Dann Truitt ’14, ’19 MA couldn’t have chosen a more challenging time to start a new job in higher education. In mid-March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was closing college campuses, he began a new position at the University of Pennsylvania.
A familiar face at Montclair State University, where he most recently served as program coordinator for the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies, and the Clean Energy and Sustainability Analytics Center, Truitt is now adjusting to work in Penn’s School of Nursing, helping with COVID-19-related communications and budget implications.
It was a role he was prepared to step into as a graduate of Montclair State’s Educational Leadership program, which is cultivating a new generation of leaders for the increasingly complex issues in education.
This fall, Montclair State will launch the Master of Arts in Higher Education. The program changes an existing concentration within Educational Leadership to full degree status. Graduates of the concentration have gone on to careers throughout higher ed, from the Ivy League to community colleges. And while they hold a wide range of positions, including roles in student affairs, academic affairs and general university administration, they also carry with them a focus on social justice, which is among the hallmarks of the Montclair State program.
“They are really going to go out there to change the world,” says Blanca Elizabeth Vega, assistant professor in Educational Leadership.
That’s the mission of the new master’s degree, to educate leaders who are interested in effective and transformational change in higher education, capable of contributing to national issues, says Sherlene I. Ayala, clinical specialist and graduate program coordinator.
Ayala and Vega have worked on creating a program intentionally broad to provide graduates with a path to a variety of higher ed careers. “When you look at other higher education programs, they tend to have an emphasis on student affairs,” Ayala says. “Student affairs is just one umbrella in higher education, and those positions tend to be more of the student-facing roles. Our program prepares graduates to work in all types of administrative departments – crunching numbers, recruiting students, running reports or working with faculty.”
Students learn about law and legal issues, supervision and management, leadership theories and social justice in higher education. “Our hope is to ensure that students feel they can go from residential life on a college campus to higher education policy at the state level, in both positions as critically minded and equitability-minded leaders,” Vega says.
Truitt says the range of learning experiences, especially classes in crisis management, educational law and group dynamics, “have all proven to be crucial skills during this unique time in higher education.”
Coming to Montclair State as an undergraduate, Truitt had his sights on a career in education. “My whole life, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is be a teacher and work in education. That has never changed. But I think my framing of what it means to be a teacher changed at Montclair State and it allowed me to understand that you don’t necessarily have to be at the front of a classroom to teach. You can model behaviors, be an informal mentor – it takes on many shapes and forms. Throughout my various roles in higher ed at Montclair, I had opportunities to do just that.”
Those experiences combined with the scope of the master’s program equipped Truitt with skills for his new role as program coordinator in Penn’s Office of Academic Affairs at the School of Nursing. “The topics I was learning in class – higher ed law, higher ed crisis management, higher ed communications, higher ed finance, higher ed group dynamics – are all things that set me apart in the job market and the field of graduate studies.”
Vega spent 16 years in administrative roles in higher ed, including financial aid counseling and opportunity programs before coming to Montclair State. Her scholarship focuses on equity, access and success in higher education among underserved populations.
Higher education has historically been an important bridge to opportunity, but the vestiges of segregation, costs, access to financial aid and other obstacles have hurt the ability of all students to participate fully, Vega says. The immense changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic only sharpens the focus on those inequities.
“As higher education administrators, as students come on campus or as we see them on computer screens, we have to see them for who they are and how it impacts their learning,” Vega says.
“My favorite part of my teaching experience is my Finance in Higher Education course,” she says. “People think it’s about accounting and budgeting, and it is, but that depends on the focus of the scholar who teaches the course. I teach it through the lens of inequity.”
Leadership and theory are the cornerstone to a final capstone project, Ayala says. “Students develop a new initiative or look at data to suggest new ideas for various high ed departments.” Montclair State has relationships with 10 different higher ed institutions that provide the practical experiences. Projects have included looking at students with autism, undocumented students, parent engagement and success of first generation students, and planning for online orientation.
Ledawn Hall ’19 MA examined the experiences of ESL students at community college. “Education is a right, but I treat it like a privilege, constantly reminding myself that there are those individuals in the world who may never get the educational opportunity that I have,” says Hall, director of a study program at Essex County College that focuses on retention and graduation.
Montclair State’s existing program has graduated 97 students since beginning in 2015 who now serve in important roles in academic affairs, student affairs and other administrative positions at institutions including Princeton University, New York University, Fordham University, Pace University, Penn State University and Montclair State University.
Lucas Min ’18 MA is currently working at NYU Abu Dhabi in charge of undergraduate housing for international students from more than 150 different countries. Min came to study higher education leadership through the lens of sustainability. “The work that I did and am still continuing to do incorporates sustainable efforts that can inform people that we can be more thoughtful of our resources while we perform our day-to-day,” he says.
Higher Education (MA) is a 36-credit program, with an option to reduce the credit requirements for students with at least two years of full-time, professional experience working in higher education. Román Liera, with research specializations in race and equity in higher education, will join the faculty, coming to Montclair State from the University of Southern California.
Learn more at Higher Education (MA).
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren