Pursuing Education and Certification—and Finding the Means to Pay for Them

Veterans benefits and employer support help benefits administrator overcome losses, make new gains

By Katherine Rawl, SHRM-CP March 12, 2020
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Katherine Rawl, SHRM-CP

​Katherine Rawl, SHRM-CP

​In June 2012, my husband was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan while serving with the South Carolina National Guard. I was 30 years old, working full time and taking care of my two young children. As I adjusted to the new path I was on, I knew that I wanted to further my career.

I had been working for about eight years as a benefits counselor for the state agency that administered retirement and insurance benefits for South Carolina public employees. I had learned enough to know that this was where I was called to be, to serve others.

Veterans Administration (VA) educational benefits were available to me as a surviving spouse. I was able to take advantage of them to go back to school and get my master's degree in HR Development from Clemson University online. There weren't any in-person classes, but with regular live online classes, I developed wonderful relationships with my classmates and professors.

I was excited to go to the graduation ceremony so that I could meet my peers and professors face to face. I had already booked a hotel room and made dinner reservations with several friends.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. Things moved so quickly that I was scheduled to have surgery the same weekend as graduation. I wasn't able to walk across the stage or see any friends and professors in person.

Advancing With or Without Employer Support

My master's degree enabled me to move into new positions with progressively more responsibilities.

In these jobs, I held more of a generalist role with a variety of responsibilities. There was not much support for professional development or much value placed on certification, mainly due to budgets; funds were always very hard to come by.

I joined SHRM, paying the dues out of my own pocket. I had not yet pursued certification because of the expenses, time and effort I knew it would take. (Quite honestly, I was also scared of the test!)

Now, in my current role as a benefits administrator on an HR staff of 20 serving 4,000 benefits-eligible employees, my duties are more focused. When I was first hired, the Benefits Department was part of Finance. About a year ago, it merged into HR. As we have settled into our new situation, we have learned to work together more cohesively. I also quickly saw that there were many opportunities for professional growth as a result of these changes.

Things were different here: The department valued professional development and certification—and it also had the means to provide financial support to staff pursuing these activities. While there was only one HR staff member who was certified, the department had paid for the related expenses and had also covered attendance at the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition.

This was the push I needed to start seriously working toward certification

I inquired about how I could receive funds toward certification or to go to the national conference. I was told there was a waiting list for funding because when we merged with HR, the budgets had already been planned and approved for the current year.

I knew that I was probably pretty far down the list and it would be quite a while before the department would cover my certification-related expenses. But I also knew that SHRM certification was something highly valued and would truly help me progress in my career.

More Benefits from VA—and Conference Attendance

Knowing that certification and the SHRM Annual Conference were off the table, I asked to attend the upcoming South Carolina SHRM state conference in October 2019, and my request was approved. I was thrilled that my boss agreed to send me—it would be my first time attending a SHRM conference or event.

In the meantime, I went back to the VA website and found that I could get my certification expenses paid through its vocational training benefits. I reached out to a local survivor benefits representative to apply for the VA to reimburse me for the cost of the exam. I could save my employer the cost and possibly become certified sooner than if I waited to get to the top of the waiting list.

So I signed up to take the SHRM-CP exam.

When I got to the state conference in Myrtle Beach, S.C., I met SHRM Field Services Director Nancy Conway, who asked if I was going to get certified. When I told her that I was registered for the exam, she kindly told me to take an official "SHRM CERTIFIED" tag for my badge to save for later, because she was confident that I'd pass. I wasn't quite as confident, but I appreciated her support and encouragement.

During the conference, I was able to reconnect with one of my old supervisors and we went to seminars together. I also saw that one of the vendors was a representative from my master's program at Clemson. I had to go see who it might be. It turned out to be one of my professors! It was so gratifying to finally be able to meet in person.

The whole state conference experience was truly an incredible opportunity, and I learned so much.

Paying It Forward as a SHRM Credential-Holder

On Feb. 8, 2020, I took the SHRM-CP exam and passed! I'm very excited to have this credential under my belt.

I truly learned a great deal from the certification process. Together with what I learned through my master's program, I have a new perspective as our department restructures and I am able to approach processes and changes analytically.

I have also been coaching a former colleague, encouraging her to pursue her own SHRM certification. I've shared study materials that worked for me and acted as a sounding board to talk through some of the situational judgment scenarios.

Finally, my employer's chief HR officer recently gave approval for me to attend the 2020 SHRM Annual Conference this June in San Diego. I am beyond ecstatic! I know that I wouldn't have this opportunity had I not become SHRM-certified.

There are benefit opportunities and resources for those struggling with costs related to certification, especially if they have connections to the military. It pays to pursue them, just as it pays to be open to—and thankful for—the assistance and encouragement of others.

Katherine Rawl, M.HRD, SHRM-CP, is a benefits administrator for Lexington County School District One in Lexington, S.C.

For more information on SHRM Certification and to register for the exam, please visit our website.

Already SHRM-certified? Be sure to maintain your credential by recertifying. Learn more about recertification activities here.

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