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Humans of HESA: Alfredo Ramirez

Alfredo Ramirez (HESA ‘19) didn’t begin his undergraduate career thinking he would eventually pursue a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs. But thanks to his undergraduate experience at Montclair State University, Ramirez realized he had a passion for the field. As an undergraduate, he was actively involved in a host of student clubs and organizations such as residential life, student government, student programming, the student leadership office, and many more. These experiences led Ramirez to his current path in UConn’s Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) master’s program.

Ramirez has a busy schedule in the HESA program, including coursework, a faculty-led mentorship, and a graduate assistantship. In his assistantship for the Department of Student Activities-Leadership and Organizational Development, Ramirez works one-on-one with UConn students as they complete their undergraduate experience and transition into the next phase of their lives. “I enjoy getting to support my students and watching their growth as leaders from day one of the semester to the last day of the year. There is a special component of watching some of my students graduate and prepare to take the next steps in their journey, and it means so much to me that they allow me to be a part of their journey,” says Ramirez.

Balancing school and the rest of his life can be a challenge, says Ramirez. At the end of the day, though, Ramirez is thankful for the opportunity to build relationships with other members of his HESA cohort and to improve himself as a professional in this field. Ramirez says that his HESA cohort, faculty, and his advisor Dr. Castillo-Montoya have been an enormous source of support, in school and beyond, as well as his family, fiancee, and friends.

While the majority of his time is dedicated to HESA, Ramirez makes sure to spend time with friends and family. Originally from New Jersey, Ramirez enjoys exploring New England’s unique attractions: watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park, eating an authentic lobster roll, and visiting local breweries. Ramirez’s favorite local spot is the popular diner the Cosmic Omelette in Manchester, CT. Ramirez also enjoys baking, reading, and theatre. Nevertheless, says Ramirez, “it’s important to come back to these little things– they ground you.”

To prospective HESA students, Ramirez notes that graduate school is not easy: “In order to really learn, you have to know that you want to come here. You have to really want it– it can’t just be for fun.” Ramirez likens graduate school to being behind the scenes at an amusement park: “when you step from a student leadership position out of undergrad into a masters student affairs program, you go from being a participant of all the great things a park has to offer to the person who is making the decisions which can be a tough transition for folks. The process though is worth it.”

When faced with challenges, Ramirez urges students to keep an open mind in all areas of their personal and professional lives. “Navigating the system can be difficult at times,” he says. “It’s important to maintain your own sense of self and allow your personal values to flourish in the many relationships you will build.” Ramirez reminds students to “not be afraid to change or ask yourself questions. This is what grad school is all about.”

Humans of HESA: Denée Jackson

For Denée Jackson (HESA ‘19), pursuing a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs was a natural choice. As an undergraduate student at UConn, she was deeply involved in campus organizations such as the African American Cultural Center and her sorority. This involvement led her to first an internship and then, upon graduation, a staff position in the Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life. The opportunity to work with college-age students, says Jackson, is one she cherishes.

“Universities are where magic happens,” says Jackson. “Students are figuring out who they are, how they want to change their world, what they want to do with their little slice of the universe; it’s really cool to be a part of that.”

In the university setting and outside of it, Jackson is dedicated to pursuing equity and uplifting the most marginalized populations. One challenging aspect while she’s in school full-time is balancing her studies with her desire to do community organizing and other activist work. “I’ve had to put some of that on hold for now, at least outside of UConn,” says Jackson. “But I’m always trying to educate myself and stay up to date on social issues.”

One of Jackson’s most rewarding experiences as a HESA student was her practicum last fall with ScHOLA2RS House, which is a learning community for Black men on campus. The HESA practicum program gives HESA students the opportunity to gain experience with effective facilitation and the design of intentional learning environments. For Denée’s fall 2018 practicum she mentored a group of students in ScHOLA2RS House, connecting with them regularly to make sure they had the resources they needed. A highlight, says Jackson, was going with her students to the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. She enjoyed the practicum so much that she’s stayed connected: for spring break this semester she will be joining ScHOLA2RS House for a study abroad week in Brazil.

Through Jackson’s successes as a student, life has not always been easy. Her mother, who she describes as her “biggest cheerleader and advocate,” passed away in November of 2018. “It’s going to be a challenge going into this next semester without her,” says Jackson. “But I have my brother and my dad, I have my friends.” The HESA community has been there for her, too.  “Faculty, staff, my supervisors, my cohort,” she says. “They helped ground me and remember that there are bigger things beyond 

grades, beyond HESA. They’ve been really supportive.”

Jackson’s current goal for her upcoming final semester (and beyond) is balance. “I’m working on looking at my life and my well-being holistically,” she says. “I’m trying to feed my soul on all levels. Cooking, going to the gym, doing yoga, meditating, travel: it can all seem like a stressor when I’m busy, but then when I do it, I find it helps so much. It becomes a pillar.”

As a HESA student, Jackson likes being able to design her experience to suit her goals. Many students move directly into their careers after completing a HESA master’s program, but Jackson is pursuing a different path: she plans to begin a doctoral program after graduation.  

“There’s a path that’s sometimes considered to be ‘typical’ student affairs, but if your interests don’t align with that, it’s okay,” she says. “There are lots of ways to pursue what you’re interested in, and people will support you along the way.”

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.”