Amazon partners with MSU Denver to help employees earn degrees
The tech giant's Career Choice program provides tuition assistance for workers looking to advance their careers at the company, or anywhere.
When Julie Rickman had to take care of her elderly mother, she encountered challenges navigating the complexities of the U.S. hospice-care system. Yet the experience held a silver lining that helped her discover her calling.
“I realized I was actually really good at it and could help people on their final journeys,” the Metropolitan State University of Denver sophomore said. “So at 51 years old, I dove in. And though I was scared of going back to school at my age, from the moment I walked into the building, I had folks helping to guide me where I needed to go.”
Rickman began her studies as a participant in Amazon’s Career Choice tuition-assistance program. Launched in 2012 in the U.S., the workforce-development initiative has helped over 150,000 participants globally, with more than 1,400 participants in Colorado. MSU Denver joined the program last year as one of seven Colorado partner schools, offering access to degree programs and industry certifications on campus and online.
After the first year, it’s already producing promising outcomes, serving more than 100 MSU Denver students who are being retained at a rate 10% higher than the University average.
Rickman was working as a level-one associate in Amazon’s Colorado Springs facility when she saw a promotional flyer for Career Choice by an elevator one day. A conversation with Amazon’s career-coaching service connected her to MSU Denver, where she enrolled in the University’s Aging Services Leadership Certificate program before switching over to the newly created undergraduate major, launching this fall.
“Without the support from both Amazon and MSU Denver, I don’t know if I ever would’ve had the confidence to do this,” Rickman said.
Now working at two home-health agencies, Rickman plans to launch her own hospice business specializing in dementia care. And though she has moved on from Amazon, she is forever grateful for the tools and resources that set her on the path to positive change.
“We pride ourselves on being more than just tuition assistance,” said Jeff Bulanda, senior manager with Amazon Career Choice. “We’re just as excited to see someone successfully join the health care industry as we are to see them grow within Amazon.”
The program differentiates itself by allowing employees to pursue any field that they and their support staff see as the best fit.
“If students want to pursue the arts, we’re here to say ‘go for it’ because we know they have experts in place to help them understand what that means for a career and how to navigate the terrain,” Bulanda said.
Shanae Metcalf began working in Amazon’s DEN5 sorting center on Tower Road as an “orange vest” before moving up. Now a “water spider” (a manufacturing term referring to a person in a production or warehouse environment), she is responsible for keeping work stations fully stocked. That includes wrapping and stacking pallets, labeling them and making sure they get where they’re going.
“I love to notice patterns, whether it’s in paintings or pallets,” Metcalf said. “Stacking packages in a geometric way so they don’t fall over is a strategic process. … I make it my mission to keep them upright — it’s a like a big Jenga.”
Already enrolled in MSU Denver when she learned about the program, the 23-year-old has connected with three other students also taking advantage of the program. And though balancing school and work has been challenging, not having to worry about how to pay for tuition has freed her up to focus on moving forward.
“I’m surprised how well I’ve been able to manage it all,” Metcalf said. “I appreciate the ability to stay at Amazon where the work is more physical and then switch into school mode so I can focus on that.”
Bulanda noted MSU Denver’s history of supporting adult and transfer students, as well as its commitment to improving processes, as a reason why the University is the right fit for workforce advancement at Amazon.
The partnership has been a successful example of what happens when an infrastructure is built to support students at the right places and times, said Megan Scherzberg, Ph.D., executive director of MSU Denver’s Department of Orientation, Transfer and Reengagement.
Reengagement navigators are assigned to each student, acting as a kind of collegiate concierge. They serve as friendly faces who can help along the way, from initial outreach to welcoming students to campus to building connections and providing referrals to individualized resources.
“We’re really here to create a sense of belonging and community,” Scherzberg said. “(The Amazon Career Choice partnership) is more than just providing a scholarship — it’s about connecting students to resources and giving them the support they need to ensure their success.”
And if the high retention rate is any indication, when students are supported and don’t have to worry about finances, they’re more likely to achieve their goals.
“Students should be able to focus on their coursework,” Bulanda said. “Tuition shouldn’t be a stressor.”