management course. “They participated, asked good questions. There was clear interest, and that was nice.”

Bradley A. Blakeman, an adjunct who co-taught a course on innovation and leadership in government, echoed Joseph’s feelings about the new students.

“Look, they could be easily kicking back watching television, but they’re here,” Blakeman said. “And the fact that they are here speaks a lot of them personally and professionally.”

Zaira Jimenez, a contractor with the General Services Administration, said she wanted to keep an open mind about new developments in her field. Given some extra time, Jiminez said, she was excited about the opportunity.

“For me, it’s always refreshing to learn something new,” she said. “It’s never too late to learn. Life is a continuous process of learning. . . . And it’s free. Who can beat that?”

Daniel Christiansen cooked, exercised, vacuumed his girlfriend’s house and even started taking an accounting class before signing up for a project management course at Georgetown.

“It was perfecting timing,” said Christiansen, a Department of Education management program analyst, who intended to stay productive while out of work. “It’s something I wanted to take anyway.”

Jennifer Banks, a contractor with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said buying a cup of coffee before a morning leadership class pained her because she had left a pot of coffee at home.

“At the beginning, I was really afraid about the bills that I would have to pay. I have a son in college, and I became really frightened for a moment,” said Banks, 50, of Alexandria. “And then I thought: ‘You know, it’s out of my control. What can I do? I can’t do anything.’ But I’m not going to stick my head in the sand. I’m going to find ways to be active.”

Banks — interviewed before Congress voted Wednesday to end the shutdown — said she planned to take another course at Georgetown. When asked why, she lowered her voice to a whisper, as if she were telling a secret:

“Well, ’cause I don’t know when the government will open.”

Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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