Barb Caras-Tomczak: 49 years of fostering student success

As a first-generation college student in 1971, Barb Caras-Tomczak didn’t know it at the time, but she was about to find her calling in assisting students. It all began when her roommate mentioned that the office she worked in on campus needed someone to cover the phones from 8 to 10 a.m. (not a popular time frame for college students!) Caras-Tomczak agreed to cover the shift in the College of General Studies Dean’s Office, which housed the dean, associate dean, administrative assistant and two academic advisors. In 1973, she was hired as a full-time secretary in that office, and for six years she listened and learned. Over time, her first job shaped her life.

Barb Caras-Tomczak smiling outside, wearing a dark jacket.

“The staff members there were all exceptional mentors and introduced me to what I love most—academic advising and student support. After a brief stint as the administrative assistant in the School of Librarianship, I was hired by the college of business in the role of academic advisor.”

Now, after 49 years of service, she is retiring, and her lasting impact—most importantly on business students—is a legacy that will endure far into the future.

“I have been lucky to have always loved my job and the students, faculty and staff I’ve worked with throughout my career,” she says. “The fulfillment I have felt in my role has been the most critical part of my success.”

Working with leaders in the college, Caras-Tomczak helped usher in positive changes for students. Once she was named the advisor for graduate students, she began looking into ways to provide more meaningful and effective experiences for them. “Barb has been the heart and soul of all things related to graduate education at the college,” says Dr. Steve Newell, associate dean for graduate programs and operations. “She has been an advisor and mentor to students and also to administrators. I have benefited so much from her knowledge and experiences, seeking her perspective on a daily basis. Barb was my confidant and friend from the day I took on my role as associate dean, and I will miss her. She has been a fierce advocate for our students.”

Caras-Tomczak initiated the creation of a separate space for the MBA Program Office and Global Business Center with the support of college leaders. In 2007, she attended the Graduate Business Student Support Association conference where she realized the benefits of a separate space for graduate students. “That’s all I talked about until somebody listened,” she recalls. “International activities were not centralized at that time, and I was more than willing to take on that role, so the two functions were combined within one office. The MBA Program Office and Global Business Center was created in 2010 to better serve graduate business students as well as initiate, facilitate and champion the global activities of the Haworth College of Business.”

For efforts like leading initiatives for student success and her work with advising and student services, she received the 2013 Superior Staff Award from the college.

Following that, the college revised its learning goals for the MBA program. As part of the assessment process, data was analyzed for each learning goal. That analysis indicated that student performance in professional writing and presentation fell below competency benchmarks. The skill gap was predominately amongst international students who were generally unfamiliar with the structure and expectations of graduate programs in the U.S. Caras-Tomczak led the effort to improve outcomes in professional communication, working closely with WMU’s Center for English Language and Culture for International Students to develop an Academic Communication course. The course was designed for students who meet the University English proficiency requirement and the business graduate program admission requirements, yet need additional practice with communication skills in an academic setting. The course has been going strong since the fall of 2014 and is taught by business communication faculty. She was awarded the 2015 Assurance of Learning Award from the college for her efforts in this area.

Recently, she was instrumental in re-engineering the MBA program and initiating HyFlex course delivery for MBA courses—this course format allows students to attend classes in person or online (synchronously) in one contiguous learning environment. The conversion to the HyFlex format for MBA courses was largely the result of her involvement on the Fall Contingency Task Force, which was formed by the provost’s office in spring 2020 to examine what fall 2020 would look like due to COVID-19. “After I did a lot of reading and discovered HyFlex, which gives students a choice and the best of both teaching modes, Dr. Jennifer Bott, who was chair of the committee, volunteered to teach a course for the MBA in the HyFlex format. And voila! With the support of Dean Satish Deshpande, Associate Dean Steve Newell, WMU Haworth’s Director of Information Technology Alex Roelandt and WMUx’s technical support, it all came together, and now we are seeing greater demand for our MBA degree.”

The passion and steadfastness that Caras-Tomczak has exemplified in her role are truly remarkable, and the thousands of students she has served have excelled in careers around the world.

“It is never easy to say goodbye to a trusted friend and colleague,” says Dr. Satish Deshpande, dean of the Haworth College of Business. “Both faculty and students trust and respect Barb’s judgment. While her presence in the college will be missed, the excellent work she accomplished here guarantees that she will never be forgotten.”