Perhaps Ashley and Chris Pinkard’s wedding vows should have included “in education and in employment” to go along with “in sickness and in health.”
First, the couple switched from taking on-campus to online courses together at Arkansas State University. Although they completed their bachelor’s degrees in different months, Ashley and Chris both graduated in 2015. Now, they are both enrolled in A-State’s online Master of Public Administration degree program and plan to graduate in December 2017.
The couple also had full-time jobs at A-State pretty much fall into their laps. Chris has been a program coordinator in human resources for seven months, while Ashley has been a grant accountant in sponsored programs accounting for 10 months.
“We had no idea working here would happen,” Ashley said. “I thought, ‘We can’t get away from each other.’”
The Pinkards welcomed their first and only child, Caroline, into the world while they were in school in 2013. In fact, Ashley was in her hospital room working on final exams while she waited to go into labor.
“It was pretty intense,” Chris said. “It was certainly one of those testing moments. When we were through, we felt, ‘Well, I guess none of the rest of it is going to be that bad.’”
Caroline was a big motivating factor for both Ashley and Chris to continue their higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree.
“When we started talking about whether or not we wanted to do a master’s after we graduated, a lot of it was thinking about our daughter and going, ‘Neither one of us had anyone to look at who had already done it. It would be great to have those degrees hanging on the wall in the house so that she knows that’s something she can do,’” Chris said.
Ashley said she would like to continue the higher education example for her daughter.
“I want to get a Ph.D. because I want to show her that’s something she can obtain — particularly for me as a woman,” she said. “I want her to see that’s a thing you do that is totally accessibly to her. That’s up there in my top two reasons.”
Different Aspirations, Same Degree
Ashley and Chris, who both earned Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies degrees, had different reasons for continuing into the MPA program. Ashley is a lifelong political enthusiast interested in public service, while Chris, a former newspaper reporter, hopes to eventually become a grant writer for public schools.
“I was really close with all of the administration in Blytheville [Arkansas] Public Schools because that was one of the things I had covered as a reporter for four years,” Chris said. “The superintendent [Richard Atwill] and I were really close. He was really encouraging me. He said, ‘With your skill set and everything I know about you, I think this would be a really good path for you.’ It just worked out that my wife and I are wanting to take it separate directions, but the degree plan itself fit what we both wanted.”
Ashley, a former bank teller and trust administrator, says she has already landed her ideal job.
“I have always wanted to work in a field where I can make a difference for the public,” she said. “I kind of did that in my banking experience, because I worked for a community development bank, and that’s what really sparked my interest in pursuing the MPA. I knew that it would open up many more doors in public service.
“Even though I don’t have my MPA yet, I’ve moved into a position I’ve always wanted to do, and I already have a job I wanted. It’s already opened so many doors I never thought it would.”
“Having somebody there who was also going through it was big,” Chris said. “Most of the time it worked out where we could take the same classes, so we were able to flesh out our ideas with each other. I don’t know if I would have fared as well had I just done it by myself.”
Ashley said she also enjoys being able to discuss different courses and professors with Chris.
“When you’re not in a traditional class, it’s nice to have your husband there so you can ask, ‘The professor said this. What do you think this means?’” she said. “We do work a lot differently, though, which can be challenging. I’m very organized. I’m a very black-and-white person, and he is very idealistic.
“Sometimes working on assignments isn’t as easy as it could be because of those differences, but it still helps having that person there. In terms of stress, we know why this person is stressed out or why this person needs time to themselves.”
Ashley and Chris met while they were attending Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville. However, Chris decided A-State was the university that made the most sense for him. He transferred, and Ashley followed suit the next school year.
“When I was looking for a university, A-State was within driving distance,” he said. “We were already married, and we didn’t have to uproot our lives to make it work. It was largely convenience, but it’s also just being in this area. Everyone goes to school at A-State. You hear the stories. I knew people who had certain professors in the same programs I was looking to go into, and they spoke really highly of the professors. I just kind of figured that was going to be the best fit.”
Ashley said she now knows firsthand the importance of online education.
“We came from a rural area which does not have a lot of access to education,” she said. “The fact we were able to study online with an accredited university like A-State really helped us because a lot of people can’t get to classes because of where they’re from.
“It’s super important that A-State is offering this to people who didn’t have access like us. It’s important to know that it’s actually helping people move into careers.”
Because they both had to have full-time jobs during their undergraduate degree programs, online was the only way Ashley and Chris could stay in school.
“When I started at the newspaper, I couldn’t work it out,” Chris said. “Honestly, I just didn’t think I was going to finish. My adviser back then said, ‘Hey, you might want to look into this.’”
The convenience proved to be a determining factor for both Pinkards, and Ashley’s many aspirations also influenced her decision to pursue the degree online.
“Then, we decided, ‘Let’s start a family.’ It was extremely overwhelming, but the ease and flexibility of the classes made it easier. Doing finals from your hospital bed is not ideal, but it was nice I was able to do it at all. It can be stressful, but it’s not bad,” Ashley said.
Ashley and Chris are both excited that they can finally see the finish line for the MPA program. However, they continue to benefit greatly from the curriculum.
“We had a course on ethics that I really loved,” Chris said. “I enjoy that discussion around ethics — what is and isn’t ethical. The assignments were great. The reading itself was not something I dreaded. I looked forward to sitting down and reading whatever it was going to be that week.
“When I did my grant writing class, it was really beneficial, and I learned a lot. Also, when I was doing that, I had just started working at the Jonesboro Sun. One of my contacts in the county ended up being the instructor for that grant writing course. I built up a really good relationship with him and got to see some of his grant writing put into motion.”
Ashley has had three courses she has loved so far — Administrative Ethics [POSC 6623], Grant Writing and Administration [POSC 6573] and Public Policy Analysis and Evaluation [POSC 6533].
“My thoughts first entering the program were more along the lines of affecting public policy and courses like that,” she said. “Now that I’ve gotten into what I do at A-State, this seems like a good career path for me. I’m financially minded, and I also get to work with funding. I’m also kind of law-minded, and I get to work with things like that, as well.”
Although they attended each other’s college graduation ceremonies, the Pinkards are looking forward to walking the stage to receive their Master of Public Administration degrees together.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Ashley joked. “I’m looking forward to graduating with him, but it’s a situation of who’s going to keep our daughter?”
Learn more about the A-State online MPA program.