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.