Getting into ‘grad’ gear

Grad education enhancements on campus and online provide comprehensive support students need to succeed

New enhancements across campus as well as in the digital sphere are driving the success of UND’s graduate students. Photo by Shawna Shill/UND Today.

Across the nation, graduate programs are swelling. Newly minted bachelor’s degree recipients and working professionals alike are returning to the classroom to pursue further studies.

And, more and more of them are flocking to the University of North Dakota.

As of mid-February, over 1,200 graduate applications have streamed to UND’s admissions office. The tally constitutes a staggering 13 percent increase from the same time last year.

“That is a really exciting movement happening going into fall semester already,” said Janelle Kilgore, interim vice provost of strategic enrollment management.

The uptick, to a large extent, sprang from the University’s revamped, dynamic website, which lures prospective students, as well as the strategic efforts of the admissions office, said Jennifer Aamodt, interim director for admissions.

“Once [students] express interest, we are doing a lot of work to make sure that we are communicating with them on a much more personalized level,” Aamodt said. “We are also striving to connect students with faculty much earlier.”

Kilgore anticipates the ranks of graduate students to grow past the 2,500 mark by the start of the fall term – a development in line with UND’s strategic goal of expanding online and graduate enrollment.

“I think if we have strong master’s degree programs and doctoral programs, we are going to have strong undergraduate programs,” she said.

Heeding that logic, UND has ushered in several new advancements – online as well as on campus – to spur the success of its master’s and Ph.D. students from the very moment they join the University.

Research Achievement Day

Don’t forget about Graduate Research Achievement Day (GRAD) coming up on March 7.

“Graduate students are a key component and driver of our research mission, and GRAD provides an important opportunity to showcase that research, its significance and value, to both internal and external stakeholders,” said UND President Mark Kennedy. “Showcase events like this are an opportunity to put our collective best foot forward, shining a bright light on the breadth, depth, and high quality of research across UND.”

If you go:

When: March 7, public viewing starts at 1 p.m., followed by an award ceremony & reception at 3 p.m.

Where: Memorial Union Ballroom

Place to call home  

Once graduate students arrive on campus, they will have a space to call home, a building dedicated to their distinct needs that previously did not exist.

The Stone House is newly renamed to Dr. Kathleen and Hal Gershman Engagement Center.

Today, perched on the corner of University Avenue and Centennial Drive, the historic Stone House lies amid an overhaul. But, if renovations proceed according to plans, by next fall semester, it will accommodate a tech-forward center for graduate students.

“I think this is what you might call a game changer,” said Chris Nelson, associate dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

Several reasons bolster a sense of aptness to that description.

The upgraded Stone House, the original president’s abode on campus that received a $3 million gift from Hal and Kathleen Gershman last year, will help the University retain graduate students by nourishing a community that shares similar struggles and aspirations. The State Board of Higher Education recently approved renaming the building to the Dr. Kathleen and Hal Gershman Engagement Center.

“One of the primary reasons for grad students dropping out of a program, especially those doing research, is a feeling of isolation,” Nelson said. “We are hoping that a space like this can help mitigate some of those feelings.”

As part of UND Strategic Plan, the School of Graduate Studies strives to raise retention rates by a few percentage point every year – even as they currently rest above the national average, said Nelson. The engagement center is to help achieve that by offering students three ample floors to socialize, study, learn and even eat.

Newfound voice

Along with keeping graduate students in the fold of the University, the envisioned graduate center, Nelson said, could foster an avenue of expression that is now lacking. The School of Graduate Studies has assembled a Graduate Student Advisory Council, with representation from each College, to gauge the best uses of the building.

Nelson hopes that the Council will naturally morph into an organization, akin to UND’s Student Government, to capture and amplify the voice of graduate students.

“It is beneficial to grad students to have that and I think [the Dr. Kathleen and Hal Gershman Engagement Center] will help provide that too,” Nelson said. “[The center is] a way to make it clear to [master’s and Ph.D.] students that they matter to the University, the University cares about how they do here, about their quality of life while they are in grad school and the quality of their experience.”

Experience, of course, transcends the physical confines of the new graduate center. Thanks to the latest technology, online students will be able to more meaningfully engage with and participate in on-campus events such as seminars and expert talks.

Online success

But when it comes to completing assignments and doing research online, dedicated faculty make all the difference for distance learners.

Naima Kaabouch, electrical engineering professor and graduate program director, said that graduate faculty in her department sets up weekly virtual meetings with students in addition to constant email threads, phone calls and text messages.

The efforts have paid off. Under their expert guidance, online Ph.D. candidates are publishing top-quality articles and even filing provisional patents through their companies.

“This is very good because we are not doing just the theory but [we are] training students to solve real problems, to serve the country, their companies and to be able to compete in the global market,” said Kaabouch.

The success becomes even more remarkable with the relative novelty of UND’s online Ph.D. program in electrical engineering. Together with the online Ph.D. curriculum in energy engineering, it has been around for a little under three years.

“We recognized that students are most of the time working full time and have a family,” said Michael Mann, chemical engineering professor and executive director of the Institute of Energy Studies. “So we had to structure things a little bit differently, recognizing that they have different needs.”

Toward R1

Currently, nearly 35 students are progressing through their Ph.D. training in energy as well as electrical engineering from afar, Mann said.

Their research undertakings, he added, contribute to UND’s stride toward the premier Carnegie R1 designation (Highest Research Activity).

Nelson anticipates that the modernized Dr. Kathleen and Hal Gershman Engagement Center– with its plethora of objectives – will also help spur valuable graduate academic initiatives on the route toward R1.

“Better recruitment, more high-quality students, increased retention and completion – it all helps UND because it improves our reputation, it makes us the kind of place students want to come to, so they bring their knowledge, they bring their research skills and they help in our push toward Research 1 status,” he said.

Online community

The University’s partnership with the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD) also serves as an effective conduit to online reputation-building by extending support to faculty and graduate students.

Geared toward faculty and graduate students, NCFDD offers a suite of expert webinars and peer activities to boost research, writing and networking as well as to balance academia and personal life.

NCFDD offers a suite of expert webinars and peer activities to boost research, writing and networking as well as to balance academia and personal life. In doing so, it facilitates interactions among graduate students from various institutions.

“I think it is easy to get caught in thinking that you are all alone in your experience because it is pretty intensive,” said Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, which played a role in initiating the collaboration.

“To get a chance to hear from other people how they have managed [their graduate studies] – not just other people at UND, but to hear from somebody at UCLA, somebody at Florida State; to really think about that range of connections that grad students can make is really cool,” Juntunen said.

She added that these professional relations carry the reputation of UND across the country, not only drawing attention to its research and creative endeavors but also attracting prospective faculty and students.

UND’s cooperation with NCFDD, which began last semester, falls under the auspices of the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy (TTaDA), which provides similar professional enrichment services on campus.

“The diversity and inclusivity excellence work that continues to be done on campus is really important right now,” said Lynette Krenelka, executive director of TTaDA. “[NCFDD] ties right into that work that we are doing.”

On campus eminence  

While master’s and Ph.D. candidates may find NCFDD a useful resource toward the completion of their graduate education, their projects with UND faculty are increasingly gaining traction at esteemed regional and national conferences.

Earlier in February, Susan Felege (left) and nearly 30 of her students attended the Wildlife Society meeting in North Dakota, where they collected top awards for their research and presentations. Photo courtesy of Susan Felege.

Last week, for instance, 27 UND biology students – a third of them being graduates – took over the North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting in Mandan, where they collected top honors for their research and presentations.

“Students need to be able to talk about their work and they need to be able to talk about it to a variety of audiences,” said Susan Felege, associate professor in biology, who sponsors students in her wildlife lab to attend at least one large conference a year.

Such occasions allow them to wield a real influence in their chosen fields. A few years ago, Felege said, through extensive research, a graduate student of hers helped improve North Dakota’s hunting and trapping regulations.

“Continued and expanded support across the University for graduate students to attend such events is critical to show that our students are doing cutting-edge research that it has an impact,” Felege said.

Eye on future

Success at professional conferences, nonetheless, begins with thorough curricula in the classroom that meet the demands of today’s economy and, at the same time, look toward the future.

At the College of Business & Public Administration (CoBPA), graduate students like Jonathon Nord, who recently received a national recognition for his UAS-focused thesis, excel at varied master’s programs that offer unique opportunities such as concentrations in the latest business domains, including data analytics.

Beginning Fall 2019, the flagship MBA degree will offer a specialization in aviation management, blending the strengths of the College and UND’s renowned John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

“There are not a lot of MBA programs in the Unites States that have an aviation management concentration, so we are excited to be on the forefront,” said Kate Menzies, graduate admissions advisor at CoBPA.

Moreover, as graduate studies flourish in popularity, UND is among the forward-thinking institutions nationwide to offer accelerated 4 + 1 programs that grant a duo of a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 5 years.

Such an option – coupled with UND’s assorted enhancement of graduate education – allow students to not only navigate the job market of today but to also seize the possibilities of tomorrow.