Starbucks Store Manager Earns a Degree After 25-Year Delay

Every summer for 15 years, Raymond Smith has delivered what he calls “The Professor’s Perspective” to incoming Indiana University Bloomington students and their parents. He estimates 12,000 people have heard him give his talk about the perils of freshman year and the challenges that confront those who don’t make it through the fraught first months on campus.

The 64-year-old professor of literary studies draws on academic research, telling the hundreds who attend each lecture about a crucial time-to-degree variable – the less time you take, the more likely you are to graduate. And he reads “A Letter to Laura,” an unsent note he’d composed in the early 1990s, shortly after he came to Indiana. Addressed to his niece, the letter offers reminiscences from his own undergrad days, as well as four or five tested tips for surviving what he calls “the hottest of the flaming hoops that students jump through.”

“About once every other year, some parent in the question-and-answer period will ask, ‘What ever happened to Laura?’” Smith recalled. “And I’ll say, ‘Well, she really wasn’t in a position to take my advice.’”

A tragic break

In 1993, Laura Fobes was a new arrival at Virginia Tech. The editor of her high school paper, she had already accumulated several credits at Northern Virginia College in her hometown of Manassas, Va., and hoped to become a journalist.

Still getting acclimated to college life, Fobes and a friend attending nearby Radford University decided to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive home for a weekend visit. Heading north on Interstate 81, the car Fobes was driving was run into a center embankment by a veering truck. The car flipped three times, traveling 350 feet before coming to a stop. Fobes’ had only minor injuries, but her friend, who was thrown from the vehicle, died on her way to the hospital.  

“It was a tough time for me to think about going back to school,” Fobes recalled. “I was only 19 at the time. I was kind of adrift.”

For Fobes, the four-year college experience, complete with roommates, study groups and homecoming games, faded from view.

She was 20 when her daughter Courtney was born. She continued to take classes here and there while working as a bartender and restaurant manager. A son, Drew, was born when she was 28, and Fobes felt a new urgency to find a more promising career course.

“I was drawn to Starbucks,” she said. “I was drawn to the way the company treats our partners and the insurance aspect was a big thing for me, because I needed to get insurance for my family.”

 In 2003, she joined Starbucks as an assistant manager. The following year, she was promoted to store manager and by 2011 she was managing a newly opened Starbucks back in Manassas. Noting the nearby police station, hospital and plentiful businesses with overnight crews, she drew up a business plan to keep the store open 24 hours. As the store marks its sixth anniversary, it’s become the highest sales performer in its region.

Back to school

When Starbucks and Arizona State University introduced the Starbucks College Achievement Plan in 2014 to create opportunities for partners (employees) to earn bachelor degrees with full tuition coverage, Fobes looked into the program so she could answer questions from cohorts at her store.

“I wasn’t knowledgeable beyond, ‘Hey, have you heard about ASU?’” she said. “I started to look around and the next thing I knew, I’d applied.”

In the fall of 2015, Fobes revived her drive to complete college. Sixty-five credits she’d accumulated through the years transferred, giving her a healthy head start as she worked toward a bachelor of science degree in communications.

Fobes has found that online classes not only accommodate her busy schedule (she has a third child, an 11-year-old daughter named Mack), but suit the way she absorbs information.

“I feel like I learn better at my own pace,” she said. “There are times when your head’s not in it and you can’t concentrate on a lecture. I’ve found that, if I didn’t have the right mindset at the time, I could come back to something later.”

A happier ending

When the 42-year-old mother of three accepts her ASU diploma May 8 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., she’ll be accompanied by her now-22-year-old eldest daughter, who’s a Starbucks shift supervisor and participant in Pathway to Admission, a program created by Starbucks and ASU to create opportunities for partners who want to earn a degree but don’t yet meet Starbucks College Achievement Plan requirements.

Fobes’ example has also inspired seven partners at her store to enroll at ASU; applications for three others are pending. And even the district manager she reports to is getting into the act. Adam Martin, like Fobes a 42-year-old who took some community classes long ago, will begin taking online classes through ASU this fall.

“When SCAP rolled out, I thought it was a phenomenal program, but it wasn’t for me, based on my family, my kids, work/life balance and being a district manager” said Martin, who’s been working with Fobes for three years. “Laura sat with me and taught me a couple things about how it could be tailored to fit me. She convinced me to do this.”

As for Fobes’ uncle, he’ll be updating the presentation he’s giving to incoming students at Indiana this year.

“What I plan to do when someone asks what happened to Laura – or even if they don’t – is show a picture of her in her gown graduating from Arizona State, probably with her daughter by her side.  Because of Starbucks, and because of Laura’s efforts, I’ll be able to give those students a happier ending than I ordinarily have.”

At Arizona State University’s spring graduation exercises May 8 in Tempe, Arizona, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz will give his first-ever commencement address. More than 260 partners are graduating from ASU, the biggest-yet partner graduating class. Starbucks College Achievement Plan graduates will be in the audience. Commencement will be streamed live at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (7:30 p.m Pacific Time) at

Meet other partner-graduates:

Alexander Nunes, an immigrant from Jamaica, is the first in his family to graduate from college – and he’s ready to change the world.

Finding Home: Childhood Hardships Strengthen Starbucks ASU Graduate, Sirikwan O’Gorman.

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Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take