For Holly Merk, the decision to return to college to get her degree was, quite literally, made for her.
Merk had worked 23 years in health care. She started as a candy striper – so named for the way the uniforms resembled a candy cane — in the nursing home where her mother worked. She got her CNA at age 15 and eventually worked her way to marketing director at a senior living facility in Des Moines. She loved her job and was the very first person in her role to fill the entire 99-bed facility. She was doing well without a college degree and her future was looking bright.
Then, a new regional director began overseeing her facility and felt Merk didn’t deserve her position because she didn’t have a degree.
“It was heartbreaking for me, I was very distraught about it,” Merk said. “I filled the building, I worked with families, I did what I was supposed to do. My administrator really fought for me, but corporate said I had to have a degree so they let me go.”
It was a turning point for her. As a single mom of three young children, she knew what she had to do.
“I loved what I was doing, being able to work with families and the residents, helping them find the services they need to get them back home or find them a perfect place to live,” she said.
But in order to do that, she needed a degree.
She began at another school, taking classes at night to achieve an Associates degree. She worked as a waitress and bartender to make ends meet.
“It was hard work and horrible hours but I stuck with it,” she said.
Once she heard about Simpson’s adult program, she began talking with an advisor and started planning the next steps.
“I graduated with an AA degree in May, 2013 and later that month, started summer courses at Simpson.”
Simpson offered the marketing degree she was looking for.
“Other schools had marketing degrees, but they didn’t have what I needed for my degree,” she said. “I was looking for something very specific that I knew would work with the kind of work I wanted to do.”
She began her classes intent on getting a degree in marketing with a minor in computer information systems. Shortly after that, she was offered a job.
“My previous administrator that had fought hard to keep me at my old job, reached out to me and asked me to come and work for him doing marketing at a nursing and rehab center in Polk City. I was thrilled!” Merk said.
A year into her program at Simpson, she talked with her advisor, Andrea Biklen, director of Continuing & Graduate Programs in West Des Moines, and said she wanted something more.
“Being on the job and seeing what skills I needed, I wanted to pick up some public relations and communications classes. Andrea explained the integrated marketing communications degree to me and it fit so well that it was only natural to do that too,” Merk explained.
With Biklen’s guidance, Merk fell into exactly where she needed to be. Now she’s a double major – marketing and integrated marketing communication – and expects to graduate in May 2016.
In May of 2015, she became community resource director for Glen Oaks Alzheimer’s Special Care Center in Urbandale. “It’s a fancy title for marketing and admissions director,” said Merk, “but I absolutely love it. You can tell when you walk in my building, the staff all truly care about the residents. It’s just a great place to work.”
While Merk’s career path turned out well, it wasn’t always an easy road.
She is now engaged to a man who has two children of his own. “Juggling five kids’ ball and dance schedules along with my work schedule and his work schedule, it’s sheer utter craziness!” she said. “There were honestly days I would not even be able to hit the books to study until 10 p.m.”
Merk jokes that her peak study hours were 10 p.m. to midnight. “I did it somewhat on a lack of sleep. I had to always read my papers the next morning to check and make sure what I wrote the night before was coherent.”
Even though it means giving things up and sometimes missing events, she always makes time to study.
“You want to be there for your kids, you have to keep doing a good job at your work and I want to make sure I got good grades. That’s really important to me,” Merk said.
And while she was working hard, others were noticing.
Biklen, Merk’s advisor, said this: “Holly brings both an extensive background in marketing to her coursework, but also her bright and energetic personality to class. She has a passion for working with the aging population in Iowa, evident in her promotion of the industry and her engagement with clients.”
Because of the passion she saw in Merk and knowing the hurdles she’s had to overcome, Biklen let her know about a scholarship opportunity available from Executive Women International (EWI).
The ASIST (Adult Students in Scholastic Transition) Scholarship is a $3,000 scholarship available to adults facing economic, social, or physical challenges, who are looking to improve their situation through educational opportunities.
“Andrea said to be honest and tell them my story, so I filled out the application and laid it all out,” Merk said.
“I was very honest when I went in to interview with the board. I told them my story and how I love to help the elderly. I probably love elderly people more than anyone else. They have great stories, if you listen they can teach you so much.”
The committee asked Merk how classes were, how her home life was. She replied, “It has been a struggle but you work hard for anything you want in your life.”
On September 14, 2015, Holly Merk was named one of two ASIST scholarship recipients from EWI.
Deanna Dunn, a member of the EWI scholarship committee, enjoyed getting to know Merk. “Holly was an excellent candidate for our scholarship. Our committee was very impressed with her accomplishments both personally and professionally. She is working in a professional position supported by her educational goals. She is dedicated, conscientious and was a pleasure to meet.”
Merk was overwhelmed. “I’m grateful, thankful, and honored that they chose me out of 12 candidates to be a recipient this year. The awards banquet was amazing. All the women on the interview panel gave me big hugs and told me how proud they were of me.”
Merk credits Simpson for helping her get where she is today.
“Simpson has beyond helped me. Not only with teaching me things I didn’t know, but helping me be more confident in what I already do know.”
Simpson’s teachers made a big difference for Merk. “I love the fact they have real world experience in the subjects they’re teaching. Especially with adult learners. It’s not like we’re fresh out of high school and haven’t had jobs. To us, that practical added value is what makes the class more engaging and more enriching.”
“I would encourage anyone considering going to back to school to get in touch with Simpson,” Merk said. “I’ve been so blessed to be part of the Simpson College family. This journey has had its ups and downs and my advisor Andrea has ridden the roller coaster with me the whole way.”
Merk hopes that her degree and her experience will lead her to a point where she can share her knowledge and love of this population with others.
“My goals are to move to a regional level and help other facilities put together their marketing plans and teach them how to engage with the families and how to really sit back and listen to what the family’s needs and wants are,” Merk said.
“I’ve been in the Iowa market for 23 years. I know what drives people in Iowa, I know what they look for and need when they’re placing their loved one in healthcare. Not everyone can say that and I want to share that with others. This degree will launch me to the next level of what I’m trying to achieve.”