Talk to any Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in organizational leadership student or graduate from Brandman University and it doesn’t take long before they mention their cohort and cohort mentor.
Each class (referred to as Alphas, Betas, Gammas and Deltas, with more Greek letters to come) is subdivided by location and assigned mentors who guide them through the challenges of earning an Ed.D. Each group or cohort meets once a month, often to work on group projects. We caught up with a few of the mentors at the recent three-day immersion in Irvine to find out why students see them as the linchpins of the program.
What mentors offer
Brandman cohort mentors are active professionals in both education and the private sector, as well as recent retirees. Most are mentors, at least informally, in their professions, and many worked as mentors in more formal settings.
“I have a unique experience among all the faculty and adjunct faculty, having been at the change-agent level at the state and national level and involved in making huge changes – billion dollar changes – within the system,” said Patrick Ainsworth, a cohort mentor in Roseville, and recently retired assistant superintendent for secondary education for the state of California.
“I’ve led small organizations, some large organizations. I’ve found that work is work,” said Ainsworth, adding that many of the same issues pop up no matter the size of the organization.
Cheryl-Marie Osborne brings an additional perspective, particularly valuable to Ed.D. students not working in education. She’s chief of staff for the mayor of Riverside, California, but her professional background includes 11 years as a vice president with an international engineering firm, owning her own business and working at the community college level. She’s served as a mentor throughout her career and at her church.
“It’s my passion, I guess, particularly mentoring first generation, low-income students. I was one as well,” she said.
Tod Burnett, president of Saddleback Community College in Orange County, helped devise the cohort/mentor system as one of the original members of the advisory board charged with guiding the Ed.D. program into existence.
Balancing the demands for a college presidency and being a mentor can be hard, he said, but “we also bring the other side, which is the experience, the connections, the guidance in that broad scope, it gives credibility to the program.”
It isn’t just students who benefit. Each mentor also stressed how much he or she gains from the experience.
“I feel like I’ve stepped into the Disneyland of universities. I was talking to a friend last night and she said ‘I’ve never heard you so happy.’ And I said, ‘I’m here at Brandman,’” said Laurie Goodman, superintendent of the Winship-Robbins School District near Yuba City, California.
“I find it to be so rewarding, to be part of their (cohort students’) lives. I feel like I’ve given birth now to an additional 22 children – even though a couple of them may be older than me. The work is so important because it influences their lives and how they’re impacting others. You feel such a privilege and obligation at the same time,” said Goodman.
John Halverson, a recently retired school superintendent who led districts in Nevada City, Modesto, Amador County and Oroville, also considers the students he mentors more family than students. He holds his cohort meetings at his home on the Stanislaus River. “My wife is there and greets them. It creates more of a family experience for them,” he said.
“The benefit I get out of this, is I get to stay engaged in learning. Every cohort group I get, I always tell them, ‘I think I’m learning more than you folks are.’ Learning never ends. And that’s what I want them to know. I’m a 64-year-old man who has a lot more to learn in my life. I want them to see that,” said Halverson.
A shared regard for students
Brandman cohort mentors universally voiced an appreciation of students in the program, both for their willingness to grow and learn and for juggling the often conflicting demands of school, work and family.
“It’s a very rigorous program. But what it means is that students who have done this, can do just about anything,” said Jonathan Greenberg, superintendent of the Perris Union High School District, and mentor for the Riverside Deltas. “It’s my responsibility to help them keep the program in perspective.”
“I’m not trying to be Bart Simpson and tell them to get Bs – ‘Bs get degrees’ – but I am the one to tell them to carve out time for their families,” said Greenberg.
Mentors often find themselves offering advice on a variety of levels.
“They come to me with very specific issues. They come to me with issues regarding Brandman itself – how do I balance my coursework with the rest of my life, how do I understand exactly what needs to be done with this coursework with this assignment? I’m so fortunate that this is my fourth year because now I can say, here’s what’s coming, here’s what the expectations are,” said Goodman, who said she’s also listened to problems in their personal lives, their work lives and even conflict within the cohort. She often uses role-playing to help work out solutions.
Mentors are the face of the university, said Burnett. “Because the classes are mostly online, you really do need that in-person, face-of-the-program. It’s a very rigorous program, so having that peer support is critical to get through. I know absolutely, without a doubt, that if it wasn’t for the cohort system, we would be losing a lot of students. Because this program is rigorous. It’s exciting, but it’s not easy.”
“This whole program, for lack of a better word, it’s energizing and exciting. I think I’ve become a better leader. I’m exposed to the newest, greatest ideas about transformational leadership,” said Greenberg, adding that he thought the Brandman program, by focusing on transformational leadership surpassed other organizational leadership programs. “That’s what makes this program, from what I know about in California, completely unique.”
“Brandman really is the most innovative, affective and exciting … and that’s why I stayed with it. It is everything I wish I had gone through in a program. The differences are just dramatic,” said Burnett, who earned his degree at Pepperdine University 20 years ago, adding, at the time, Pepperdine’s was considered highly innovative.
Plenty of reasons to be pleased
Ultimately, it’s student success stories that make the mentors most proud.
“I’m proud of all their progress, but each looks different,” said Osborne. Some students, such as 2015 graduate Toni Bland, already had incredible achievements but gained new skills. “When I look at her career (Bland is a commander for the Orange County Sherriff’s Department) and what she’s achieved, I’m just blown away. That woman can go out and do anything she wants.”
Other students come in with less self-confidence. “But I love the student who comes in and is struggling, spinning their wheels. I find those are the students who make progress by leaps and bounds. And that’s really fun to watch,” said Osborne, recalling a woman with a very analytical background in research who really embraced a more personal style of leadership.
“She made substantial changes to her research organization and their morale went up. She gets letters from people saying they have never felt so appreciated.”
Ainsworth points to the transformational change projects done early in students’ second year and the organizational changes they foster as something he uses to really challenge students. A community college physics instructor was struggling to find a project, he said.
“Finally, he realized that he’s associated with a museum that’s on their campus, a natural history museum that’s been a pet project of a few people over many years. But the museum wanted to take a big step forward and become an independent organization and get national accreditation. So he stepped in and became the facilitator of that process. He coached the director through it. He got the old-timers to let go and trust the next generation,” said Ainsworth. “It made a gigantic change with hundreds of school children taking trips there.”
“Being a cohort mentor is a really satisfying experience,” he added.
“Brandman Ed.D. students are risk-takers. People who are open to a challenge,” said Halverson. “They don’t come because they think the program is going to change their lives. But then they get here and we change their lives. They realize that whole purpose is not for them to get a Dr. before their name. The whole purpose is to transform you, for you to be a transformational leader and you’ll figure it out by the time you get to the end.”