By SARA GIBONEY
KEARNEY – First as a math student, then beginning work as a computer programmer and eventually becoming assistant vice chancellor of information technology, Deb Schroeder has been a student or employee at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for 45 years.
“This is where my heart is,” Schroeder said. “These are the students I care about. I had a good education here. There is great faculty here. I’m excited to come to work every day and be part of what this institution means to people.”
After graduating from Kearney State College with a bachelor’s degree in math, Schroeder was hired in 1978 as an entry-level computer programmer for COBOL, the first widely used computer program language for business applications.
During the 1970s, the college had a mainframe computer in its Computer Center. A punch card system was used for employee timecards, class registration and student grades. Each student’s grades had to be manually entered into the mainframe computer and printed on the student’s card.
After three years as a computer programmer, Schroeder moved into a systems analyst position. She earned her master’s degree in business administration and eventually taught COBOL programming as an adjunct professor.
Schroeder left teaching to develop the first online registration system for Kearney State College, a project that took more than a year. “You had to be very persistent,” she said. “We have a lot of tools available now that make developing easier than we did when I was developing that program way back then. You had to have a lot of technical expertise.”
Before UNK’s online program was created, class registration took place in person.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Kearney State College purchased the first commercial student information system for billing, financial aid, housing and class registration on campus. That system was used until 2010, and Schroeder became an expert in that program.
Schroeder eventually moved into the assistant director of computer services position. In 1997, she became the interim director of computer services, a position she held for three years. During that time, she helped prepare campus for potential year 2000 issues.
The director position was changed to an assistant vice chancellor position and, in 2000, she was named first assistant vice chancellor of information technology.
WIRELESS INTERNET GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT
As assistant vice chancellor, Schroeder spearheaded implementing Blackboard – a learning management system – and bringing wireless Internet to campus, which she says has been her greatest accomplishment at UNK.
Her greatest challenge was in 2011 when the air conditioner failed in the data center and all stored data was lost. When Schroeder walked into the data center, the temperature had reached 125 degrees.
Internet access was down across campus, and it took nearly 24 hours to get access back up. The damaged equipment totaled $2 million and took nearly two years to replace.
The air conditioner failure was due to a broken belt. As a result of the incident, UNK now has two air conditioners, a battery backup and off-site backups, and has consolidated equipment.
ON PATH TO MATH
Schroeder’s first true love was math. She thought she would become a math teacher. But during student teaching, she realized that she wouldn’t make a great teacher.
“In the 1960s, I can’t ever remember aspiring to go into computers,” said Schroeder, who grew up Shelton. “It wasn’t something a lot of people talked about. But I always loved math, and I was good at math. If you studied math, you probably became a math teacher. That’s what I thought I was going to do.”
After graduation, a friend told her about an opening in the Computer Center on campus. She was hesitant to take the job, but she was offered the computer programmer position during the interview.
“It’s really hard to describe to anybody what it was like back in the 1970s when you had mainframe computers and great big printouts and punch cards. There was such a small amount of data that we could store. You may be able to store more data on your phone than we could store in that mainframe computer,” she said.
Schroeder was one of few women working in computer programming during that time.
“I never felt like I was treated differently because I was a woman – never here or within the university system,” Schroeder said. “I do believe that a woman in a traditionally male field has to be twice as good and work twice as hard. I probably do that. I hope I’m twice as good, but I know I work twice as hard.”
UP NEXT? VOIP
Working in computer technology for more than 40 years means Schroeder has seen great changes in the industry.
“It’s incredible to see what technology has done for education and the quality of education that we can provide at UNK,” she said. “It’s really been an honor to be a part of that – to think I played a role in providing those services to faculty and students.”
Schroeder’s next project is implementing voice over Internet protocol on campus, which means voice communications will be delivered over the Internet rather than the telephone network.
It’s her own staff that keep her energized to continue working to bring up-to-date technology to campus.
“The people who work for me are the most rewarding part of this job. They are so supportive of each other, and they’re so supportive of the campus. I don’t have all of the answers, and they do have the answers. I can’t do this job without them because I can’t know everything they know.
“They’re the ones who are doing the work and making things happen. They’re coming up with a lot of the ideas and the concepts. They are collaborative, and they work well with each other. They make things happen. They make my day.”