This June, Michelle Zasada assumed the role of interim executive director for the Center for Distance Learning, a department she’s worked in for 13 years. Previously, Zasada served in a variety of other leadership roles for the CDL, including most recently as the program operations director. The following conversation details the new executive director’s thoughts on leadership, as well as the changes and benefits that come with working in distance education.
You first joined the Center for Distance Learning in 2007 and have stayed with the department ever since. How has your experience shaped you as a leader, and how has it shaped you as an advocate for distance learning?
When I came to CDL we had a small but mighty team who were involved with all aspects of the operation in some way. Now we have a full team with individual units who specialize in specific aspects like recruiting, advising, and technology. Working my way through various roles has given me a big picture view of how each one plays an important part in the overall student experience. As a leader, I aim to understand the value each person brings to the table and to listen and support them in reaching their goals.
For more than 40 years, we’ve offered education for individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have access by providing distance options. Being a part of filling that gap is one of the many reasons I’m proud to be a UW-Platteville alumna and employee.
What are your priorities for the CDL over the next few months?
The past few months have brought changes in leadership on a department, division, and university level at the same time that we’ve been experiencing changes nationally and globally. My priority is to use this time of transition as an opportunity to listen and understand the needs of our staff and students and explore how we can meet those needs.
How do you like to encourage ideas in your peers?
Everyone has their own talents and strengths that they bring to the table. My door is always open and I welcome opportunities to listen, engage, and collaborate.
What is your approach when it comes to overcoming challenges?
I see challenges as an opportunity for growth and reflection. Looking back at where we have been and reflecting on how we got to where we are today reminds us that we have the ability and that we are not alone on our journey. Surrounding ourselves with a strong team gives us the foundation to excel.
What do you enjoy most about working for the CDL?
Our students are often non-traditional students looking to complete an educational goal that they set for themselves a long time ago and then life happened. It is really rewarding to help someone get back on the path to earning their degree and see them achieve their goal.
The CDL today is not the same department as the one you first joined in 2007. What is your opinion on change and how do you deal with it? In your opinion, what has been the most significant change that’s occurred within the department during your time here?
We joke that change is our only constant as we’ve seen a lot of it over the years. A positive mindset and focusing on the opportunities for growth that changes present have been helpful.
The biggest change is that we used to be our own stand-alone entity and we are now part of the Division of Professional Studies along with the Continuing Educational Institute and the School of Graduate Studies. This allows us to collaborate in serving the local and global community.
What is one fact people should know about you, and one fact that may surprise them?
I am passionate about lifelong learning; whether it’s reading a book, watching a webinar, attending a conference, or taking a class, there is always something to learn. In my role I hope to use this passion to encourage both our students and our team to continue to grow personally and professionally.
What may surprise people is that I am that the Queen of Glamping. Most weekends in the summer you can find me with my family sitting around a campfire or floating down the river in a kayak.