Elmhurst College In Depth

The Real Deal

In Elmhurst’s nine graduate programs, the learning takes students from the campus to the corporation, the hospital, the school, the factory, and even to the living rooms of families with special needs children.

One of the lasting lessons of Becky Kern’s graduate education came not in a classroom but in the toy-strewn living room of a modest home about an hour west of Elmhurst.

Kern is earning her master’s degree in early childhood special education. She had come to the house in a small Illinois town for one of her regular visits with a severely disabled one-year-old girl and her single mother. To get the conversation started one morning, Kern asked the mother how her weekend had gone.

Badly, it turned out.

The mother was having trouble getting the care she needed for her daughter. With no job, no car, and no support from her family, she didn’t know where to turn. She sometimes felt stranded in her home. Except for Kern’s visits, she had precious little opportunity to explain all this to anybody. So she cried and told Kern all about it.

Later, Kern recalled the experience. “It was an intense hour. It taught me how important it is just to listen.”

Becky Kern’s experience was part of a field-work project that pairs graduate students with the families of children with special needs. The students visit the families at their homes, sit in on meetings with social workers, tag along on trips to the doctor. The idea is to immerse the students—future special education teachers and therapists—in the realities of life as lived by these families.

“It’s a powerful learning experience,” says Kern, who hopes to teach in a special education setting. “Classes are great, but sitting in classrooms won’t give you the real picture of what these families are feeling and going through, what their needs are. This is about the reality of the situation.”

Professor Therese Wehman is the director of the early childhood special education program. She says that the program’s students consistently rate working with families as the most beneficial experience of their graduate studies. “It’s important for the students to get comfortable with parents of the children they’ll be working with, to understand the parental perspective,” says Wehman. “They don’t just learn in the classroom; they learn from field work. They learn by getting out into families’ homes and into schools.”

This emphasis on learning by engaging real-world challenges is a hallmark of graduate education at Elmhurst. Since the first master’s courses were offered in 1998, the graduate programs have linked pedagogy and practice. The focus is not on readying students to earn doctoral degrees, but rather on preparing professionals to achieve a higher level of service and achievement. Each program is offered in a field where a master’s degree provides an important credential that expands employment opportunities.

“As a college, we believe in combining liberal education with professional preparation,” says John Bohnert, the founding dean of graduate study and the director of the School for Advanced Learning. “That’s what we do in graduate study. Each program teaches the critical thinking and analytical skills that we associate with liberal learning. Each program also provides practical preparation for careers.”

Field experiences like Becky Kern’s are a key element of professional preparation in the Elmhurst model. Field work hones problem-solving skills and prepares students to better navigate the complexities of pro-
fessional environments.

During and after their graduate program careers, Elmhurst’s students work to advance the cause of local institutions and organizations. Students in the teacher leadership, English studies, and nursing programs provide invaluable service in Chicago-area schools and hospitals. Business students work directly with companies to solve problems in ways that often produce effciencies and cost savings. Students in the master’s program in industrial/organizational psychology team with institutions to develop and train employees. “Our students are interested in getting out in the world and applying what they’re learning,” says Associate Professor Thomas Sawyer, the director of the industrial/organizational psychology program.

Sawyer’s program was ranked among the top five in the nation by tip, a leading professional publication in the field. The program applies the science of psychology to the challenges of the workplace. Students go into the world of work to conduct surveys, prepare employee manuals, and monitor performance appraisals. One student team, for example, helped Elmhurst Memorial Hospital develop a new staff training and development center. “Students have to be able to make connections between the world of the scientist and the world of the practitioner,” says Sawyer. “They have to show us they can bridge both worlds.”

Most Elmhurst graduate students bring professional experience of their own to their studies. Professor Roby Thomas, director of the master’s program in supply chain management, says his students come with “anywhere from three to thirty-three years of experience.” They put it to work in a team-based project in their second year of study.

Working in groups of four or five, the students approach one of their employers for permission to study a supply-chain problem
facing the company, then make recommendations about how to solve it. One student team worked with executives from Motorola and proposed redesigning the packaging of certain products to allow the company to transport more supply in each shipment. Another project, for Boise Cascade, devised a system for integrating inbound product returns and outbound product deliveries to make the most efficient use of each round trip.

The proposals that result from student projects often end up saving companies considerable sums of money, Thomas says. For the students, the experience has its own particular value. “Our students come from a lot of different corporate backgrounds, from engineering to marketing to the vendor side,” he says. “Working in teams, they break out of those little silos and get exposure to different areas.”

The backgrounds graduate students bring to the campus enrich the College and the larger community. “They bring a valuable perspective,” says Bohnert. “Undergraduates often end up learning from them about the world of work. They also provide a link to professional networks, to employment and internship opportunities.” The MBA and Master of Professional Accountancy programs, he notes, have alumni groups to foster professional connections. The groups have opened their memberships to alumni of Elmhurst’s much larger undergraduate programs as well.

Since so many Elmhurst graduate students are working professionals, the College works to accommodate busy schedules, offering classes at night and, in some cases, online. The program in computer information systems is offered as a hybrid of on-campus and online course work. Students traveling on business can access course work from remote locations. One student in the program lives in Tennessee.

The first master’s programs at Elmhurst were introduced in 1998, with fifty-two students pursuing master’s degrees in four programs. Today, nearly 300 students work in nine programs. The institution’s basic approach to graduate education has remained constant. Like the pioneering programs, today’s offerings continue to build on the College’s established curricular strengths, to combine the academic and the practical, and to encourage engagement with the larger world. “Our students are out there working with the community as part of their course work,” Bohnert notes. “They learn, and their projects make a real difference in the community.”

Therese Wehman points to the program in early childhood special education as an example of a master’s program that thrives by filling a distinctive niche. It is the only program in the area that works at the intersection of early childhood education and special education. “What we do better than most is offer a very specialized focus,” she says. “Our graduates offer a specific skill set. Employers appreciate that. It’s an example of knowing what you’re good at, and doing just that.”

The graduate students themselves are among the most passionate ambassadors for the master’s programs. Deb Mirabelli met an Elmhurst student when she was a stay-at-home mother of three children; the youngest, Samantha, has Down syndrome. Mirabelli agreed to host and mentor a student from the early childhood special education program. She came away so impressed with the student and the program that she decided to enroll at Elmhurst herself. She’s now pursuing her master’s degree and plans to work as a therapist.

“This program takes you beyond what you learn in the classroom,” she says. “It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting down on the floor with kids. It’s about going into people’s homes and earning their trust, about listening to them. It’s a wonderful way to learn.”

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