Gerard Smithwrick is on his way to making a mark in higher education. His enabler: grad school.
Smithwrick's quest for a degree focused on student affairs led him to Barry University's Master of Science in Higher Education Administration, which is now available as an online program.
"Barry University has a really good, holistic focus on the field of higher education," he said. "The classes look at current issues in the field, their administration, how they work together, academic affairs and show a real understanding of how colleges and universities operate."
After graduating from the master's degree program in 2017, Smithwrick took a job managing two residential communities on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
"My role is supervising a staff of about 16 student leaders called resident assistants and overseeing the educational learning that happens outside the classroom and in the halls," he explained. "I'm here to give students the support and resources to help them navigate through their college experience."
Part of that support involves developing learning sessions for the 600+ students who live in the residential communities.
"I educate students on being culturally competent citizens in the global world," he said. "I get them to explore their biases, explore other cultures, have an awareness for other identities and culture — even if they don't agree with it. It makes them aware of how to engage with people of different backgrounds."
Opening new college students' minds to diversity requires knowledge not only of current issues but also of history. Smithwrick's believes the coursework in the MS in Higher Education program adequately prepared him for his current role.
Past and Present
Current issues, history and law are all at the heart of understanding the role students have in their university, and Smithwrick was able to take courses that helped him understand and communicate that information to future generations.
"This program really gave me a full 360-degree view of understanding of how and why things are the way they are, which will hopefully allow us to be better change agents in the future," he said. "Once we understand the processes or laws in place that are hindering us from growing and progressing, we know how we can better solve them."
Smithwrick points to three classes that made a profound impact on his worldview: HED 601: Current Issues in American Higher Education, HED 626: History of American Higher Education and HED 630: Higher Education and the Law.
"These were my favorite courses, because they looked at past and present," he said. "They all covered what was going on currently and what were the major issues across time. We were seeing issues in terms of First Amendment rights for college students, college administrators and government."
Understanding the constitutional underpinnings of these issues brought up several questions for Smithwrick, and he challenges students to expand their thinking based on these questions.
"'Can students protest? Can students advocate their rights? What laws are in place that have major impact in how we do what we do?' These are questions that the average student may not think about, but these are all things that have to be learned and understood if students are going to be successful in the world of higher education," Smithwrick said.
He is reminded every day of the practical application of these issues in the real world and their importance in the lives of students.
"We have a political climate right now in which individuals are being targeted based on identities," he said. "We're having these conversations and exploring issues of access to higher education and college success to provide greater access and minimize hurdles that students may possibly face to succeed in the college arena."
Of course, it takes a lot of work to understand and facilitate conversations on these issues.
Understanding the Structures
Smithwrick decided to enroll in the MS in Higher Education Administration program right after completing his undergraduate degree, and he was pleased with the program's broad appeal to an array of students.
"What's beautiful about this program is that it really does have a diverse cohort of individuals," he said. "There were a lot of students, people who are currently working at university and are working on their master's for professional growth and promotion."
Acclimating to the demands of a graduate program required a shift from Smithwrick's experience with undergraduate work.
"The MS in Higher Education program is a lot reading and studying the material beforehand and being prepared to have a full, in-depth discussion on the matter," he said. "Being an undergrad, you're really told what to believe is right, in a sense."
In the graduate program, students are expected to weigh in with their opinions on assigned material as preparation for their future roles as educators and administrators.
Smithwrick recommends that current and prospective students take advantage of the program's wealth of resources.
"Students should talk to people like Dr. Carmen McCrink [Higher Education Administration associate professor and department chair] and other professionals and build those relationships," he said. "Myself and my peers were all in competition for jobs at institutions in the South Florida area and other universities. We were able to get our first choice at top level schools right out grad school, but some of my peers at other institutions were not."
The point of all of this hard work is in using the knowledge gained to make a difference to students and society as a whole.
"The goal is to be better change agents that move the university and the world of higher education forward," he said. "I think anyone who has any stake in college and university operations success, should be taking or definitely think about getting the master's in this program."Learn more about Barry University's Master of Science in Higher Education Administration online program.
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