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At USDA, a Different Kind of Graduate School

83-Year-Old School Offers Continuing Education Classes at Flexible Times

Those working on Capitol Hill can continue their education just a few blocks down the Mall at an unexpected place — the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, the Graduate School USDA’s association with the Agriculture Department for the most part stops at being part of the school’s name. The school, established by the secretary of Agriculture 83 years ago, is self-sustained, which means it receives no federal funds and its only income is tuition and fees.

“It’s not a degree-granting institution,” said Debbie Smith, communications director at the school. “We’re a continuing education facility for adults.”

Annually, about 125,000 students nationwide enroll in nearly 1,000 courses at the graduate school, whose mission is “to improve the performance of government and to provide opportunities for individual lifelong learning through education, training and related services.” Of those students, about 40 percent attend classes in the District, with the remaining 60 percent spread out across the nation.

“With the war in Iraq and the delayed spending bill, we had less registrations fiscal 2004,” Smith said. “It could be the same this year, it could jump up. We’ve had as many as 200,000 [students nationwide] and as little as 100,000 in a year.

“We’re not like a traditional community college where you have registrations every semester,” Smith said. “We have registrations every day. At any given time, [the number of students enrolled] could be different.”

The Graduate School USDA is unique in that it offers classes that run for one day, three days, five days or just one day a week for 10 weeks. Prospective students can enroll in self-paced or online classes at any point in time, which means the school is “constantly registering people” year-round, Smith said.

While the Graduate School USDA does not issue degrees, it does offer many certified courses that transfer to other colleges and universities. Smith said most courses have either CEU (Continuing Education Units) or CPE (Continuing Professional Education) credits. In the area, the school has partnerships with Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Southeastern University, University of Maryland, University of the District of Columbia and Strayer University.

“We offer classes that are set up to run similar to a community college,” Smith said. “As for what would be an incentive to come here, a lot of that depends on what the student is looking for.”

Whatever the student seeks, they likely will find it at the Graduate School USDA. Some available classes include animal behavior, basic electricity, family law, stress management, budget execution, freshwater ecosystems, landscape construction and time management, among many others.

Maria Bowie, legislative director for Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), utilized the Graduate School USDA’s offerings while she was an undergraduate student at George Washington University more than 10 years ago.

“I took Swedish at [the Graduate School] USDA,” said Bowie, who went on to obtain her master’s at Uppsala University in Sweden. The Graduate School USDA “is a relaxed and productive atmosphere because it’s professionals who are there because they want to learn.”

To cater to the varied needs of its students, the Graduate School USDA offers day, night, weekend, online and self-paced classes. Daytime classes tend to focus more on career development, helping people attain a better job, learn a new skill or advance in their current job, Smith explained. Students taking evening or weekend classes are looking for either “personal enrichment” or preparation in areas that need work, Smith said.

“One reason [students] tend to come to our classes is they are fairly reasonably priced,” Smith said. “We’re competitively priced in this area and we’re a nationwide presence.”

By offering classes in more than 75 cities across the nation, the Graduate School USDA could be useful to employers with multiple locations to ensure employees are getting the same education.

“They are going to get the same materials, the same training,” Smith said. Students and employers “like the consistency of what we offer.”

There is not a set price across the board for classes at the Graduate School USDA. Smith said “too many factors go into determining prices,” such as the duration and format of the class and the complexity of the material. However, many federal employees enrolled in day classes have their agencies pick up the tab, while most individuals taking evening or weekend classes shell the money out of their own pocket.

The school attracts a wide variety of students. About 75 percent to 80 percent of day students are government employees at the federal, state and local levels, Smith said. Evening classes tend to attract more of the “general public,” but Smith said the demographic changes depending on the classes people take.

The most popular classes with the day students fall under the human resources and human capital management umbrella. Classes dealing with retirement and benefits for the federal government also fill up rather quickly. Depending on the subject matter, Smith said class size varies from 10 to 12 people to 25 people.

However, one class at the Capitol has an enrollment of only three.

Texas Reps. Gene Green (D) and Martin Frost (D) and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) have been sharpening their Spanish skills amid their busy Congressional schedules for about three years.

The Graduate School USDA conducts a series of courses called “Spanish on the Hill.” Smith said the school has been working with several Congressional offices that want to learn Spanish “so they can communicate with the Hispanics in their districts.”

While Congress is in session, Green, Frost and Schakowsky devote an hour and a half every Wednesday morning to familiarizing themselves with the Spanish language. Those who attend the class with Bowie meet in the morning as well, as she said that’s the “best time for it” since “with the Hill lifestyle anything can pop up and you don’t know when you’ll get to leave.” Teachers from the graduate school come to the Capitol to administer classes.

“I wish I could tell you we’re fluent, but we keep working at it,” Green said. “We started with about 10 Members and we’ve gotten down to three because it’s hard to set aside one morning” for the class.

Danielle Hernandez, executive assistant for Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), said she has coordinated classes with the graduate school for about 20 Members and 50 Hill staffers. She said the sessions, which include an advanced class, are planned to continue with more possibly being added in the spring.

“I had taken Spanish [at GW], up to the literature level,” said Bowie, one of the staffers who expressed interest to Hernandez about the classes. “I’m not fluent — maybe 10 years ago. You lose it so fast, that’s why I wanted to be back in an environment where Spanish is spoken.”

While Bowie said her current class level is “easy” for her, she likes it because it allows her to practice the vocabulary. With about 35 percent of California’s 44th district speaking Spanish, the refresher course is helpful to Bowie, as she said it is “important for outreach and communicating with constituents.”

Cecilia Cevallos, who teaches Bowie’s class of 10, said teaching Members and Hill staffers is no different than teaching other students at the school. Cevallos uses the same teaching methods for all her classes, and she admitted the course is difficult.

“Language is practice,” Cevallos said as she pointed out that one morning a week is not much time. “Class is very short, they have to work hard. I send work home. They need time to repeat it, repeat it, repeat it.”

Repeating the language allows for those in the course to prepare for the final exam: a five-minute oral presentation. Cevallos, who has been teaching at the Graduate School USDA for almost 13 years, said the hard work pays off at the end of the semester when she sees that her students have learned and improved. She said her current students are on the right track so far as they are learning to “communicate with people.”

“Spanish and Arabic are very hot,” Smith said about classes at the school. Students “like to make either their entrance into college or grad school easier, and if they’re missing experience in a foreign language, they’ll often come here.”

This also applies to Members who lack the “experience” with a foreign language. Green, who took Spanish in high school and at various times over the years, said he feels learning the language is of utmost importance because his district is 65 percent Hispanic.

“I just set aside the time to practice,” Green said. “Not only with the course, but also with my constituents.”

Green, who goes home to Texas each weekend, could perhaps practice with his family as well. He said his daughter, who attends the University of Texas, uses the same Spanish teaching tool — the telenovela “Destinos,” a Spanish soap opera.

“It keeps your interest, but it also helps to hear the language regularly spoken in an everyday sense,” Green said of the videos.

The only class Green has time to squeeze into his tight schedule is Spanish, but he has made it a priority because of the nature of his district.

Green says his skills are “very limited still, but when I return constituents calls, the people who answer generally prefer Spanish.” Because of the class, “I can communicate with them, but I also have bilingual staff members, thank goodness.”

For additional information on the Graduate School USDA, visit

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