Author: Victoria Aviani

Humans of HESA: Bailee Raber

For current student Bailee Raber, pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) was a natural choice. As an undergraduate student at Eastern Michigan University, she was deeply involved with undergraduate admissions which spurred her interest in UConn’s program. Bailee Raber headshot

In her assistantship with off-campus student services, Raber advises commuters and other students living off-campus. She empowers her students so they can find their own answers and provides them with the tools to pave their unique paths. Although she can’t change an immediate outcome for a student, she pushes her students forward to achieve personal success.

As a student affairs practitioner, Raber takes self-reflection to heart especially in regards to serving her students in the best way she can. She understands that behavior and self-discovery are huge factors in improving your relationship with your students, as well as with yourself. Raber shares that helping a student, connecting them to resources, or simply providing them with a soundboard where they can freely express themselves, offer the most rewarding experiences. She strives to be a pillar of support to her students and aid in their individualized journeys to success.

Raber urges students to “Connect and vent to others going through the same experience.” She appreciates the friends and mentors who have stuck by her side through the ups and downs and says that the program has been “One of the best things that have ever happened.” Within HESA’s cohort model, Raber has been able to connect with like-minded individuals and create long-lasting friendships. Especially during times of doubt and apprehension, Raber says,

“These people become your family and help you through those more challenging times.” 

Despite her busy schedule as a full-time student and working professional, Raber emphasizes the importance of making time for yourself and practicing healthy self-care habits. Hanging out with her dogs, listening to podcasts, and learning about holistic and student development, are only some of the hobbies she enjoys outside of her professional work.

By connecting with people within her practicum, assistantship, and cohort, Raber grows both professionally and individually within her field. As a first-year master’s student, originally from a small town in Ohio, Raber works to acclimate herself to life outside of the Midwest and experience the Northeast for what it has to offer! Some of Raber’s favorite destinations are Not Only Juice, a vegan juicery, as well as CT Valley, one of CT’s most distinguished breweries. 

Although "Some days are easier than others," the supportive students and faculty within her cohort push Raber to treat every day as an opportunity to guide students in a positive direction.

Student-Professional Feature: Ngozi Taffe

In Higher Education, it is not uncommon for students to balance their studies with a full- or part-time job. Many students enrolled in the program of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) are not only students, but working professionals in the field. The “Student-Professionals” series will highlight these hard-working student-professionals and how they balance their responsibilities. This feature focuses on a student-professional in the LLEP Program.

Ngozi Taffe, Director of the Project Management Office in ITS, is working to complete her doctorate in UConn’s Learning, Leadership, and Educational Policy (LLEP) Ph.d. Program. Taffe, who earned a BS in Information Technology and an MBA both from UConn, has returned, after working for 15 years in the corporate world, to implement and support new projects at UConn.

Ngozi Taffe headshot

Formerly the Director of Financial Systems at UConn, Taffe’s role evolved to Director of Project Management about a year ago. While the implementation of policy and software has stayed the same, Taffe works to solve more complex issues within the educational arena and change technology for the better to keep up with evolving policies. In her doctoral program, Taffe specializes in studying college persistence within minority populations and addresses the “element of grit that comes to both areas.” Essentially, she’s interested in building software for people while researching about people.

By connecting her research interests to real-life experiences, she is learning “to listen to people express experiences in voice, research factors, and other successes, and capitalize and create a roadmap on those successes.” A road that leads Taffe towards understanding and solving bigger societal issues.

While Taffe’s work is “very rewarding,” balancing school, work, and family obligations continue to be a “juggling act.” On top of being a student-professional, Taffe is both a spouse and a parent and works to fill both shoes while also accomplishing her own personal goals. Taffe does admit though that this kind of lifestyle is not for everybody, but being the continuous learner that she is, she loves to engage in critical research and push her intellectual boundaries. She states, “the benefit of what you’re doing is what drives you.”

“As an adult learner, with several levels of responsibility, there’s a benefit of working and going to school.”

With Neag’s flexibility in providing classes after business hours, Taffe encourages students to take advantage of the available opportunities to gain professional experience while advancing your education. By aligning your work with your academics, with some level of overlap, you learn to make necessary trade-offs which can deepen your level of understanding while pushing you to achieve your long-term goals.

Taffe’s recommendation for other students looking to become student-professionals is to surround yourselves with supportive advisors who understand and appreciate the challenges you’re going through; align yourself with a support/peer group that shares similar interests and goals. As Casey Cobb, her advisor comments,

“She has found a way not only to balance work, life, and student demands, but also found interconnections among all those areas.”

Courses and Curriculum: EDLR 3345

UConn’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) offers a rich and diverse curriculum that prepares both undergraduate and graduate students to be educational leaders in our ever-changing world. The “Courses and Curriculum” series highlights innovative courses within EDLR’s catalog that are changing the education game for the better.

In EDLR 3345: Financial Management in the Sport Industry, taught by Professor Laura Burton, Ph.D., is an undergraduate course which provides Sport Management majors with an understanding of the financial principles relevant to the sport industry. The course examines basic financial concepts and issues related to sport, and offers an overview of ownership, taxation, financial analysis, feasibility and economic impact studies within the sport industry.

Dr. Laura Burton in the front of a classroom during SPM meeting
One of the biggest challenges Burton says especially with a course that is math-related is helping students get over the “math-hating mentality.” - Dr. Laura Burton

Burton identified a need for this content and added the course to the curriculum, five years ago.  While Burton’s research is centered around leadership in sport organizations and gender issues in sport, EDLR 3345 pushed her outside of her traditional area of expertise, offering a great opportunity and challenge. Having an applied math-based course helps to answer real-world questions within the sport industry, one that the students are benefiting from.

As sport organizations attempt to create a more inclusive space, in regards to social and gender identity, people in higher level positions are faced with some important questions. In what ways can professional sport organizations maximize revenue? And who benefits? What communities are disadvantaged? Burton explains how not only do students consider the financial impact of budget cuts within the sport industry, for example, but the social impact as well. Such a fundamental course provides students with the tools to build on their understanding of budgets and further develop these ideas in other related and unrelated fields.

By using practical applications and case studies, Burton is able to create real-life scenarios depicting real-life budgeting dilemmas. In one such budgeting case, Burton presents a $40,000 budget cut and challenges her students to make the cut in the most effective manner. The experiment suggests that such a cut would leave athletes without scholarships, slash salaries, and limit job availability.  

One of the biggest challenges Burton says especially with a course that is math-related is helping students get over the “math-hating mentality.” Burton admits that there was a lot that she had to learn and continues to learn alongside her students. Within education, it’s easy to experience feelings of frustration and anxiety when learning something new, but she continues to push herself and her students and says,

“Sometimes we forget what it feels like to be the student and sit in the seat.”

Humans of HESA: Alfredo Ramirez

Alfredo Ramirez (HESA ‘19) didn’t begin his undergraduate career thinking he would eventually pursue a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs. But thanks to his undergraduate experience at Montclair State University, Ramirez realized he had a passion for the field. As an undergraduate, he was actively involved in a host of student clubs and organizations such as residential life, student government, student programming, the student leadership office, and many more. These experiences led Ramirez to his current path in UConn’s Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) master’s program.

Ramirez has a busy schedule in the HESA program, including coursework, a faculty-led mentorship, and a graduate assistantship. In his assistantship for the Department of Student Activities-Leadership and Organizational Development, Ramirez works one-on-one with UConn students as they complete their undergraduate experience and transition into the next phase of their lives. “I enjoy getting to support my students and watching their growth as leaders from day one of the semester to the last day of the year. There is a special component of watching some of my students graduate and prepare to take the next steps in their journey, and it means so much to me that they allow me to be a part of their journey,” says Ramirez.

Balancing school and the rest of his life can be a challenge, says Ramirez. At the end of the day, though, Ramirez is thankful for the opportunity to build relationships with other members of his HESA cohort and to improve himself as a professional in this field. Ramirez says that his HESA cohort, faculty, and his advisor Dr. Castillo-Montoya have been an enormous source of support, in school and beyond, as well as his family, fiancee, and friends.

While the majority of his time is dedicated to HESA, Ramirez makes sure to spend time with friends and family. Originally from New Jersey, Ramirez enjoys exploring New England’s unique attractions: watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park, eating an authentic lobster roll, and visiting local breweries. Ramirez’s favorite local spot is the popular diner the Cosmic Omelette in Manchester, CT. Ramirez also enjoys baking, reading, and theatre. Nevertheless, says Ramirez, “it’s important to come back to these little things– they ground you.”

To prospective HESA students, Ramirez notes that graduate school is not easy: “In order to really learn, you have to know that you want to come here. You have to really want it– it can’t just be for fun.” Ramirez likens graduate school to being behind the scenes at an amusement park: “when you step from a student leadership position out of undergrad into a masters student affairs program, you go from being a participant of all the great things a park has to offer to the person who is making the decisions which can be a tough transition for folks. The process though is worth it.”

When faced with challenges, Ramirez urges students to keep an open mind in all areas of their personal and professional lives. “Navigating the system can be difficult at times,” he says. “It’s important to maintain your own sense of self and allow your personal values to flourish in the many relationships you will build.” Ramirez reminds students to “not be afraid to change or ask yourself questions. This is what grad school is all about.”

Student-Professional Feature: Sarhanna Smith

Sarhanna Smith, a student in the Executive Leadership Program (ELP) at the University of Connecticut, works hard to maintain an academic and professional career as both a full-time student and Principal of Read School in Bridgeport, CT. Smith’s teaching journey began in 1994 with her very first teaching position in grade three in Washington, DC, and then teaching first and second grades at an interdistrict magnet school in Connecticut run by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES). She later taught older students who were identified as struggling readers. After earning her Master of Science in Reading in 2003, Smith became a literacy coach for the interdistrict magnet school. Through her work as a literacy coach, she worked with a district-wide committee to co-author the Scientific Research Based Interventions (SRBI) plan for the school district. In 2012, as a student in the UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP), Smith earned her sixth-year diploma in educational leadership and became assistant principal of Thomas Edison Magnet School in Meriden, CT from 2011 to 2013, then of Hamden High School in Hamden, CT from 2013 to 2014. She has been principal of Read School since 2014.

Sarhanna Smith in front of art wall

Smith’s commitment to education goes above and beyond teaching. She is actively engaged with district-wide committees, teacher organizations, and she challenges Connecticut to take action towards social change. Working to make her district stronger by “focusing beyond just the school level,” as Smith says, is vital in her success as an administrator. Another of Smith’s pursuits is part of Educators for Excellence-CT, a teacher-led organization out of Bridgeport, CT, whose objective is to make different routes to certification fair and accessible to teachers of color. In its beginning stages, Smith had the privilege of taking part in the creation of Educators for Excellence-CT’s policy paper, which has already grabbed the attention of the CT legislature and governor. But attention, Smith notes, is not enough: social change and action are needed to give qualified teachers of color access to available teaching positions. Smith is a firm believer that students learn best when exposed to content they can identify with and as a result, are able to connect to teachers who care about them, share and respect their social identities, and represent a more diverse population of educators. 

To other student-professionals, Smith emphasizes the importance of building a strong support network and connecting with others within your professional cohort. Smith advises other working mothers like herself to never give up and seek the support of peers and professionals within your cohort. As a student-professional, Smith understands the importance of time management. She believes she is strengthened both as a professional and as an individual pursuing a career in executive leadership as well as continuing her education as a full-time student. By holding a leadership position, Smith sees it a priority to be an example of hard work and ethics to her students. Smith says,

“Young people are constantly watching and learning from the adults around them”

and as a result, you are responsible for setting a good example for your students as well as for other up-and-coming professionals in the field. 

Whether it’s principal, student, or committee work, she admits,

“There’s never a time when I have no work to do.”

Student-Professional Feature: Miguel Colón

In Higher Education, it is not uncommon for students to balance their studies with a full- or part-time job. Many students enrolled in the programs of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) are not only students, but working professionals in the field. The “Student-Professionals” series will highlight these hard-working student-professionals and how they balance their responsibilities. This feature focuses on a student-professional in the SPM program.

Miguel Colon headshot
Miguel Colón

Miguel Colón, a student in the Sport Management master’s program at the University of Connecticut, works hard to maintain an academic and professional career as both a full-time student and the Interim Associate Director for UConn Community Outreach.

Colón says he never expected to go to school for Sport Management, but ever since he was a little kid he always had a great affinity for sports. Now, close to completing a master’s degree and having worked closely with Community Outreach’s 14 youth development and education programs and the student leaders in those programs for the past 11 years, Colón wouldn’t have it any other way.

As both a student and the new Interim Associate Director for Community Outreach, Colón is faced with challenges every day. Nevertheless, he strives to create a positive environment in every aspect of his academic and professional life. A big sports fan, Colón understands the social implications of physical exercise and applies this knowledge to his daily life – both within and outside of the office.

He sees sport as a vehicle for both personal and social change; as he puts it, “sports reflect society”.

Miguel with a student
Miguel Colón meeting with a student.

A first-generation college student, Colón was well-acquainted with facing challenges and overcoming obstacles long before he began his higher education path. He migrated to the mainland US from Puerto Rico at the age of 14, and says that navigating a new bureaucracy, seeking out help and support, and finding mentors who could guide and direct him were just a few of the challenges of joining a new educational system. In his feature with WNPR, Colón shares more details about his experience as a first-generation college student.

Because of his unique background, Colón says he views college in a way that’s different from most. Although it was difficult at times, he says he enjoyed going through the experience. The most rewarding aspect of his sometimes-demanding lifestyle, he says, is seeing how he’s able to trailblaze through thick and thin. The ability to acknowledge what you have been able to accomplish, he notes, is vital to moving forward in your life.

As a student-professional, Colón appreciates the time he spends working with people and communicating with students, colleagues, and professors. Communication is vital to his area of study, he says, and using and honing these skills not only benefits him in the classroom but also in his personal and professional spheres.

To other student-professionals, Colón emphasizes the importance of having a strong support network of faculty advisors, such as Drs. Burton and Cooper, who strive to put their students’ happiness and well-being before anything else. Even in times of crisis, as in the wake of Hurricane Maria which devastated his family in Puerto Rico, Colón knew he had several shoulders to lean on. But, at the end of the day, Colón admits that self-motivation is huge. Especially in a fast-paced work environment, Colón says committing to a task and following through is crucial; it’s one of the biggest pieces of advice he can offer. “Once I’m ready to do something,” says Colón, “I really act on it.”