Three Excel in Careers as They Study Online for HR Degree

May 25, 2023  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Rachel Eakins
Rachel Eakins

Rachel Eakins of Paragould, Arkansas, spent 18 years working in human resources for a manufacturing company in eastern Arkansas, leaving in 2020 for another HR position at a different company. She then returned to the original company last year, but she had topped out how far she could advance and what she could do without a college degree.

The University of Arkansas opened access for Eakins to higher education – a bachelor's degree in Human Resource and Workforce Development Education delivered online – and a more fulfilling career.

Heather Reinkemeyer
Heather Reinkemeyer

Heather Reinkemeyer of Springfield, Missouri, has lived in Kansas and Missouri her entire life and had never visited Arkansas until a month before her graduation from the U of A. She was working in human resources when her boss, the vice president of HR, encouraged her to finish a bachelor's degree.

Through program research, Reinkemeyer found the U of A provided an option to complete the degree fully online, which ultimately led to her decision to select the university. Now, she gets excited about both the Kansas State Wildcats and the Arkansas Razorbacks when it comes to college athletics.

DeeDee Layson
DeeDee Layson

DeeDee Layson of Rogers, Arkansas, found herself at a crossroads. She was a few months into the HRWD program when she lost her position as a retail manager with Pier 1 Imports. The Little Rock store she worked for closed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband also lost his oil industry job and the family was relocating.

Layson wasn't sure how to go forward. The online delivery of the degree made it possible for her to continue.

The three University of Arkansas graduates have life stories with similarities that are also different. Each logged years of experience working in the human resources field when they decided a bachelor's degree would help them advance in their careers while also making their jobs more fulfilling. A fully online bachelor's degree presented the best option for them to make this dream come true.

Two of the graduates – Eakins and Reinkemeyer – walked at the College of Education and Health Professions commencement in May. Layson finished last December.


Path to U of A

Eakins researched a little before choosing the U of A program because she had an HR manager who went through it. She thought it would be a good fit for her, too.

"There's no way I could have gone on campus," she said about local on-campus options in eastern Arkansas. "I needed that flexibility to be able to do the schoolwork in evenings and on weekends. This program was 100% online and that was definitely the big draw for me."

Reinkemeyer started an elementary education degree 15 years ago, and although she always felt called to people and their experiences, she didn't finish the degree. When her manager at the manufacturing facility where she worked encouraged her to go back to school, she searched for a fully online program and the U of A came up.

"I read some bios and success stories from people who had previously completed the program," she said. "The curriculum was a really good opportunity for me to continue to build on my current HR experience."

Layson relocated to central Arkansas from Northwest Arkansas after obtaining a management position at Pier 1 Imports. She went in a completely different direction than she originally planned, which was a career in animal science.

"My path was not linear, probably like most people who earn online degrees," said Layson, a wife and mother of three sons, who are 10, 7 and 4.

She started the HRWD program while working full time, but after Pier 1 closed Layson decided to step back from work and concentrate on getting the degree done by taking classes full time instead. She finished her coursework last December and secured a position with Tyson Foods soon after as a senior HR specialist, working from home in talent enablement in the people operations department of the multinational protein-focused food company that has its world headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas.


Career Advancement

Because Eakins had been with her employer for 20 years, 18 of those in human resources, they were comfortable offering her an HR manager's position last year with the expectation that she would finish her degree.

"I still needed the degree," she said. "Had I not pursued it, I couldn't go any further than an HR generalist. I have learned so much about career development, organization development, and training and development programs. I have learned a lot of valuable information I can apply to my everyday work as an HR manager."

Reinkemeyer has moved from working with an hourly workforce at a manufacturing facility to a professional workforce at an accounting firm, she said. She described the degree program as a tangible experience.

"One of the classes I took was a training and development course," she said. "I used knowledge from that course to build out our orientation from a one-day class to a full week experience. The successful implementation of that was incredible and we saw a drop in employee turnover. What I learned throughout the program was so applicable to the work I was doing."

For Layson, the small footprint of the Pier 1 store meant she performed a wide range of duties from recruiter to hiring manager to personnel officer, working with 20 employees on goal setting, performance reviews and other HR needs.

"My experience at Pier 1 gave me the ability to really see what it's like to handle different people with different problems and different perspectives but to do it with the same rules, policies and guidelines," Layson said. "It showed me the need to be consistent and standard with everyone so you have some type of understanding about what to do next time.

"Going into the program, the hows and whys were very helpful because I had lived it, and now I could articulate why those things are important, the research behind what you do," Layson continued. "It's very helpful to take a deep dive into the process, the system and the science to human resources and the workforce. I have lived manager experiences but to know why you can't change things for one person, that really made a difference for me."

Now, working at Tyson, she's part of a group that serves all Tyson employees, both domestic and international.

"We are a point of contact for everyone in the company, including overseas employees, for their talent development and performance management needs – both sides of the coin. Talent Enablement is focused on implementing these processes, which frees up local HR employees to be more strategic and thoughtful."

DeeDee Layson, Retail Manager, Pier 1 Imports

Program Review

Eakins feels like she got to know her classmates and professors well by communicating through Zoom, phone calls, emails and texts. In March, she was able to meet some of them when she attended a symposium on the Fayetteville campus.

Layson was nervous when she started the program because she didn't know what to expect.

"A lot of autonomy comes with doing online classes that I wasn't used to," she said. "I was a little worried but after the first or second semester, I got into the groove. I saw how different teachers took different avenues on how to do class. The variety helped keep it from being monotonous or feeling like being on my own little island. There were optional calls in the evenings, discussion boards, some classes where you were more on your own. Mixing that up really helped me. I appreciated each type. It was helpful not to have to go to a video class with every one. That's what I expected but it was not necessary in some of them. If I had questions, teachers were more than happy to help."

She would absolutely recommend the program.

"I really, truly feel like it gave me confidence more than anything," Layson said. "I had the experience. Knowing all the research and doing all the work to find what is current in workforce development solidified my ability to get my new position so quickly. I knew what I was talking about. I knew what was going on in the industry but also in human resource development as a whole. I enjoyed it immensely."

Reinkemeyer believes people who have been exposed to the work of human resources previously will have a more meaningful experience in the program than those who are new to the field.

"When you've already had that exposure, it is so much more enriching," she said. "I could apply it to what I was doing. Without that, it would have been harder to grasp those concepts and create those connections. I think the program is really designed for people like myself working full time or in need of an online experience. The professors do a really good job of creating engagement with students. I appreciated that I could take it as fast or as slow as I needed."


Advice to Others

"Just do it," Eakins would tell anyone considering enrolling in an online degree program. "I thought about it for years before I actually took the first step. Taking the first step is the hardest. Once I started, I thought, 'I can do this.' It was challenging but I kept pushing forward. I would encourage anyone to just try it. Give it a shot. You don't have anything to lose. Once they do try it, they'll see it's a great program and they can actually turn their dream into a reality."

Reinkemeyer leaned into three aspects that helped her be successful: conversations with her academic adviser, interacting with professors and classmates, and support from her family.

Denise Bignar, assistant dean of academic services for the College of Education and Health Professions, in particular, helped her reach her goals, Reinkemeyer said.

"I had some honest conversations with her about my goals," she said. "We talked about what was realistic with my work schedule. I was working 80 hours a week so I knew I couldn't take a full load, but I wasn't willing to compromise on my graduation date. It was attainable but also challenged me. Strategizing with Denise helped me gain a real understanding of what I could and couldn't do."

In addition to her husband and bulldog at home, Reinkemeyer reached out to her sister if she felt like she was struggling. She also suggested having a dedicated space at home for school.

"When I went in there it was game time, school time," she said. "Every time a new course came out, I put dates on my calendar. I had everything mapped. I never surprised myself with deadlines. I knew from the time the course started what was required. I was really leaning into time management. Frankly, I knew that I wanted it because I was applying it at work."

For her, having concepts at work and in the degree program dovetail made it feel cohesive and empowering.

"It was stressful but I knew what I wanted," Reinkemeyer said. "I loved the fully online experience. I highly recommend it."

Layson offered a tip for anyone studying in the program.

"If at any point, you feel like you can't do it, reach out to a teacher," she said. "They are there to help you, and it's not unusual to hit that point in classes, but it is beneficial to finish and get through. The faculty are very helpful, and it's a well-done program."



Eakins believes taking part in graduation will be one of the highlights of her life.

"I'm really excited about this accomplishment, really proud," she said. "It has been a journey, working full time, raising a family."

Her family, including high school age son and adult daughter, will celebrate with her.

"We have always been Razorback fans," Eakins said. "I just think it's cool to be graduating as a Razorback. I also want my kids to see my accomplishment, to show them that hard work pays off."

Reinkemeyer still bleeds K-State football, and she surprised her family the first time they saw her in Razorback gear.

"They were like, 'What is this?'" she recalled. "I'm really proud. I had a great experience with colleagues and professors. I had the opportunity to go to an HRD summit (on campus). We came early to walk around. It was fantastic. I really enjoyed being there. My family and I rented a cabin for graduation weekend, and I'm really looking forward to that."

Layson likes the feeling that comes with being part of University of Arkansas traditions.

"I'm part of a group of people who will all be on Senior Walk, the common denominator being we are University of Arkansas graduates," she said. "It feels really cool. The U of A is a big school in a small state, and it has a homey feeling."

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

Online Learner Blog Home


Bachelor of Human Resource Development

There is a growing demand for individuals who can develop talent and lead teams to help organizations meet their goals. This degree-completion program aligns workforce development with human resources – a natural, valuable pairing.

Program Page