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New England College graduates its first doctoral class

New England College’s Mark Watman has often been in the receiving line, hugging the school’s undergraduates once they get their diplomas at commencement. But today, he’ll be the one crossing the stage.

Watman, the school’s vice president of academic affairs, is in the very first doctoral class to graduate from NEC. He and his 18 classmates will be hooded – in the school’s new regalia they helped design – when they each receive a Doctor of Education degree at the morning ceremony.

Then, Watman will resume his administrative role beside the college president, high-fiving and hugging this year’s NEC graduates.

“It’s a really exciting time for the institution,” said Gavin Henning, director of the doctorate program. “We’re not just graduating 19 students, we’re graduating change agents in education.”

That is the goal of the college’s flagship doctoral program, in which students focus on one of two concentrations: higher education administration or K-12 leadership. The three-year accelerated program is geared toward working professionals, Henning said. Students write their dissertations while taking a mix of intensive online and on-campus classes.

That was the most unique part of the program, said doctoral student Amy Lyon, a fifth-grade teacher at Sutton Central High School who concentrated on K-12 leadership. Her dissertation focused on teaching grit, a personality trait focused on passion and perseverance that can help students achieve their goals.

“We teach kids manners and about sense of humor,” she said. “Why can’t we teach them grit?”

Lyon developed a yearlong fifth-grade curriculum to teach three components of grit: optimism, self-control and perseverance. The kids responded really well, she said. “It was pretty amazing.”

So did others, as her work was featured in a video on Edutopia, an education foundation funded by George Lucas. She was also invited to participate in a think tank with MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Angela Duckworth, whose work focuses on grit.

“It’s crazy the opportunities that have been afforded to us,” Lyon said. Next year is her 30th as a teacher, and she hopes to eventually become a professor, teaching students how to be educators.

Today’s graduation is a step toward that goal, and it is also important for two other reasons, she said. One is that her class is forging the way for NEC’s future doctoral students, and the other is that she and her cohort members were able to earn degrees that focus on their passions.

Thomas Horgan, president and CEO of the New Hampshire College and University Council, in his dissertation examined the emergence of nontraditional college presidents at small private colleges in New England. A registered nurse, Marie Ortaliz focused on the effects of preceptor training for nurse orientees. She will be awarded the Nurse Educator of the Year award by the Philippine Nurses Association of America in June.

“We’re right on the cusp of change, and each of us will have an important role to play in that,” she said. “That is the big message, to take your work and run with it.”

For Watman, that message is close to home, as a student studying the role of administration. His dissertation topic is “New England College: A Narrative Study of Identity.”

“Everything I was doing in the program then became incredibly applicable to my own work experience,” he said. “It was challenging and fulfilling.”

His study focused on how small, liberal arts colleges define themselves and how the schools can use that identity to create effective change on their campuses.

It falls on the administrators to balance the needs of the institution with its purpose, Watman said. And sometimes that can cause tension, for example, if a program isn’t financially viable but is important to the school’s culture and community.

“There’s always increasing financial pressures on institutions . . . but one thing that always is clear is you cannot make the decision in a vacuum of finances only,” he said. “We have a mission to serve students with a breadth of programming.”

That balancing concept can apply to the school across all its platforms, from career and life planning support services to its study abroad opportunities.

“All of those relate to an institution’s intrinsic identity, its values and principles,” he said.

It’s an identity that is intricately woven with Watman’s own.

He grew up in Henniker, his mother taught at New England College and his first job was mowing the school’s lawns in the summer. NEC helped him reach his full potential as an undergraduate, he said. Then after graduation in 1995, he got his Master of Fine Arts at Bennington College before returning to teach as part of NEC’s writing faculty.

“My earliest memories are at the college. . . . It gave me every opportunity I have ever had,” he said. “I really truly consider it my home.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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