Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re (still) in Kansas: CAHE doc student defends dissertation virtually from her Overland Park home

Kristy Wittman Howell
Kristy Wittman Howell

Kristy Wittman Howell has driven many of her friends to their dissertation defenses throughout her career in higher education, providing not only cheerleading but safe travels home afterward.

She couldn’t wait for her own day to come, but COVID-19 arrived instead – and, with it, a necessary decision to defend her dissertation from her Kansas home via Microsoft Teams.

“I’d not used Teams before my defense – period. I didn’t even know Teams existed before my defense,” says Howell, who completed her Ed.D. in Community College Leadership in the NIU Department of Counseling and Higher Education.

Yet Howell, coordinator of Sustainability Education and Engagement in the Center for Sustainability at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kan., realized that her two monitor screens and webcam were her best, and maybe only, option.

Jonie Barshinger, administrative assistant in the NIU Graduate School, came to the rescue.

“Between Jonie and colleagues of mine here, and Danae Miesbauer in the College of Ed, I was able to come up with some folks to practice with so I wouldn’t feel quite so at a loss when I walked into it,” Howell says. “The whole process was fairly seamless.”

Well, almost.

“Roofers showed up at my house the morning of,” she says. “I didn’t know they were coming – I don’t own my own home – so we had to have a little bit of a conversation. ‘Could you please just hold off until 11 – please – so you’re not stomping around over my head?’ ”

There was no reason to worry: Howell’s defense of her comparative historical case study of JCCC and the College of DuPage, founded around the same time in similar “white-flight” communities, earned the approval of her dissertation committee.

Kristy Wittman Howell and her cat, Theobald Schlegel (Tibby for short)
Kristy Wittman Howell and her cat,
Theobald Schlegel (Tibby for short)

And putting the disappointment of missing out on the experience her friends all enjoyed in the past aside, Howell sees the bright side.

“It was nice to be able to see everybody’s faces when I need to and, frankly, it was nice to be able to switch screens and not see everybody’s faces when I was terrified,” she says. “It was not nearly as stressful as I had prepared myself for it to be.”

Howell chose NIU through her longtime connection to Brad Bond, dean of the Graduate School. The program in Community College Leadership “made sense for me at this point in my career.”

“Northern made good sense for a lot of different reasons, and not just because I’d studied with Dean Bond in my undergraduate and early graduate work in history,” she says.

“That it was online, or mostly online – that sort of structure really fit what I needed for a full-time program while working full time,” she adds, “and the social justice aspect of the work that I do in sustainability really meshes nicely with a lot of the institution’s broader aims. This was even before Lisa Freeman’s focus on sustainability at NIU. That just even made it better. It’s not been a decision I’ve regretted at all.”

She appreciated her challenging coursework in institutional finance, legal issues, pedagogy and even statistics, and enjoyed returning to the type of community-based participatory research that she’d conducted during her master’s program in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, she has no plans to leave Johnson County Community College: “This is my dream job,” says the graduate of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the daughter of a community college faculty member.

“Even though I’ve worked in higher ed for my whole career, each of the courses that were chosen for the program has really helped me become a more well-rounded staff member,” Howell says.

“I say ‘staff member’ specifically because the courses have influenced how I do a lot of my work in the Center for Sustainability,” she adds, “how I prepare reports to the Board of Trustees, how I interact with our cabinet.”

Kristy Wittman Howell is virtually advising the Student Sustainability Committee at Johsnon County Community College, which meets biweekly via Zoom.
Kristy Wittman Howell is virtually advising Johsnon County Community College’s Student Sustainability Committee, which is meeting biweekly via Zoom during COVID-19.

Her myriad responsibilities also include organizing tours and guest lectures on topics such as composting, stormwater and materials management, renewable energy and environmental racism.

With March and April comprising her busiest time of the year, she was ready to welcome more than 200 participants from JCCC students to remembers of the community, ranging in age from middle-schoolers to retirees.

As with her dissertation defense, however, COVID-19 scuttled her plans. And, once again, she was ready to react when her campus closed, recording guest lectures and virtual tours for both our own students and for area high school AP classes.

“I typically work with faculty to ensure I’m meeting their objectives, and follow that up by providing curricular support and joining in discussion boards or zoom sessions about the material,” Howell says. “To date, I’ve seen around 300 new-to-me students in these ways.”

Seeing students is something she knows well; pursuing her Ed.D. in front of the students she mentors at the center was “humbling,” she says.

And with her new doctoral credentials, she would love to teach some classes at NIU or at other colleges near Overland Park.

“Being enrolled in a program while working full time has sort of reminded me to work with my students from a position of empathy and compassion because so many of my students work full time and are in classes as well,” Howell says.

“It was really enjoyable to have that experience that I can share with my students,” she adds. “I’m going to miss that more than I thought I would six months ago, when I was just tired.”

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