Faculty

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.”

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.”

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)

HESA Welcomes Two New Faculty Members

The HESA program is excited to welcome two new full-time faculty members to the HESA program! Dr. Gerardo Blanco and Dr. H. Kenny Nienhusser will join the HESA team beginning in fall 2018.  Learn more about each of them below:

 

Dr. Gerardo Blanco (he/him/his pronouns) is currently an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He was born in Mexico and is, very proudly, a first-generation college graduate. He holds graduate degrees (M.Ed., 2007; Ed.D., 2013) from The University of Maine and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Gerardo’s research interests focus on international higher education, assessment practices, and quality improvement in higher education. He has authored or co-authored articles that document the complexities of higher education leadership and internationalization in different countries, including China, Mexico, and the Philippines. Gerardo’s teaching focuses on international higher education, research methods, and leadership and management in higher education. His experience as a student affairs professional focused on residential education, multicultural student services, and advisement of LGBTQ learning communities.

 

Dr. H. Kenny Nienhusser currently works as an Assistant Professor in the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership in the College of Education, Nursing, and Health Professions at the University of Hartford. He holds an EdD in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. He also holds a MSW and a BA in Economics, both from Stony Brook University. As a first-generation Latino college student who grew up in a working-class household of immigrant parents, diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the core of his work as a researcher, teacher, and scholar-citizen. His research interests include higher education access of underserved adolescents and the majority of his research has examined the educational policy environment for undocumented and DACAmented students in relation to their postsecondary education access. Kenny has more than 15 years of professional experience—in Student and Academic Affairs—in several types of higher education institutions.

 

HESA extends a special thank-you to the members of the search committee:

  • Dr. Richard Schwab (Search Committee Chair, Raymond Neag Endowed Professor of Educational Leadership)
  • Dr. Laura Burton (Associate Professor of Sport Management, Department of Educational Leadership)
  • Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya (Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs, Department of Educational Leadership)
  • Stacey Murdock (Assistant to the Vice President for Administrative Services)
  • Danielle Berkman (Second Year HESA Student)
  • Denée Jackson (First Year HESA Student)

 

HESA Runs Winter Clothing Drive for Puerto Rican Students Displaced by Hurricane

Left to Right: HESA Graduate Assistant Rico Destinvil, Professor Kari Taylor, HESA student Jessica Gramajo Vivas, Professor Reggie Blockett, HESA Student and Staff Development Manager Danielle DeRosa, and Professor Milagros Castillo-Montoya stand with donated clothing.  Photo by Shawn Kornegay.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Connecticut schools welcomed a wave of Puerto Rican students who had been displaced from their homes and communities on the island. This February, the HESA program and campus partners (the Department of Educational Leadership, HESA students, and the HESA village) ran a winter clothing drive to benefit newly-arrived Puerto Rican students at two local high schools.

Professor Milagros Castillo-Montoya, who spearheaded the project, initially approached Christina Rivera, an Ed.D. student in the Department of Educational Leadership, with the idea. Rivera was able to connect Professor Castillo-Montoya with the two Connecticut schools that expressed the need for donations: Hartford Public High School and Windham High school.

Once the school connections had been made, Castillo-Montoya said, the HESA and EDLR communities mobilized to collect a total of 270 items, which included coats, jackets, boots, scarves, pants, and gloves. HESA practicum student Jessica Gramajo Vivas created a flyer to notify the HESA and EDLR communities of the opportunity to donate items, and HESA Student and Staff Development Manager Danielle DeRosa coordinated with current HESA students to distribute donation boxes to collect items.

“The success achieved in so little time would not have been possible without the people who helped get the word out, HESA students who collected donations at their respective assistantship sites, assistantship site and practicum site supervisors who allowed donations to get collected there, and everyone who donated,” said Castillo-Montoya. She also highlighted donations from EDLR faculty, HESA students, and the entire HESA village.

“For these high school students and their families, some of which are living in shelters, this made a big difference,” said Castillo-Montoya. “Thank you to all who got involved and helped make this happen.” While unable to assist in all hurricane relief efforts, this drive was an opportunity for the HESA and EDLR communities to build on existing relationships and support local students in a targeted and timely way.

 

Dr. Rincón to Serve in Upcoming Leadership Capacities

Editor’s Note: This story, written by EDLR’s Meghan Farrell, originally appeared on EDLR’s website on March 23, 2017

This past fall she was named co-principal investigator for a five-year $3.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant dedicated to expanding diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics field. Most recently, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs, Blanca Rincón, has been elected to serve on the directorate for the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Commission for Professional Preparation (CPP), and as a programming committee member for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Division-J. <read more>