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.”
Two years into her position as Director of UConn’s Master of Science in Business Analytics & Project Management (MSBAPM) program, HESA alumna Meghan Hanrahan (‘04) is thriving. She loves her work, the MSBAPM program’s enrollment is on the rise, and Meghan herself was recently featured in Hartford Business Journal’s 2018 “40 Under 40” issue. “I feel like I’m exactly where I should be,” she says. So how, exactly, did she get here?
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.
Editor’s Note: This story has been altered from its original form. The original story, written by Stefanie Dion Jones, appeared on the UConn Neag School of Education website on August 20, 2018.
HESA welcomes two new faculty members effective August 23rd. Read more about the new faculty hires below!
Gerardo Blanco joins the Department of Educational Leadership as an assistant professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program. Previously, Blanco served as an assistant professor in the higher education doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He earned his Ed.D. in 2013 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He also has served as a summer visiting assistant professor since 2016 at Shaanxi Normal University in China. His research and teaching interests focus on quality assurance and internationalization in higher education.
H. Kenny Nienhusser arrives as an assistant professor in HESA as well. He joins the Neag School from the University of Hartford, where he served as an assistant professor in the doctoral program in educational leadership since 2012. He has more than 15 years of professional experience in student and academic affairs at several types of higher education institutions. His research and teaching interests include implementation of public and institutional policies that affect underserved students’ high school-to-college transition; higher education policy; and undocu/DACAmented students. Nienhusser earned his Ed.D. at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2011.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on HartfordBusiness.com on August 2, 2018
Meghan Hanrahan is the UConn School of Business’ director of the business analytics and project management graduate program in downtown Hartford and Stamford. Hanrahan has worked for UConn for 14 years and served in a variety of roles across the institution . . . [read more]
The HESA community wishes the 2018 graduates the best of luck as they take this exciting step in their lives. We’re proud of who you were as UConn HESA students, and we can’t wait to see where you can’t wait to see what you do as alumni.
HESA Class of 2018:
- Julia Anderson
- McHenold Aurelien
- Danielle Berkman
- April Cano
- Cristina Carpentier
- Jennifer Cheng
- Alyssa Clift
- Ricardo Destinvil
- Alexandra Dutro-Maeda
- Gabrielle Erestain
- Lisa Famularo
- Emily Fiagbedzi
- Moriah Hernandez
- Rilwan Ilumoka
- Daphnee Laguerre
- Garland Mann-Lamb
- Michelle Meek
- Morgan Sutton
- Alex Vann
Congratulations to the HESA Class of 2018! HESA celebrated commencement on May 4th in the Student Union Ballroom, and the full photo album can be accessed here.
Congratulations to Lexy Parrill (‘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!