Elon University graduates second Master of Arts in Higher Education class

The program on Tuesday graduated 12 students who will leave Elon prepared to pursue careers in a wide range of higher education environments.

PHOTO GALLERY: 2021 Elon Master of Arts in Higher Education Commencement

Twelve students on Wednesday became the newest graduates of Elon’s Master of Arts in Higher Education program, emerging from two years of work prepared to pursue a variety of professional opportunities in higher education.

The Class of 2021 is the second class to graduate from the program, which combines extensive coursework, internships and apprenticeships that placed them into roles across Elon’s campus. The program focuses on learning and practicing the principles of effective education, exploring the functions, issues and leadership of higher education; and prepared them for leadership roles in colleges and universities.

Darris Means ’05, an associate professor at the University of PIttsburgh School of Education, delivered the Commencement address to the new graduates.

In his remarks to the graduating class, Darris Means ’05 encouraged the new graduates to see themselves as a pebble that when thrown into water can create a ripple effect that impacts the lives of many and the field of higher education.

“When it gets tough, I hope you remember that you are more than enough to address pressing issues, you are more than enough to collectively work together with others to make a difference, and you are more than enough to be a pebble that will continue to have profound ripple effects in higher education but also in your communities, families and our society,” said Means, an associate professor in educational foundations, organization and policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

Means recounted how as a child he would throw pebbled into pools of water, amazed at the size and impact of the ripples they created. “I am left thinking about how we all have encountered people who have been pebbles in our own lives, causing ripple effects,” Means said. “And how the ripple effects of all the people we encounter can amplify and overlap, shaping who we are today.”

Ripples from people such as his mother and grandparents let Means to pursue a career focused on education, youth development and social change. From 2007 until 2011, Means served as first assistant director and then associate director of Elon Academy, the university’s year-round college access and success program for high school and college students. Means continues to return to Elon’s campus each summer to participate in Elon Academy’s summer residential program.

As an educator and researcher, he said he has seen how people and institutions can positively impact the lives of students, offering examples from research studies he was involved in. Their stories reflect larger systemic issues and challenges in higher education and our society, Means said.

Christopher Horack, a member of the graduating class, delivered remarks to his fellow students.

He pointed to one student, Sally, who faced extensive personal and financial challenges that threatened to derail her education. Then a staff member in the student support center helped take the burden off of her so she could focus on school.

Another student, Ana, graduated high school at the top of her class, and arrived at her university as a first-generation college student only to find a lack of support for her transition into higher education. She considered dropping out before meeting a biology professor who helped her navigate his course, and also shared about his struggles navigating college.

A third student named Deanna grew up poor, and delayed her admission to university to work and save to help support herself while she pursued a degree. She continued working after entering school, and faced significant financial challenges. It was the support of her academic advisor that helped her complete her degree, after which she planned to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“There are Sallys and Anas and Deannas on college and university campuses across the country,” Means said. “As higher education professionals, we can choose each day even through the smallest gestures — saying “Hello,” checking in with a student, tapping a student for an opportunity. We have an opportunity to be a pebble on a student’s educational journey that could have a tremendous impact in their lives.”

In his remarks to her fellow students, Christopher Horack talked about the challenges they faced collectively and individually during the past two years as they conquered coursework, group projects and professional duties. “In the face of a pandemic we pivoted to online learning for the spring 2020 semester and persevered through challenges we could not have imagined,” Horack said. “The relationships we have built have set us up with mentors and mentees who will continue to have a positive influence on our lives long beyond our time at Elon. Our experiences in and out of the classroom have prepared us to be scholar-practitioners who will work to challenge the status quo and affect meaningful change.”

Horack shared that members of the class referred to themselves as “lil’ oaks,” drawing from the name of the university, which is Hebrew for “oak.” But they are little no more, he said. “I believe we have grown and matured into mighty oaks, each with our unique set of gifts to share with the world,” Horack said. “Greatness lies in you, mighty oaks. Know that you are here for a reason and because you are here, anything is possible.”

Ann Bullock, dean of the School of Education, offered highlights of the programs and initiatives the members of the Class of 2021 led or supported during their internships on Elon’s campus. “Given this impressive list, I can only imagine what you will do in the next phases of your careers,” Bullock said.

President Connie Ledoux Book offered a charge to the new graduates, celebrating what they have achieved, thanking them for their work at the university and underscoring the connection they will always have with Elon.

Candidates for the Master of Arts in Higher Education Degree

Dominique Nicole Battle
B.A., Salem College

Ashton Elizabeth Croft
B.A., Texas Christian University 

Nicole Lee Galante
A.B., Elon University

Mackenzie Elaine Hall
B.S., Ohio University

Natalie M. Hawkes
B.A., University of Scranton

Christopher Edward Horack
B.S., Endicott College

Marjae M. Jackson
B.S., Southern Connecticut State University

Maria Jose Larrazabal
B.A., Florida International University 

Torii Ann Masinsin
B.S., Christopher Newport University

Zoe Paulina Palomaki
B.S., The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Joseph Michael Strid
B.S., Western New England University

Shawn David Thompson
B.A., Curry College