Author: Madeleine Chill

Lessons from the Field: Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya

Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya, Assistant Professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program, has devoted her career to investigating, pursuing, and implementing inclusivity and access in higher education.  Castillo-Montoya’s passion for educational equity stems from her own life. A first-generation Puerto Rican, she was the first in her family to earn a college degree and later graduate degrees. Raised in a family with very little financial means, education served as her entry to a new world. The further she advanced in her education, however, the less Castillo-Montoya found other students who looked or sounded like her or who shared similar lived experiences. During her undergraduate years, she committed herself to serving minoritized students and improving their college educational experiences in the hope that it would support their retention and graduation. A graduate of Rutgers University (B.A., M.S.W.) and Teachers College, Columbia University (Ed.D.), Castillo-Montoya’s research focuses on educational equity for historically underserved college student populations, with a particular emphasis on learning and development for Black and Latinx students.  

As a researcher, she is the author of an impressive body of scholarship, and her excellence in research has earned her the Emerging Scholar award from ACPA-College Student Educators International. In 2016, Castillo-Montoya was the co-recipient of a grant from the White House Collaborative on Equity in Research on Women and Girls of Color.  In June of 2018, she and Dr. Daisy Verduzco Reyes co-published a study about the impact of Latinx cultural centers on Latinx students’ identity development. And most recently, she is co-authoring a 2019 publication in New Directions for Teaching and Learning that explores how drawing on minoritized students’ funds of knowledge– what they know from their lived experiences– can support their academic learning.  

As a teacher, Castillo-Montoya is an innovator who excels at connecting research and practice. She teaches the “Leading in a MulticulturalEnvironment” course (EDLR 5126), in which students engage in equity inquiry projects in which they focus on how practitioners’ beliefs and values shape their practices in support of minoritized college students. Through this project, students use a theory to analyze their findings and inform practice through recommendations for staff and/or faculty. Students sometimes even have the opportunity to share their findings with the offices they have studied in order to help them develop more equity-minded policies and practices. Central to this course, and indeed to all of Castillo-Montoya’s teaching, is an emphasis on humanizing the many inequities that students experience on campus.

She challenges her students to consider what it would mean to center minoritized students in their practice through everyday interactions as well as policies.

And at the heart of Castillo-Montoya’s teaching is a commitment to fostering meaningful connections with her students; in a 2016 article highlighting Castillo-Montoya’s work, HESA alumna Alessia Satterfield (‘16) noted: “There is more than just teaching going on in her classroom; there is constant love and support.”

Castillo-Montoya has a lot on the horizon: she has publications forthcoming in the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, the Review of Higher Education, the International Journal of Qualitative Research in Education, and more. She currently serves as principal investigator for a research project entitled “Teaching Through Diversity,” in which she is investigating faculty professional development vis-a-vis diversity.  Castillo-Montoya’s commitments to diversity and inclusion go far beyond the buzzwords: they are throughlines in her research, integral to her teaching, and central in her life.  As the title of her co-authored 2012 article (“Thriving in Our Identity and in the Academy: Latina Epistemology as a Core Resource”) posits, Castillo-Montoya’s work aims to change the academy in ways that supports the most marginalized to thrive in their identities within and outside of the academy.

Lessons from the Field: Dr. Kari Taylor

Dr. Kari Taylor, Assistant Professor-in-Residence and Program Director of the UConn HESA program, says her path in the field of higher education and student affairs started in her freshman year of college – although she didn’t know it at the time. As a high school student she had a passion for journalism, and she decided to leave her home state of Kansas to pursue an undergraduate degree in magazine journalism at the University of Missouri. As an incoming student, she took part in the university’s Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs) program, in which small groups of first-year students live in the same residence hall and take three classes together. She ended up loving the FIGs program, especially the faculty who served as facilitators within the FIGs . “When I got to college, I was looking for an experience of advanced learning, so I was struck by the number of teachers who were giving very standard lectures and then getting back to their research,” says Taylor. “The FIGs teachers were really focused on teaching and learning, and I appreciated that.”

By her junior year, Taylor had become a peer advisor in the FIGs program, and she found herself wanting to spend more time on those responsibilities than in the newsroom. “I liked reporting and writing, but I was always more excited thinking about how to have conversations with residents in my living-learning community, how to design the curriculum for the extended orientation course I was helping teach,” says Taylor. It was then that she started looking into a master’s degree in the field of higher education and student affairs.

Her search led her to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The school was farther away from home than she ever imagined herself going, but it offered a unique graduate assistantship as the editorial assistant for a higher education and student affairs publication. In addition to her assistantship, the Miami curriculum allowed Taylor to specialize in college student development and college student cultures, a combination which she found “really exciting.” After graduating with her master’s degree, she took a position in Miami University’s Honors Program. She found the role to be diverse and dynamic, and because she kept “finding ways to grow and develop,” she chose to hone her professional practice there for seven years.

Toward the end of her tenure at Miami, Taylor found herself wrestling with some difficult questions. She found herself asking: how do diverse college students develop at a predominantly white institution? And are we doing enough to prepare students for a fulfilling life after college?  “Students could do everything right: honors, straight A’s, a long list of co-curricular activities, and be well suited to go off to graduate school or pursue any position they wanted,” says Taylor, “but they hadn’t really thought about who they were or what they really valued.” High GPA alone, she realized, would not set students up for success in the “real world” and, in fact, might set them up to have some real challenges.

Her desire to investigate these questions further led her to a Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University. She started the program thinking she wanted to return to undergraduate administration, but along the way she found herself drawn to preparing graduate students for the field and conducting research. As she prepared to return to full-time work within higher education and student affairs, she started looking for a faculty position within a cohort-based master’s program that emphasized the connection between classroom and practice. UConn met this criterion, and the program director role had the component of leadership and vision-setting for a program that excited her. So in the fall of 2017, Dr. Taylor came to UConn.

Broadly, Taylor’s research focuses on college students’ processes of learning and meaning-making. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which was a case study involving a civic engagement course, investigated students’ capacity to develop what scholars term “critical consciousness.” Developing students’ capacity for critical consciousness, says Taylor, means not only helping students learn about who they are but also about who they are in society, amidst systems of privilege and oppression. “I hope my research helps administrators understand that there’s a difference between promoting intercultural understanding and critical consciousness,” says Taylor.

“We focus a great deal on intercultural understanding, perhaps because it can be a little less politically charged. But I hope my research will show that critical consciousness is equally important in preparing our students for the diverse democracies that they will live and learn in, both in and beyond college.”

At UConn, Taylor continues to enrich the field of higher education and students affairs with her scholarship and teaching. The through line of all of her work, says Taylor, is learning. The specifics, however, are always evolving, and she knows that she won’t pursue the same topic for the rest of her life. Staying curious and relevant is crucial to who she is as a scholar, a practitioner, and a teacher.

“We’re always trying to prepare students for a world that isn’t yet here, that we don’t yet live in,” says Taylor. “This places a responsibility on us and also an opportunity to keep asking new and different questions.”

HESA Student’s Group Wins Case Study Competition

Congratulations to Katrina Camerato (‘19) whose group recently placed first for the Northeast Association of College and University Housing Officers (NEACUHO) New Professionals Case Study Competition!  The annual competition, which takes place during the NEACUHO Annual Conference in October, offers new professionals (including qualified graduate students) an opportunity to put their skills to work and network with other new professionals.  

This year’s case study was an “all-encompassing case for HESA practitioners,” says Katrina.  While the case focused broadly on addressing increasing mental health issues in residential spaces, it also included obstacles such as budget cuts, an overworked staff, and issues with student satisfaction. Katrina was partnered with her group members on the first day of the conference, and they presented their proposal on the conference’s final day. The group proposed a year-long initiative that involved both campus and community partnerships in order tokeep their intervention low-cost.  

Katrina says she has her HESA program assistantship at the UConn Department of Residential Life to thank for helping her develop the practical skills and knowledge that allowed her to succeed in the competition.  “UConn has a flourishing Department of Residential Life, and I have really learned a lot from my time working with colleagues and students there,” says Katrina. She also credits her practica at Title IX offices for giving her practical experience, as well as her law and ethics class (EDLR 5119) for teaching her “how to properly read a case, find the holes, and propose solutions.”

For other students interested in getting involved in a case study, Katrina recommends reaching out to supervisors and colleagues. With her assistantship in Residential Life, Katrina was a member of NEACUHO and learned from professionals in her department that she could apply for funding through NEACUHO to cover conference costs.  After receiving full funding for the three-day conference, she began looking into what else the conference had to offer and found the case study competition. “I highly encourage students to look deeper into their professional organizations,” says Katrina. “Whether they are involved with NODA, NASPA, ACPA, ACUHO-I, or another organization, many of these professional organizations offer these types of opportunities!”

HESA Student Serves on NODA Conference Planning Committee

Since February 2018, HESA student Patrick Rogers (’19) has been one of three graduate students nationally serving on the planning committee for the 2018 Annual Conference for NODA (the Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education).  The conference took place in San Diego last week, and Patrick checked in to tell us about his experience. Both the planning process and the conference itself, says Rogers, were fantastic learning and professional development experiences.  “I was able to network with other professionals on the committee as well as throughout the country,” he says. “I learned so much about this field while also helping with on-site logistics. This was a great experience for me as I look forward to seeking a position working with first year students in the next few months!”  Congratulations, Patrick!

The full planning committee
Patrick [left] with two of the other graduate student committee members

Lessons from the Field: Dr. Gerardo Blanco

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.”

Alumni Spotlight – Meghan Hanrahan (’04)

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

Meghan Hanrahan (’04) serves as Director of UConn’s Master of Science in Business Analytics & Project Management program

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!”  

Lessons from the Field: Dr. H. Kenny Nienhusser

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.

Fall 2018 Faculty Appointments

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.

Gerardo Blanco joins the Neag School as an assistant professor in the HESA program. (Photo courtesy of Gerardo Blanco)
H. Kenny Nienhusser joins the Neag School’s HESA program from the University of Hartford. (Photo courtesy of Kenny Nienhusser)