In academia, a dedication to lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge to enhance our practices is critical for higher education administrators, as demographics continue to change and impact our current vision of what “college” looks like.  I was attracted to William & Mary’s Higher Education Program as it would allow me to continue my work as a practitioner in the field focused on admission visitations, while also challenging me to design my own research on college choice and the campus visit, eventually defining my own college choice theory.

When I finished my Ph.D. in 2016, I knew the educational experience provided me with the historical knowledge and research experience to back up my practitioner-based expertise with college choice and the campus visit.  I improved my problem-solving skills, fine-tuned my academic writing, and prepared for the next steps on my career trajectory, as I plan to become a Dean of Undergraduate Admission.

My experience at William & Mary will forever inscribe the Tribe in my heart, but also assisted me in making the jump to working at Duke University with the Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows.  In my role as the Associate Director for Merit Scholarship programs, I direct the annual recruitment of 150 merit scholars out of the top applicants at Duke University.  I lead the campus visitation program/interview process for all merit scholarship finalists, and my team and I support over 500 scholars programmatically throughout the year.

When I reflect on my ability to implement scholarship into practice, I immediately consider all the techniques I learned from my experiences with research, reflection, and assessment at William & Mary to put positive change into practice.  When I first arrived at Duke, the schedule for programming for the year was set, and I learned quite a bit during that first year about what I personally observed to be working and what needed some additional tweaking.  I utilized surveys and conversations with my scholars in order to better inform the work for my second year.  Over the summer, I was able to utilize the feedback I had received, create collaborative spaces for discussion, and draft and revise a new programmatic plan for the current academic year.

This year I implemented a first-year program series for all first-year scholars across 10 different merit scholarships at Duke University.  In this program, I introduced them to the benefits and responsibilities of being a merit scholar, allowed them to engage with a life-values inventory and reflected on what they hope to get out of their college experience. I also brought in author Tara Westover from the New York Times best-selling book Educated to teach them grit, resilience, and gratitude, including their introduction to the world of the arts in Durham, outside of the Duke bubble. 

But the learning in my job does not stop here.  Much as the programming has become more intentional and more successful this year thanks to the tools I learned in Educational Planning and Evaluation & Assessment at William & Mary. There is always room to continue growing and improving.

My time at Duke has been a whirlwind: I was asked to serve as my high school’s Chair of Ideas and deliver a speech about my career to students; I use research and focus groups to create more equitable scholar selection and recruitment practices; I utilize texts and articles frequently in staff trainings/meetings; I presented research at the NACAC conference with over 10,000 attendees;  I enrolled in Managing at Duke and attended a series of Racial & Social Equity trainings, and I applied for a Fulbright IEA Seminar for Higher Education Administrators.  I attribute these successes to my time and education at William & Mary in the Higher Education Program.  I will forever exercise my intellectual curiosity, desire to improve myself and others through Higher Education, and passion for research and scholarship.

Dr. Justine Okerson is the Associate Director for Merit Scholarship Programs in the Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows (OUSF) at Duke University. Justine earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from William & Mary, where she completed her dissertation on college choice and the campus visit.

Image: Duke Today