College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct. - Dec. 2010 > A Master's Program with Personality

A Master's Program with Personality

Former and current students of the College Student Affairs graduate program discuss their experiences at Penn State, and how it will affect their careers.

by Marilyn Perez (December 2010)

Meeting the families of the faculty members in Penn State’s College Student Affairs program is merely a precursor to the consequential involvement and concern they take in students’ personal growth, career ambitions, and futures.

“It’s the faculty that really make it for me,” Jessica Harris, current CSA student, said. “They believe in me more than I believe in myself. It teaches me that I need to have more confidence in myself. It makes me want to return that to students that I work for.”

The 45-credit master’s of education is a collaborative program between the counselor education and higher education programs. It has been around, in this form, since 2004. It is the highest degree available in student affairs at Penn State.Reason_Robert.jpg

Robert Reason, professor-in-charge for the CSA program, said the program and its faculty prepare students to be active scholar-practitioners and “engrain in them the expectation of an active professional life.”

Many students come into college student affairs with a desire to make college students’ lives better, and sometimes that is transformed into a career in residence life in a college or university setting. Each student, however, discovers his or her true passion at a different point in life.

Harris knew she wanted to work as a student affairs professional after she saw firsthand the great impact similar professionals made on her own college experience. As a freshman at Occidental College, Harris had a hard time finding her place.

“I cried every day; I thought my mom was going to come and move in with me,” Harris said. “Student affairs professionals took an interest in me. I really grew and became a leader all over campus, had a great support system, and had great mentors. If it wasn't for them, I could’ve dropped out.”

Emil Cunningham, college student affairs alumnus, followed his love of residence life to a position in Nashville, Tennessee. But, after some time, he knew something was missing.

“I was working in an institution that did not align so much with my goals and what I saw myself doing as far as serving students,” Cunningham said. “I knew there was something wrong, I didn’t really know what it was.”Emil C.JPG

He decided to apply to positions in a number of institutions. He took a residence life job at Penn State, without the intentions of ever furthering his education. But, after meeting with some people in the field and trying out some classes, he was lured into the CSA program.

“I fell in love with just all of the information, all of the history behind it, all the theories behind the reasons why students develop in certain ways. I realized what was missing for me in Nashville was that I didn’t have that base.”

In addition to the information, Cunningham deeply appreciated the style of interaction between the program's students and its faculty members.

“The fact that they say, ‘Call me Bob. Call me Sue.’ That’s who they are to me. I take classes with other professors and, for me, they’re still doctor such and such,” he said. “It’s just that personal feeling.”

Cunningham said he has always been a die-hard residence life supporter; he was all about making the student experience more fun. But, after beginning the CSA program, he realized that there’s so much more to student affairs than that.

“College student affairs really focuses on the students, versus looking at the institution as a whole and managing policy and administration issues,” Cunningham said. “If you’re in it to get a degree and keep it moving, then you’re probably going to find a hard time. You’re going to need to sit down, be with yourself, and look yourself in the mirror, thinking, “Who am I?’ ”

Cunningham even said he remembers taking one class that involved emotionally deep self-reflection that transferred into his personal life. He said the program best prepares its students for life change. Cunningham is currently earning his doctoral degree in higher education at Penn State.

Dawn Snyder, an alumna of the CSA program at Penn State, said that to be successful in the program, one must think critically about students and constantly learn about him/herself.

“I look back on my two years at Penn State with such fondness and gratitude and with distinct memories of how hard it was at times—because growing and learning are often challenging processes that cause tension, internally and externally, and I was doing so much of it.”

It was the faculty that supported her and her cohort through the program’s challenges. Snyder is currently a resident director at Oregon State University, but has aspirations to become a full-time educator.

“Everything I learned about student learning and development, I see play out daily in the lives of the students in my hall or in the classes I teach,” Snyder said. “I know how to help students and my colleagues engage in dialogue about social justice and diversity because of what I learned and saw modeled at Penn State. Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful that I'm a CSA graduate.”