Like many in the field of higher education and student affairs, Dr. Gerardo Blanco traces his career choice back to his undergraduate years. As a very involved undergraduate student, Blanco says, he found mentors who helped him realize that ensuring a positive experience for college students could be a profession in itself. “What was a little different for me than for many others in my field is that pursuing this pathway required international mobility,” says Blanco.
Blanco is originally from Mexico and earned his Bachelor of Arts in Educational Studies from Universidad de las Américas Puebla, an institution he says was rich with student organizations and campus activism. Nevertheless, once he decided that he wanted to pursue further study and a career in higher education and student affairs, he realized that his options in Mexico were limited.
“In my experience,” explains Blanco, “international mobility and the pursuit of higher education have been intertwined.”
Beginning his Master of Education (M.Ed.) at the University of Maine was a crucial moment for Blanco. He completed his M.Ed. in 2007 and continued to deepen his New England perspective at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he completed his Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in 2013. New England, he says, holds a special significance for him both because of his personal experience and the richness of education in the region.
After earning his Ed.D., Blanco spent five years as an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and spent the summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018 as a visiting professor at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China. This fall, Dr. Blanco joined UConn’s Neag School of Education, where he brings his expertise to the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program.
As a teacher, Dr. Blanco believes that students are in charge of their own learning, and highlights that the relational aspect is the most rewarding part of his work. “Students know what they need,” says Blanco. “My role is facilitating interactions that promote reflection and learning.”
Broadly, Blanco’s research looks at how decision-makers understand quality in the context of higher education, particularly the relationship between quality and internationalization. That relationship might appear obvious on the surface, he says, since the number of international students often plays a role in ranking universities, but for Blanco it’s deeper than that. “My research asks questions such as: How do we understand higher education as an international endeavor?,” says Blanco, “And how does that connect with our ideas about quality?”
“I think higher education has a great potential for empowering people and interrupting inequality, and I’m very interested in how this connects with the international mobility of programs, of people, of ideas.”
At first glance, says Blanco, his focus on assessment, accreditation, and quality can sound a bit dry. But to him this focus on the “everyday” is precisely what he finds so fascinating. “Most of us spend the majority of our careers in tasks that feel everyday, routine, even taken-for-granted,” says Blanco. “Given the volume of these experiences, I think it’s worthwhile to explore them. When we look very closely at the work that we do, we can carry out that work in a way that is more thoughtful, more self-aware.”
Looking ahead, Blanco is excited to pursue new research exploring the experiences of international students and scholars. The topic is not only personally important to him; he’s also interested in the intersections of being an international student or scholar with other personal experiences, like career decisions and immigration status. “We tend to explore all those separate topics, but not always in dialogue with each other,” says Blanco.
The connection between scholarship and practice is central to Dr. Blanco, and he maintains a strong professional network that helps him stay connected with the issues that are pressing for scholars and practitioners across the field. “I always have practice and practitioners in mind as I am conceptualizing a research study,” says Blanco. He also hopes that his research process itself can create a space for reflection for the busy professionals who work in assessment and institutional research. “When I’m conducting interviews, it’s not rare for people to say to me, ‘oh that’s interesting, no one has ever asked me what I think about my work,’” says Blanco. “I hope that the interviews and the research process themselves can be an opportunity for people to reflect about their practice.”
“The more we reflect, the more we can transform our practice as professionals.”
When she graduated in 2004 with an MA in Higher Education Administration (now the Higher Education and Student Affairs program), Meghan had already been immersed in the UConn community for a good while, having received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Storrs. Upon graduating, she began a national job search and thought a change of scenery might be nice. Then a unique opportunity
presented itself: the UConn Tri-Campus School of Business program (which has since disbanded) needed a program coordinator for their new undergraduate Business and Technology program. Meghan recognized that the position would be a special one, especially for a young professional like herself. As the coordinator of a dynamic new program, she would have lots of room for growth, development, and entrepreneurship. She decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and thus began her career.
For almost 10 years, Meghan remained in that same type of role in the School of Business, albeit with a number of changes in position and a great deal of upward mobility. Teaching, advising, managing, serving as a faculty liaison, and working with student and orientation services: she did, as she puts it, “everything you can imagine from a program-level role.” She was instrumental in many vital projects such as the signing of articulation agreements with local community colleges to create transfer programs, and rolling out the Honors program to UConn regional campuses. Best of all, Meghan loved her job. “It was phenomenal,” she says.
As she approached her 10-year anniversary working with the School of Business, Meghan decided she was ready to take on a new challenge. It was then that the leadership team of UConn’s West Hartford campus (which has since moved to Hartford) pitched her an exciting opportunity as the Associate Director of Business and Student Services for UConn West Hartford. The position, which Meghan describes as a regional-level Dean of Students position, was exactly what she was looking for. In her two-year tenure in that role, she managed an “amazing” team and was able to bring her expertise to new institutional areas such as health services, First Year Experience courses, disability services, and community standards. “It was always what I’d dreamed of, going deeper into student affairs,” says Meghan.
“I was inspired by the work of my team, and I loved what I was doing.”
Soon enough, however, opportunity came knocking once again. The School of Business was conducting a national search for a new director of the MSBAPM program, and thanks to the strong relationships Meghan had built within the School over her career, the hiring committee thought of her. At first, she was reluctant to apply since she still felt inspired and challenged by her role at UConn West Hartford, but as she learned more about the role, she began to reconsider.
At the time, Meghan was serving on a number of committees to find directors of regional campuses, and she had started to notice a trend. People applying for these upper leadership roles had either exclusive undergraduate or exclusive graduate experience, but never both. “The two things I didn’t have experience with at that time were working with grad students and working with international students,” says Meghan. Not only was the MSBAPM a graduate program, but it had a significant international student population. With these factors in mind, Meghan intentionally applied for the job. She was selected as the new director, and she remains in that position today.
Meghan admits that her first year as the director was challenging. “It was an unfamiliar environment,” she says, “I missed my undergrads.” Instead of giving up, however, she realized she had to dig deep and figure out how to bring her unique skill-set to the position and “be a value-add to the institution.” Two years in, she’s made a total 180 from that challenging beginning: “I’ve realized that my background is so valuable at the graduate level,” she says. “I’ve found my niche, and we’re doing great.”
When asked what she’s most proud of having accomplished since graduating from UConn, Meghan tells a powerful story. Not long ago she ran into a former advisee of hers while she was taking her nine-year-old son to get a haircut. With Meghan’s support and his own remarkable determination, the advisee had gone from not having completed high school to graduating from UConn. He has a wife and children, a house, and he’s currently completing a UConn MBA program. When they saw each other at the barber shop, the advisee turned to Meghan’s son and said, “I need to tell you something: your mother changed my entire life.” She says this moment is one of many that keep her strong when she feels stuck or frustrated.
“Having real impact on students is what it’s all about.”
Meghan says she’s grateful to HESA for the deep foundation it gave her in student affairs. “The HESA program taught me so much about the critical roles that student affairs and services play in an institution,” she says. “HESA gave me the tools to be able to articulate the importance of that role, to advocate for it.” What’s more, Meghan is currently working on a research project with three senior faculty members at UConn Hartford. HESA, she says, gave her the educational foundation that makes her research possible.
Meghan’s advice for current HESA students and emerging practitioners can be summed up as follows: stay relevant, find your mentors (across disciplines), and be open-minded. “Even when things are challenging, figure out how you can learn or gain something from the experience,” she says. “Everything is an opportunity!”
The word students often use to describe Dr. H. Kenny Nienhusser is “passionate.” From the very beginning of his career, passion has been a driving force for Nienhusser. His first professional position was as a Residence Hall Director at Stony Brook University in New York, and it was there that the idea of a career in higher education and student affairs occurred to him.
“It was the first seed of thinking, wow, there’s this whole field that exists,” says Nienhusser. “The residential program I worked in was very focused on making the bridge between theory and practice … it was very deliberate in thinking about how professionals could better meet the needs of students by making ourselves well-informed practitioners. This was achieved by reading scholarly work. And that was the first time I thought: wouldn’t it be cool to one day publish in one of these journals I’m reading, to help inform practice?”
He was a Hall Director at Stony Brook for three years while he worked simultaneously on his master’s degree in social work (MSW). In 2001, he completed his MSW and decided he was ready for more. “I come from Latino immigrant parents and education is a very important
value in my community,” Nienhusser says. “Education was always something I wanted to further pursue.” By this point, his passion for higher education and student affairs was growing. He accepted a job at Teachers College, Columbia University and soon after that began his doctoral studies there.
Over the next nearly 10 years, Nienhusser ‘chipped away’ at his Ed.D. while working full-time at Teachers College, first as Assistant Director of Housing and then as Director of Academic
Administration. Since completing his Ed.D. in 2011, he has taught at Teachers College and University of Hartford, and now brings his expertise to UConn.
Dr. Nienhusser’s research focuses broadly on the high school to college transition of underrepresented minoritized populations in higher education, and especially the undocumented and DACAmented communities. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a U.S. federal program that provides a stay of deportation for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16. Recently, Dr. Nienhusser has been investigating how higher education professionals obtain awareness, knowledge, and skills in relation to issues that affect undocu/DACAmented students’ postsecondary education access.
The complexity of this question, although challenging, is also one of the most compelling parts of his research, says Nienhusser. “It’s a complicated and fascinating phenomenon to examine,” he says. “You’re tapping into federal policies, state policies, and institutional policies. And you’re also looking at how these policies are implemented at the individual level by education institutional agents. The financial aid officer, the admissions counselor who’s sitting behind a desk working: how do they make meaning of this complex policy environment along with their personal beliefs and professional values?”
Dr. Nienhusser says he hopes his work informs and supports higher education institutional agents as they try to meet the needs of the undocu/DACAmented student population.
“What undocu/DACAmented students are living through is so very troubling,” says Nienhusser. “If I can make a positive impact at even one or two institutions, I’m happy.”
The reach of Dr. Nienhusser’s work extends far beyond one or two institutions, however. Just as he once imagined during his time at Stony Brook University, he has published in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, the Journal of College Admission, Research in Higher Education, Community College Review, The Review of Higher Education, among others.
His current project is something he says he’s really excited about: working with a group of scholars in the field to disseminate work related with the undocu/DACAmented community. For this project, the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s (ASHE) Presidential Commission on Undocumented Immigrants (of which Nienhusser is co-chair) UndocuScholars (at UCLA), and UConn’s Neag School of Education have partnered to create a research brief dissemination series this academic year, and Nienhusser is kicking it off this October with a Twitter chat regarding his brief, “Implementation of Public and Institutional Policies for Undocu/DACAmented Students at Higher Education Institutions.”
When asked what advice he would give to students and emerging practitioners, Dr. Nienhusser’s passion for his work once again shows through. “Never stop learning,” he says without hesitation. “I always say that to my students: I’m learning with you. It is so important that as practitioners we never stop learning.”
Dr. Nienhusser’s Twitter chat (“Implementation of Public and Institutional Policies for Undocu/DACAmented Students at Higher Education Institutions”) will take place on October 16, 2018 at 11 a.m. PST. Those interested can RSVP here, join the conversation using the hashtag #UndocEdu, and follow Dr. Nienhusser on Twitter at @kennynien.
At the end of a long day of orientation and welcome-back programming, HESA was excited to bring together incoming and returning students, alums, and faculty to enjoy some ice cream! Click here to see the rest of the photos.
The Neag School of Education welcomes two new faculty members to the Department of Educational Leadership’s HESA program, Gerardo Blanco and H. Kenny Nienhusser. Read the full story from The Neag School of Education’s website.
On April 26th, HESA hosted its annual Assessment Day, the summation of a two-semester course series (EDLR 5102 and 5103) that gives first-year HESA students the opportunity to develop and hone important skills by conducting group assessment projects in service to the UConn community. The series constitutes a fundamental element of HESA’s unique core curriculum and commitment to scholarship in practice. This year, students split into four groups and tackled four distinct assessment projects (see table). We spoke with Dr. Christine Wilson, the course instructor, to learn more:
The point of the course is to help the students learn about assessment, evaluation, and research by engaging in a yearlong group assessment project that serves a department or program on campus. The first semester is dedicated to learning about foundations of assessment and research while completing a literature review for the projects, defining assessment questions, creating methodology, and completing IRB paperwork to assure that research with student participants is conducted legally and ethically. During the second semester, the students collect and analyze data, present their results and findings during an open presentation day, and complete an assessment paper.
Assessment Day, which takes place at the end of the semester, is a great way for the community to see the work that the students have completed, as well as the contributions of knowledge that they are making to the departments they have served with their projects. In addition, the students have a chance to present their projects in a formal setting. I have taught this course series three times, and Assessment Day is the highlight of the year.
Congratulations to the students of EDLR 5103 for their successful assessment projects, and the completion of their first year in the UConn HESA program.
Congratulations to Lexy Parrill (HESA ‘17) who recently received the Chester A. Berry Scholar Award at the Association of College Unions (ACUI) National Conference. The award is given annually to the author of an outstanding work of writing in the field of college unions and student activities. We caught up with Lexy to find out more about her research:
LP: My involvement in this work stems from an independent project I conducted as an undergraduate at Indiana University. The project focused on memorial unions and, like any great research project, it led me to a series of unanswered questions. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with the Union Idea and the notion that college unions (and campus centers) are more than just facilities: they are part of an educational philosophy that brings together the community using programming and physical space.
I received this award alongside my mentor and research partner Mara Dahlgren. Mara was my advisor when I was a student at Indiana University. We have a shared appreciation for the college union idea, and we both understand the powerful role history plays in shaping our perceptions, attitudes, and–in this case–buildings. Mara is the Assistant Director of Activities and Events at the Indiana Memorial Union at Indiana University.
I received my bachelor’s degree in History, and I strongly believe that it is important to understand the context and background of an institution–in this case, the college union– in order to produce useful knowledge. When Mara and I began looking into this phenomenon, we realized there was no central database that contained basic information about college union construction, naming practices, memorialization, services, funding, missions, student involvement, etc. We decided to develop this tool, and so far we have collected 750 unique data points (and counting!) from institutions across the world.
This data has allowed us to reframe the college union story and provide data to support (and rebuke) anecdotal stories. We plan to continue to collect information from additional institutions and set up systems to maintain our existing database. We hope this tool provides a jumping point for researchers and practitioners in the field of college unions and student activities.
The HESA community wishes Lexy the best of luck as she continues to examine higher education policies and systems as part of her exciting and important research.
We love to hear from HESA Alumni, so if you have a story to share click here to get in touch!
The course “Seminar in Higher Education” is an important aspect of the HESA core curriculum. Set in the final semester of the HESA program, the course is designed to further integrate HESA’s curriculum and practice-based experiences to prepare students to make the transition into the next chapter of their journey, whether it be in a professional setting or entering into a doctoral program.
Traditionally, the course has featured a mock interview component which gives students the opportunity to refine their interview skills. This spring offered that same opportunity to students, but featured an exciting update. Intentional changes were made to further reflect what students will experience in a first-round interview while simultaneously providing an opportunity to network with the HESA alumni community. Instead of the traditional in-person mock interviews, students connected with HESA alumni over digital platforms for virtual, web-based interviews.
HESA Program Director Dr. Kari Taylor, who is teaching the seminar this spring, worked with Caitlin Trinh, Director of Alumni Relations at the Neag School of Education, as well as Ana Clara Blesso, Assistant Director for Experiential Learning at the Center for Career Development, and Lisa Famularo, a HESA student whose Graduate Assistantship is with the Center for Career Development. Caitlin reached out to program alumni and helped connect them with the initiative, while Ana and Lisa helped to prepare students for this experience by giving a presentation to the class on how to best prepare for an interview prior to the mock interviews with alumni.
Each student submitted a resume and cover letter for a position to which they were interested in applying. These resources were shared with the alumni who served as the mock employer. Instead of one day for all the interviews, each student-alumni pair negotiated the scheduling of their own interview. With these changes to the overall experience, the HESA community was able to use its strong reciprocal relationships to help students refine their career skills and build valuable professional and mentorial relationships.
To get a better understanding of the new mock interview experience, we caught up with one student-alumnus pair: Current second-year HESA student Cristina Carpentier and HESA alumnus La’Rez Wilson (‘13), who currently serves as the Community Relations Coordinator in the Department of Social Change at The Ohio State University.
The Student Perspective
What do you feel that the mock interview program offered you at this point in your HESA experience?
CC: I thought the mock interview assignment was really helpful. Considering that the job search is taking up most of my brain space these days, it was nice to have a class assignment with direct application to that process. While I didn’t end up actually interviewing for the position I chose for my mock interview, the experience still offered me the direction and motivation I needed to improve my interview skills. La’Rez offered me specific feedback on things I did well and the answers that needed further thought; it was a solid combination of a confidence boost and an opportunity for growth. It was also nice to connect with a HESA alum so close to graduation because it reminded me of how far this community extends.
How did you prepare for the interview?
CC: I wanted to be able to answer questions with concrete examples tied to my skills and values. So to prepare for the interview, I scanned the job application for specific skills the employer was looking for and came up with a list of my related experiences. I also read through the office’s and institution’s websites so I could clearly explain how I saw myself fitting into those spaces. Lastly, I came up with a few questions that would help me get the pointed feedback I was looking for from my mock interviewer.
What’s one thing that surprised you about the interview?
CC: I was surprised by how quickly La’Rez and I connected! I suppose it could’ve been because I knew he wasn’t actually looking to hire me – that certainly took some pressure off – but I think it was more than that. I liked knowing that he had been through the same graduate program I’m currently going through. It made me feel more comfortable than I was expecting to feel, which helped me to put my best foot forward. I also appreciated having the opportunity to talk to him a bit about his position and function area. He offered me some helpful and comforting insights on the job search within the service learning and civic engagement function area that I was not planning to walk away with.
What’s one particularly great piece of information you took away from the mock interview process?
CC: I walked away from the mock interview process understanding the importance and value of presenting your most authentic self in interviews. I struggled to answer questions when I began thinking about what the interviewer wanted to hear and he noticed this struggle. On the flip side, the responses that came from my personal values and experiences were clearer and more meaningful. La’Rez advised me to take a moment to myself to consider what I really want to say before responding to challenging questions. I now know that doing so will help me to offer more genuine and effective responses.
What advice would you give to next year’s mock interviewees?
CC: I would advise next year’s mock interviewees to take full advantage of the opportunity by really applying themselves to the assignment and working to build a connection with their interviewers. The job search is a pretty daunting process – take all the help you can get!
The Alumnus Perspective
Can you take us through your journey since you graduated from the UConn HESA program?
LW: Currently I’m at The Ohio State University and I’m working as a Coordinator within their Department of Social Change. I found myself there basically because of my love of working with students, specifically in the realms of civic engagement and service learning. Before coming back to Ohio, which is where I’m originally from, I was doing similar work at Washington University in St. Louis for 4 years. I remember applying for jobs during my second year in the UConn HESA program and I was a little nervous because I was one of the folks in our cohort that didn’t like interviews. When I found the position at Washington University I thought: I love working with students and I love working with kids, so it’s a good combination. While at UConn, I was working in the Office of Community Outreach and I was a Graduate Assistant for the Community Service Learning Community, and those positions made me really want to look into how I could do that professionally and full-time.
What made you want to be a mock interviewer?
LW: Well, I thought back to my own mock interview experience. At the time, I felt like I just tanked! Some of the biggest feedback I got was that I didn’t leverage my skills and experiences enough to really showcase all the work I had done. So when I got the email about being an interviewer for the mock interview program, I thought: this is my time to professionally give back. I know what it’s like to go through the interview experience, I know what it takes to prepare for an interview. At Washington University, I did a phone interview, I did a Skype interview, and of course I had an on-campus interview, and then as part of the job selection process I was required to write an essay. And all this while trying to figure out my plans for the future, still applying for other jobs, and in the midst of my final semester at HESA; it was pretty stressful. So when I got the email from HESA I thought, I need to share these experiences with others and really offer that space for reflection.
What insight were you excited to share with Cristina?
LW: I wanted to share what I was feeling during my own interview experiences, and to dig deeper and understand what she felt during the mock interview. Because those same emotions and behaviors are going to translate themselves into the real-life experience, so let’s take some time to reflect on it now while we still can. I also wanted to share some tips that I’ve picked up along the way from interviewing, from mentors, from my own experience, from my friends. As part of my current position, I work with incarcerated youth in hopes of helping them gain skills in order to reenter society effectively. We’ve been doing workshops in some of the detention centers in the central Ohio area and one of the things we talk about is how to recognize illegal or touchy questions that aren’t necessarily related to the job. For those populations, it’s particularly helpful to understand that because there are such high stakes involved. With Cristina, we didn’t really touch on questions to look out for or anything like that, but we did touch on how to stay vigilant about what’s being asked and why. Knowledge is power, and that’s going to be helpful going into the interview process.
What would you say to HESA alumni who want to get involved in the mock interview program?
LW: Do it! It sounds so to-the-point, but seriously. Mock interviews are a great way to professionally give back, but they’re also a way to make sure that you are still prepped and primed for the career search experience. One piece of advice that I received from a mentor along the way was that if you have the opportunity to be on a search committee, take it. Because it helps you to see what others are seeing when they’re evaluating candidates, but also to improve your eye for recognizing talent. I think that’s something that’s not easily taught. So I think being a mock interviewer is a good opportunity to keep those skills sharp and to share your experience. And ultimately, one of the strongest things that we can do as alumni is help share our stories, help make the process a little smoother, a little less stressful. I told Cristina all that I’m telling you: I was stressed out, I was nervous about interviews, and I think it was validating for her because she felt the same. And it’s good to be able to say hey, I was there, it’s going to get better. And let’s talk about how to get there.
As we wrap up another semester, we’d like to extend our gratitude to everyone who contributed to this year’s successful mock interviews. If you are an alumni who is looking to get involved for future mock interviews, please contact Dr. Kari Taylor.