Education graduate program aims for global well-being

To finish her master’s degree, UM graduate student Jasmine Rosa will pack her passion for making a difference and head off to Macedonia, a Balkan nation off the beaten path.

In about seven months, she will head overseas in the Peace Corps as part of a recently developed School of Education graduate program.

The master’s in Community and Social Change, which is part of the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies, is a manifestation of Dean Issac Prilleltensky’s vision when he arrived at UM more than seven years ago. The program combines concern for multidimensional well-being by improving community-based organizations to better impact society.

When Prilleltensky came in August 2006, he found the School of Education divided into three distinct departments. He sought to unite the departments with one common goal.

“I’m very interested in helping our school integrate different perspectives on well-being,” Prilleltensky said. “We have a department that looks after educational well-being, another one dealing with physical well-being, and a third one with psychological well-being.”

Although the term well-being typically refers to the physical aspect, the dean says it is “multidimensional” and encompasses the entire human experience.

“The master’s program trains people who would be practitioners to improve well-being, whether it’s individual, relational or community organizational well-being,” said professor Laura Kohn-Wood, the former director of the master’s program. “So it’s really focused on applied work and training people to become leaders in human service organizations or NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”

The 30-credit program requires a three-credit practicum. Through a partnership with UM, some students do their practicum with the Peace Corps. Others complete the requirement by working at nonprofits more suited to their own goals.

The students who go into the Peace Corps actually end up with two master’s degrees: one from the Community and Social Change program and the other from the Master’s International program.

According to Kohn-Wood, the program applies the academic discipline of community psychology to human service work. Community psychology focuses more on the systems and institutions that affect individuals than the individual’s own actions.

“There’s something very empowering in knowing that your problems are not just your problems,” Prilleltensky said. “That usually, in most cases, the organizations, the systems surrounding you, play a big role in your well-being or in your ill-being. We have to change those systems.”

Rosa, the student bound for Macedonia, joined the program because she wanted to start her own nonprofit and make a difference in the community.  She said that the group of selected students is small and tight-knit.

“If we all work together, we could have a great big impact,” she said.

Each year, the master’s program, now under the direction of professor Courte Voorhees, includes about 13 to 15 students, with about a fourth of them following the Peace Corps track.

According to Kohn-Wood, in the last couple decades there has been an “explosion” of nonprofits and NGOs, but the world’s social problems have not been solved. Society now needs people who can effectively lead these groups to make a larger impact.

The program aims to produce graduates who can change how business is done within human service organizations both nationally and internationally.

“One of my goals was to feel like I could be a true change agent in society,” said Erica Myers, a 2012 graduate of the program.

Myers is now a program coordinator at Educate Tomorrow, a nonprofit based in Miami. According to their website, Educate Tomorrow works to help disadvantaged reach independence through college education. Virginia McNaught, another graduate of the same program, co-founded the organization.

Three other graduates of the program also work in their office, including Myers, CEO Brett McNaught and program coordinator Sara Camacho.

There are not many other programs in the United States like UM’s. While a number of schools have programs in community psychology, they do not emphasize the application of those concepts to social problems.

Although the master’s program is only four years old, the school has also developed an undergraduate major in human and social development, as well as a recently approved Ph.D. program.