Advancing by degrees

Feature: Advancing by degrees

Graduate programs extend Messiah's mission

From her home in Texas, hundreds of miles from Grantham, Pennsylvania, Suzanne Dell MA ’16 completed a Master of Music in conducting in July. That degree came from Messiah College.

“Getting my master’s was always something I had wanted to do,” said Dell, a director of the Blue Raider Band for the L.D. Bell High School in Bedford, Texas. “I did not, however, want to leave my job or my home to pursue it as a full-time student. The mix of online and onsite instruction was perfect for my work and family situation.”

Advancing by degreesWhat makes a busy professional seek out a degree program so far from home? The convenience of an online program is certainly a draw, but many colleges and universities offer remote instruction in today’s plugged-in society. Why did Dell choose Messiah, specifically?

“We talk a great deal about knowledge, skill and character,” said Rob Pepper, dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “Society is looking for people with a strong knowledge base, with strong relevant skills and those of high character. These same threads that shape and mold the undergraduate experience are woven throughout our graduate program, as well.”

Extending the mission

Committed to stellar undergraduate academics for more than 100 years, Messiah launched its graduate programs seven years ago through a strategic effort. Supported by the Board of Trustees, the movement was championed by President Kim Phipps and Provost Randy Basinger while also fully vetted through the College’s strategic planning and budgeting process. Phipps said it was important for Messiah to expand its curricular offerings to include graduate programs for two key reasons.

 “First, our region and the broader world need Messiah graduates in every profession and discipline at every level of leadership. Institutionally, we were ready to fulfill our mission in this new context,” said Phipps. “Second, the changing demographics of fewer high school graduates in the Mid-Atlantic compelled us to be innovative and pursue new student audiences.”

The tremendous growth of graduate programs has resulted in the formation of its own school—the School of Graduate Studies—that includes more than 600 students; multiple degrees, certificates and program options; the College’s first doctoral launch; and even a new facility.

“In creating the School of Graduate Studies,” said Pepper, “we adopted a centralized organization model that focuses on graduate programs while preserving the identity of the strong undergraduate programming.”

One component of that identity includes the new Winding Hill facility, a 32,000-square-foot space two miles from the main campus. It houses the allied health graduate programs: occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT), counseling and the dietetic internship. The facility offers specialized classroom and lab space, an onsite cafe and many other amenities specifically relevant to graduate students and faculty in these programs.

With the exception of the OT and PT degrees, students conduct the bulk of their studies through Canvas, the College’s online learning management system. There are synchronous sessions—where the entire class logs on at the same time—and asynchronous, when students log on at their convenience individually.

“The way we conduct synchronous classes sessions is similar to Facetime or Skype and provides the opportunity for students and faculty to engage in real time, regardless of the distance,” said Pepper.

Launched as one of the first graduate programs with 66 students in 2009, the Master of Arts in counseling has grown to be the largest graduate program at Messiah with nearly 300 enrolled last year. Messiah has the only online, faith-based, Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)-accredited master’s in counseling program in Pennsylvania and one of the only CACREP-accredited, online, faith-based programs in marriage, couple and family counseling in the U.S. Students with a variety of undergraduate majors can pursue the degree, which has concentrations in clinical mental health counseling; marriage, couple and family counseling; and school counseling.

“We have students who are coming right out of their undergrad and then we have other students who are coming back for their second or third career,” said Heather Barto, director of the program. “It provides a way for those interested in becoming a counselor to do so while still balancing the rest of their life.”

Stacy Masshardt MA ’16 graduated from the program and now operates Sacred Ground Counseling in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, as a marriage and family counselor. The online program suited her busy schedule as a professional. “Balancing a full-time job, life, family and studies was difficult,” she said. “It took me four years to complete the program and there were a lot of sacrifices along the way. I was motivated to do my best in the classes to make the sacrifices worth it.”

The counseling degree is a prime example of the knowledge, skill and character tenets of Messiah’s mission. “Effective counselors must know counseling theory, refine their skills as counselors and practice ethically,” said Pepper. “That’s the reputation we’re building on.”

Also introduced in 2009, the Master of Music in conducting is one of the first and only online programs of its kind in the U.S.

“Our program is very specifically designed to meet the needs of working public school music educators who seek to hone their skills and master the craft of conducting,” said Bill Stowman, director of the program, which includes three tracks: choral, orchestral and wind conducting.

Although the ability to apply conducting techniques remotely was unheard of years ago, music professors now use a program called VoiceThread, which critiques students in real time.

“They can watch somebody conduct, and they can insert comments into different points during it,” said Pepper. “So, you’re saying, ‘Your right hand is now too low, it should be up higher.’”

Students get to know each other through synchronous learning sessions and in-person summer intensives, sharing ideas and stories.

“The networking aspect of the program has far exceeded anyone’s expectations,” said Stowman. “Also, I’m surprised by how many come to campus for Commencement. The degree clearly means a great deal to them.”

To meet the growing trends and needs in healthcare, students who already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing can choose from two graduate programs at Messiah: a Doctor of Nursing Practice: family nurse practitioner (post-BSN to DNP-FNP) or a Master of Science in Nursing: nurse educator (MSN).

“Nursing meets a lot of the things we want to do at Messiah College in terms of educating people in leadership, service and reconciliation,” said Louann Zinsmeister, director of both programs. “Our graduate programs take that to the next level.”

Nurse practitioners, part of a growing field, provide direct primary care to patients. The DNP, Messiah’s first doctorate-level program, requires four to six years of study. The first cohort of 19 students began classes in August.

Advancing by degrees“The curriculum is built for the future,” said Zinsmeister. “The nurse practitioner is fulfilling a need of our society. There are going to be more and more in the older age group who require some kind of primary care that isn’t necessarily done in a hospital.”

The MSN, on the other hand, is a two- to three-year program for those who want to become nurse educators, teaching future students to become competent nurses. Zinsmeister explained that the nurse educator workforce is retiring rapidly and new educators are needed to fill the gaps. The first cohort of nine women graduated from Messiah’s MSN program in May.

One of them, Nancy Frank MSN ’16, is Messiah’s clinical liaison placement coordinator for the undergraduate nursing program. “At the end when we looked back, it was amazing how all of our learning experiences had built on each other to transform our perspectives into that of nurse educators,” said Frank, who is now working toward a Ph.D.  at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Both Messiah programs are conducted primarily online, allowing students to complete coursework on their own time. Clinical hours are completed at a variety of healthcare and higher education settings.

“It’s very self-directed. You’re doing clinical hours and classwork.” said Zinsmeister. “What I really hope people understand is that online does not mean easy. Our main goal is to build quality programs so that we can serve the needs of people.”

The Master of Occupational Therapy degree is a full-time, 80-credit-hour program that runs year-round for 25 months. Admissions is currently accepting 30 students into the program, which begins in July of 2017.

“Things like brushing your teeth, getting dressed and going to work are all occupations,” explained Darlene Perez-Brown, the program’s director. “When a person has a disability and is unable to carry out their daily routine occupations, it is our work to help them to be able to perform their functions and carry out their roles.”

In addition to classes and labs, occupational therapy (OT) students will complete onsite fieldwork in settings such as schools, homeless shelters and other environments to apply their skills to help those in need.

“We are basing our model on the mission of the college, so we’re looking to develop the intellect and Christian character in preparation for lives of service and leadership,” Perez-Brown said.

As Messiah’s second doctoral program, the Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) will launch in the fall of 2018. While OT focuses on performing everyday tasks of life, physical therapy concentrates more on movement. “Traditionally, a physical therapist is looking at movement disorders,” said Valerie Olson, program director. “This may be due to a developmental disorder or a trauma or a disease process. The goal is to get them functional and moving in the environment they are going to be involved in.”

Classes and labs will be primarily onsite at Winding Hill with some online work. Offsite clinical-level experience will be implemented throughout the program, as well.

Olson says she is looking to make a faith-based global impact with the program, planning a mission trip as part of the curriculum. “I think the thing that led me here is the freedom to be a Christian, to carry out the mission,” said Olson. “The fact that you can pray during a test or talk about the spiritual aspects of rehab is key.”

Launched in 2015, Messiah’s graduate-level dietetic internship requires completion of 1,275 supervised practice hours in a 10-month period. Students must complete these hours through rotations at a variety of settings while also being responsible for their online work in the form of discussions, reports and projects.

“Messiah’s internship also completes a component of food insecurity [access to food limited by a lack of money or resources] issues as well as faith-based service leadership coursework and discussions, which sets it apart from other internship opportunities,” said Michelle Sanford ’93, director of the program.

Messiah is one of the few Christian colleges preparing registered dietitians. The program, which started with eight students, has grown to 10 this fall. It was created, in part, to meet the national shortage of internships.

“Wellspan Hospital’s clinical nutrition manager approached Messiah College about the possibility of beginning an internship, using Wellspan facilities as a clinical site. Wellspan had been approached by other institutions; however, they came to us,” said Pepper. “The history that I get to build on and the reputation of Messiah College make it easy. When I approach someone in an applied health setting, school or business, everyone says, ‘Oh, we’ll hire any Messiah alum. They’re so good at what they do, and they are great to work with.’”

When students complete the internship, they earn a certificate of completion from Messiah College, which includes an ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics) form showing completion of all requirements and 19 graduate credits. Once the internship is complete, students then sit for their exam to be a registered dietitian (R.D.)

Advancing with the knowing, being, doing triune of excellence, Messiah offers two education graduate degrees that prepare professionals to work with everyone from kindergartners to college students.

The Master of Arts in higher education prepares graduate students to begin or advance a career at a college or university. Conducted primarily online, grad students can choose from concentrations in academic support services, college athletics leadership, strategic leadership and student affairs. Or, they can create their own course of study.

Advancing by degreesThe program integrates faith and learning while also equipping students for jobs in a secular environment. “I think our students have to be prepared to work in multiple places in a multitude of types of colleges and universities,” said Dottie Weigel, director of the program. “Get them to think outside that box of Christian higher education.”

Marcus Washington ’05, MA ’14 completed the program two years ago and now works as an assistant director of residence life at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. “The program is designed in a way that you have meaningful, impactful discussions with your classmates that allow you to develop personal relationships,” said Washington. “I owe my advancement in my career to my degree in higher education.”

The Master of Education, geared predominantly toward educators teaching K-12, offers three degree tracks in special education, a track in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)and a track in curriculum and instruction. The program also offers numerous certification and certificate options, including a certificate in autism spectrum disorder. In 2015, the program was ranked No. 8 in Best Online Programs by

“We are committed to providing the highest level of academic programming and teaching,” said Nancy Patrick, program director. “In exchange, we expect our students will engage fully in the curriculum and give their best to the learning process.”

For Lilian Schultz M.Ed. ’16, an administrative assistant in Messiah’s Early Learning Center, the M.Ed. with a concentration in TESOL was more than a professional accomplishment. The degree has strengthened her ties to the community.

“I teach ESL [English as a Second Language] part time and volunteer as a director of an ESL program in Harrisburg,” said Schultz. “This program has opened up many doors for me in the community, where I see myself as a resource and an advocate for English language learners.”

For the busy professional, Messiah also offers a Master of Arts in strategic leadership and a Master of Business Administration (MBA). What makes the programs unique is the emphasis on Christian faith and how it’s applied in the marketplace. “Our faith integration emphasis is something you don’t get at most graduate and business leadership schools,” explained Kristopher Cravey, director of both programs. “We view business and leadership through the lens of faith, which gives it deep meaning, value and purpose. It has the power to transform our perspective, to see the common good businesses and organizations can have in the world through the products and services they create.”

The 30-credit-hour master’s in strategic leadership degree enhances a broad range of undergraduate degrees and can be completed in 18 months. Many enter the program to develop stronger leadership and communication skills or to enhance their effectiveness within their organizations.

“My master’s has better equipped me to be a well-rounded leader in the workplace, church and community,” said Lauren Seneca ’12, MA ’16, associate director of annual giving at Messiah and recent graduate of the strategic leadership program. “As part of the annual giving team, I am challenged to match our donors’ passions with the needs of the College in order for us to better the Messiah experience for students. My ability to think critically, analyze and research—all skills I have developed through the program—is an essential part of this process.”

Unlike the M.A. in strategic leadership, the MBA program requires students to have an undergraduate background in business. The degree offers several concentrations—digital marketing; management; organizational and strategic communication; social entrepreneurship; or strategic leadership. The first students from the MBA program will graduate in May.

 “Some are entry or mid-level managers who are looking to sharpen their skills to lead teams and organizations effectively and grow in their career,” Cravey explained, “Others are fresh out of an undergrad program who are saying, ‘I really need to seize the opportunity now to prepare for a life of influence and service.’”

Continuing with Messiah’s long-standing tradition of academic excellence, top faculty members provide both a mix of academic credentials and professional business experience to offer students the best in theory and practice. Both degrees culminate in a capstone project—similar to a thesis—which a student completes with a faculty member for a semester-long mentoring process.

“We’re really focused on the practical piece of it,” said Cravey. “It’s not just about having knowledge of the content areas. It’s about being able to take that knowledge and apply it in a real-world setting to make an impact.”

The future

While Messiah continues strengthening its current graduate programming, new programs will be added—with thoughtful deliberation. “We have to discern our strengths and our capacity for the new programs. We have to answer the question, ‘Is there a need for this program?’” said Pepper, when discussing the process of adding new programs. “We build off the strength and history and tradition of who Messiah has been and the needs of the world.”