New higher ed administration graduate program focuses on social justice

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rep online hea campus steps 550pxThe 100% online master’s degree and certificate programs in Higher Education Administration at UAB launched in fall 2020 and are attracting interest from students across the country and beyond.Reginald Robinson has been working in higher education for 26 years, most recently as an academic and career advisor at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He sees himself staying in higher education for his entire career and moving into a senior leadership role “to make an impact, bring change and restore the integrity of higher education,” he said.

But to follow that passion, Robinson realized, he needed more training. “Many opportunities for promotion that I’m interested in prefer a master’s degree,” he said.

Robinson initially planned to seek a degree in public administration at another college in Florida. But after he talked with leadership in his area about his goals, Robinson learned about a new 100% online master’s program in Higher Education Administration at UAB. As he talked with the program’s director, Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif, Ph.D., “I was immediately on board,” Robinson said.

Tackling today’s hottest topics

Bodine Al-Sharif, an assistant professor in the School of Education, launched the master’s program and a graduate-level certificate program in fall 2020. She describes herself as a “global nomad in higher education” whose teaching and research interests focus on student identity development and stem from her own experiences as a student, traveler and sojourner living between worlds across issues of ability, race, religion, ethnicity, gender expression and the like.

There are other graduate-level programs in higher education administration in the state, so what sets the new UAB program apart? “Our program is really focused on the foundation of social justice,” Bodine Al-Sharif said. “We use that lens in all our courses and talk about hot topics in higher education, which are exactly the topics that administrators will be faced with. We need higher education administrators who have the ability to take on those hot topics on the job, to meet student and faculty and staff needs and to create spaces for dialogue and re-envisioning higher education in a new way. In our classes, we look at what administrators have done and haven’t done when dealing with hot topics in the past — we’re not shy about coming at those from a critical standpoint.”

Learn more about the Higher Education Administration master’s and certificate programs, and get started with online learning at UAB.

That boldness in facing today’s hottest issues is attractive to students. “My interest in the program,” Robinson said, “is to use this scholarly journey to expose systemic racism, discrimination, suppression, oppression, systemic biases, inequalities and inequities in higher education.”

The program’s format was also a major draw, Robinson said. “The cost to attend UAB for an out-of-state student like myself was definitely an incentive, and the accessibility of the 100% online program was essential,” he said. “The convenience of the self-paced program was crucial to my learning strategies. I work full time and I am a grandfather of a six-month-old boy, Rylee, so the consistency of work-school-life balance is vital.”

Mentoring future mentors

“No one starts out with the goal of working in higher ed administration,” Bodine Al-Sharif noted. “No one says ‘I really want to be a director of admissions when I grow up.’ For many people, what drew them in was the experiences they had in college with great mentors who showed them how you can impact lives in this field in a very powerful way.”

Clayton Freeman, assistant director of New Student Orientation at UAB, became an Orientation Leader as an undergraduate and had what he describes as a “life-changing” experience at the annual Orientation Leader retreat. “I thought to myself, ‘Wait — these advisors get paid to mentor and hang out with college students?’“ Freeman said. “From then on, those same advisors encouraged me to pursue a career in higher education.”

When he learned about the new Higher Education Administration master’s program at UAB, Freeman enrolled. “So far, I have gained invaluable skills in the HEA program that directly apply to the work I do in the Orientation Leader training program,” he said. “One of my more long-term goals is to move up the ladder in higher education, and when I do I know that I have gained plenty of useful knowledge that will serve me as an upper-level administrator.”

The master’s program and certificate focus on providing students mentorship and an understanding of what makes universities work. “Many times, people come into higher ed administration after completing a completely different degree,” Bodine Al-Sharif said. Maybe they went to school to get a master’s in chemical engineering, like one woman I know, and then found their niche in enrollment management. They knew they loved it, but they didn’t know the terminology and jargon or have an understanding of how higher education institutions are structured.” For these individuals, the graduate certificate is a great option and then if they want to continue with a second masters or a Ph.D., the course work is relevant and should fit into either degree option.

“Our program is really focused on the foundation of social justice. We use that lens in all our courses and talk about hot topics in higher education…. We need higher education administrators who have the ability to take on those hot topics on the job, to meet student and faculty and staff needs and to create spaces for dialogue and re-envisioning higher education in a new way.”

‘The way of the future’

To complete the graduate certificate, students take four core classes covering the history of higher education, administration of higher education, access and equity and one of several elective classes, including higher education law, leadership and change, and college student development. “And these are the same classes they would need to take for the master’s and also for a Ph.D. program, so you can apply them if you decide to continue your studies,” Bodine Al-Sharif said.

The program has attracted several UAB employees such as Freeman in its first two cohorts, Bodine Al-Sharif said, along with strong interest from students across the country such as Robinson and even beyond, including prospective students in the Middle East.

The HEA program offers students the ability to be innovative and share ownership in course content, Bodine Al-Sharif said. For example, in the practicum course, students are able to select from four options:

  • complete a 100-hour internship,
  • complete research for formal presentation at a state, regional or national conference
  • prepare a scholarly work for publication, or
  • work with their faculty to create a personalized practicum option that fits their areas of interests in higher education and future academic and/or career goals.

“It is important that students have a voice in their own academic endeavors,” Bodine Al-Sharif noted. Interacting with other graduate students who share their passion for change is energizing for those in the HEA program, she added. Taking courses in a 100% online environment is also excellent preparation for higher ed’s future, which increasingly requires administrators to devote as much attention to virtual campus communities as they do to the physical campus, Bodine Al-Sharif said. “That is truly what we’re building through these online programs,” she said. “This is the way of the future.”