Denver native Paula Abitia had always wanted to attend her “dream school,” the University of Colorado Boulder, yet as a first-generation student of color, the reality of her dream included the struggle for a sense of belonging. She credits higher education professionals with helping her get through challenging times.
“I grew up rooting for CU, but when I first arrived as an eager 18-year-old, I just felt out of place,” she said. “Academically I was capable of performing well, but without that social connection, I struggled. I thought about transferring or leaving, but higher education professionals and my involvement in student organizations helped me to stay, persist and ultimately graduate.”
She cited caring campus mentors from the Ethnic Studies, work-study colleagues from the Pre-collegiate Program, and staff with the McNeill Academic Program, where Abitia was once a scholar and is now paying it forward as a McNeill program coordinator.
Abitia is also one of five students who will graduate this spring as part of the inaugural cohort of Master’s in Higher Education graduates. The program allows students to explore personal and professional experiences while investigating higher education practices, policies and research. Launched in 2017, the program aims to prepare knowledgeable, ethical and diverse leaders in higher education and boasts evening coursework to accommodate professionals’ busy schedules.
Flexibility to continue working full-time and comradery with other education professionals were key draws for Abitia.
“There is a sense of bonding in that we all came from work and now we’re in class and in it together,” she said. “We have experience working in higher education or with students in K-12 or in the non-profit sector, and we have the space to bring that knowledge into the classroom.
“It is this coupling of theoretical foundation with practical experiences that makes for really rich conversations, because our experiences and knowledges are seen as valuable.”
Based in the School of Education, the Master’s in Higher program is a collaboration with departments across campus, and program founder Michele Moses calls it a special program for many reasons.
“Not only do students gain a strong foundation in the history and philosophy of higher education and knowledge of program evaluation and research methods, but also they hone practical higher education skills in courses led by current higher education leaders,” said Moses, education professor and CU Boulder vice provost for faculty affairs.
“This combination of scholarly work and experiential learning is unique among higher education and student affairs degrees across the nation.”
Students gain practical experience and working knowledge of higher education practices from higher education professionals. Courses are led by education faculty and faculty affiliates who are often CU Boulder leaders working in career services, finance, community engagement, student affairs and more.
As a Buffs fan, Abitia enjoyed the opportunity to take an athletic affairs class with CU Boulder legend Ceal Barry, former women’s basketball coach and current deputy athletic director, and she was pleasantly surprised that the course on higher education funding ended up one of her favorites.
“I really did enjoy that practical application piece of the program, because higher education is so dynamic and so fluid, to be a strong professional and good practitioner, you have to be knowledgeable about the different facets of higher education,” she said.
That’s what Abitia is looking forward after graduation too — continuing to learn and remaining dedicated to supporting students, who much like her younger self, often need someone who believes in them.
“More than anything what drives my passion is the students that I am privileged enough to work alongside every single day,” she said. “Their skills and leadership and intellect really inspire me to continue my work of service and advocacy in pursuit of educational equity.”