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Learning administrative skills that have value in every field

Tidewater Community College’s “The Firm” is not your ordinary classroom. In fact, it’s not a classroom at all.

TCC’s Portsmouth Campus houses “The Firm,” the administrative support technology (AST) program that provides students with an array of skills in preparation for work as administrative assistants, executive assistants, or office managers in fields such as business, government, medical and education.

Traditional cubicles take the place of a classroom, and instead of lectures, students attend business meetings where they receive their assignments, known as modules. The instructor is known as the director.

“The skills students develop in this program are used in every business structure,” says Debra Wells, professor of administrative support technology. “Every business environment requires effective communication, processing of data, maintaining of records and effective decision making. Businesses can’t survive without capable administrative assistants.”

Students in the AST program initially take classes that include keyboarding and records and database management and later move into business communications, medical office procedures and specialized software applications classes. Students generally work toward an associate of applied science degree, although a career studies certificate option is available.

“I really push my students to attain the degree program, because the number of credits is not vastly different,” Wells says.

Wells, who started work at 16 as a switchboard operator and has held a multitude of administrative positions, holds a bachelor’s in business education from Norfolk State University. She earned her master’s in education administration and supervision from Regent University and is currently completing a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

“My lectures are business meetings,” she says. “We host these meetings to discuss the information needed to complete modules as an instructor would do in a regular classroom, such as soft skills and formatting for example. We do have an agenda and, at times, an administrative assistant will take minutes.”

Deadlines, except for the final for the semester, are flexible. Students have the opportunity to submit work and then resubmit for a grade as high as 85 percent.

“They’re given a window of freedom, and some utilize it properly and others misuse it,” Wells says. “You have to set personal deadlines and take personal responsibility for learning. The whole concept of “The Firm” is to empower students to take responsibility and accountability for their learning.”

“The Firm” began in 2005 and has assisted in the administrative support technology program’s growth in enrollment with as many as 344 students filling seats this fall.

“I would say we have a 97 to 98 percent job placement rate because of the skills that students leave TCC with,” Wells says.

Shaina Yowell graduated summa cum laude from the program in 2009, interned at TCC’s Center for Workforce Solutions and was later hired as a full-time administrative and office specialist there.

“The program was invaluable to me,” she says. ”It gave me the opportunity to experience what it is like in an office environment.”

Yowell says, in particular, she learned to find solutions with the resources that were available in “The Firm.” “You really learn critical thinking skills,” Yowell says. “Instead of just going directly to teachers, you have to find the answers yourself.”

Students have also interned with Sentara, Bon Secours and the Maryview Foundation among others. Wells also has students regularly complete paid internships with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which allows them to receive benefits, books, tuition reimbursement and paid sick and vacation leave.

“If you desire to move up the ladder, you have to develop a range of skills,” Wells says. “Ideally we will expand into a lot of our community-based businesses. This program provides a great opportunity for students and improves their lives as a whole.”