Bernadette Heitschmidt didn’t start her college journey with an eye on staying there.
Raised in Garfield Ridge, near Midway Airport, she attended Marquette University to study advertising with a minor in graphic design.
“I had a rough first year. I didn’t do so great in my academics. I wasn’t involved, which was a complete 180 from what my personality was in high school,” Heitschmidt says.
During her sophomore year, however, she joined the community council in her residence hall – and, in the process, discovered her life’s true path. By her junior year, she was a Resident Assistant, a position she would hold through graduation.
Eventually, her boss – the hall director – “started shoulder-tapping me and saying, ‘Hey, did you ever think about going into Student Affairs?’ I was completely against it. I was an advertising major,” she says. “But I realized I would miss working with the students and the unique atmosphere you get at a university.”
Heitschmidt is now the graduate residence hall director in Gilbert Hall. She’s also pursuing a master’s degree in the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.
The M.S.Ed. in Adult and Higher Education program prepares students for a variety of leadership and administrative positions in Student Affairs and higher education.
NIU’s Division of Student Affairs and other academic affairs offices offer graduate assistantships to students in our programs; the typical compensation includes tuition waiver and stipend – along with the intangible and invaluable hands-on experience.
Opportunities include Admissions, Career Services, several diversity and cultural resource centers, First- and Second-Year Experience, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, Housing and Residential Services, Student Involvement and Leadership Development, Student Conduct and many more.
“Students in our master’s program are in high demand as graduate assistants throughout campus,” says Danae Miesbauer, academic counselor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.
“Graduate assistantships are mutually beneficial because they allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom. These graduate assistantships benefit the NIU campus because our students are learning best practices and the most up-to-date research within the higher education field,” Miesbauer adds. “Through their graduate assistantships, internships and the Adult and Higher Education program, our graduates are positioned to be leaders on college campuses and promote a student-centered environment.”
Samantha Lanigan is a graduate research assistant at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC).
“I was a part of the center and a part of its activities when during my undergrad at NIU. When the old GA graduated, there was an opening, and I applied for that position,” says Lanigan, who grew up in suburban Woodridge. “I run an educational outreach program called Speakers Bureau. People who are part of the LGBTQIA community or Allies go into classrooms on campus to talk about their experiences.”
Like Heitschmidt, Lanigan faced a difficult start as a college freshman.
“My first years of my undergrad, I had a bumpy road with classes and advisers and picking my majors,” says Lanigan, who majored in Rehabilitation Services with minors in Psychology, Women and Gender Studies and LGBT Studies.
“Once I found the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the GSRC, I felt like I had a community on campus,” she adds. “I wanted to be in the Adult and Higher Education program so I could be that person for future students, to make them feel like they belong, that they belong in college, that they’re meant to be here, and to validate their experiences.”
The program is preparing her well, she says.
“My professors listen to me,” she says. “It’s less like authority-teaching and more like partner-teaching, and I’m really enjoying that. Different perspectives are necessary and welcomed, so I’m loving that part of the program. The teachers are so invested in the students.”
Lanigan also has found a mentor in Molly Holmes, director of the GSRC.
“She’s also got a degree in Student Affairs, and as I’m learning about student development theory, she’s helping me to apply that toward the volunteers I work with in Speakers Bureau,” Lanigan says. “It’s really fun because I’m understanding the theories better because I get to use them.”
“After college, I wanted to find something where I was able to work with students. I wanted to round myself out on the education side,” says MacMartin, a native of Rockton, Ill. “Higher Education really rang a bell.”
Now a graduate assistant with the hoops squad, MacMartin hopes his eventual M.S.Ed. will open doors into a coaching career – or even into other areas of college athletics. He worked an internship this summer as academic coordinator for NIU’s Student-Athlete Academic Support Services.
“I did some of my undergrad in Physical Education, and to me it’s all the same – coaching and Students Affairs,” he says. “What we’re trying to do here is to get students to graduate and better their lives. Caring about them is the most important thing.”
MacMartin appreciates the program’s eye on “diversity and being open to others. Obviously, the basketball team, and the campus, are very diverse.”
He also has enjoyed taking lessons from his coursework and applying them to the basketball team and vice versa. “Having patience, and understanding and really caring about the person you’re dealing with, go hand in hand,” he says. “Just because they’re athletes doesn’t mean they’re not going through things.”
Luz Rodriguez came to NIU from Lake Forest College, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and French while she enthusiastically engaged in student life.
“It wasn’t really clear to me what I wanted to do until I started thinking about all of the other things I was doing in school in addition to my degree,” says Rodriguez, a native of Round Lake. “Now I want to work in Student Affairs and be involved in the process of student development.”
She is also working with a Student Association representative to design and present a workshop that shows leaders of student organizations how to collaborate.
No matter where she ends up, however, she’s eager to continue working with college students. “It’s a very important time in their lives,” Rodriguez says. “College is where they shape their identities, and where they shape their goals and aspirations, and I like being a part of that with them.”
The M.S.Ed. program is helping her, she says, adding that she partly chose NIU for its social justice orientation.
“I really love it. The faculty are determined to help us succeed. Whenever we have questions about assignments, they’re always very open to us, and the classes are designed in a way that challenges us where we feel comfortable,” she says.
“Student Development Theory is the class that’s helped me the most,” she adds. “In designing the workshop, I’m able to use some of those theories – for example, the Learning Partnership Model. I want to keep students engaged instead of just lecturing them.”
Rodriguez also was pleased that the program did not require her to take the GRE exam for admission. “I don’t think a score defines my abilities,” she says. “I really wanted a program that valued me and not just a score.”
Not all students in the program will work in Student Affairs; some might follow the footsteps of their professors to teach. Heitschmidt hasn’t ruled out that possibility.
For now, though, she “definitely will stay in Housing.”
Her work in Gilbert, where she supervises six community advisers, is already “building the character” of the residence hall of juniors and seniors. She’s launched and empowered a Community Council there; its executive board members recently organized a bonfire at the East Lagoon complete with toasted marshmallows and s’mores.
“Every day is different from the next, which really helps me to learn and get experience,” she says. “Going through the AHE program, I know it definitely coincides. I learn about the theories of higher education in my classes, and I get to apply them in my everyday work, which is really incredible.”
Her favorites including validation – “I use that in a lot of my one-on-ones with my community advisers. I’m able to recognize that everybody’s experiences are different. I can be a listening ear, but I can also point them in the right direction,” she says – along with Astin’s Theory of Involvement.
“If you get involved as a student within the university, you tend to do better with academics,” Heitschmidt says. “That’s something I realized when I was an undergrad student, and that’s something I even pass on to my family as they entering their college years, and to my residents. Let’s get you involved!”