Our featured graduate college alumna in this issue of IMPACT is Maria Dykema Erb, Master of Education (M.Ed.), Interdisciplinary Studies: Higher Education, Leadership, and Counseling.
IMPACT: Maria, thanks for sharing your story with our readers. To start with, tell us where you grew up, and where you went to school for your undergraduate degree.
Maria: I was born in Masan City, South Korea, and was adopted at 10 months old and began my life in the United States as a Vermonter. I had the privilege of growing up on a beautiful dairy farm near the shores of Lake Champlain in North Ferrisburg. My family’s farm was so picture perfect. It is literally one of those beautiful Vermont fall foliage postcards, photographed from the summit of Mount Philo, that you can find in the Vermont Gift Barn in South Burlington.
While attending Vergennes Union High School, I excelled in academics and developed my leadership skills through Future Business Leaders of America at the local and state level, and through numerous other clubs and competitions like the American Legion Oratorical Contest. I knew that I wasn’t cut out for the dairy farm life, so I started exploring the possibility of going to college.
At the time, one of my best friends who was a year ahead of me decided to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst pursuing a Hotel Restaurant and Travel Administration degree. As a first-generation college student, that seemed like the most logical choice to me; there would always be hotels and therefore, I would always have a job! I ended up going to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) because of a very generous scholarship from the Sheraton Hotel corporation.
IMPACT: What was it about UVM that eventually led you to want to attend graduate school here?
Maria: What initially brought me to UVM after graduating with a Hotel Administration degree was my first job as an Assistant Director of Admissions. As an undergraduate tour guide in the UNH Admissions Office, I had some wonderful mentors who introduced me to admissions as a potential career path. Fortunately, a position was available in the UVM Admissions Office when I returned home to Vermont.
Again, my identity as a first-generation college student/graduate would surface. Because I never had the resources to study abroad, being able to travel to different regions of the country while recruiting for UVM on a business account seemed like a genius idea. Who wouldn’t think this was a great deal? Little did I know at the time, but that first job would launch my 20-year career at UVM and my 27-year career in higher education and student affairs.
IMPACT: What graduate program did you apply to and what did you hope to achieve while in grad school?
Maria: I started to explore pursuing a Master’s in Counseling degree early in my career; however, life happened with being married and raising three children. After working in Undergraduate Admissions, the Women’s Agricultural Network in Cooperative Extension, and The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, the motivation to pursue a graduate degree finally emerged when I was the Assistant Director of the ALANA Student Center (ASC), now the Mosaic Center for Students of Color. I knew that for me to move into a director’s position or higher, I would need to have a master’s degree. I also knew that it was time to take advantage of my tuition remission and not let the perk of a free master’s degree slip away. I started hearing more and more about the Interdisciplinary Education Master of Education degree which was led by Dr. Robert J. Nash. This was a program that would allow me to design my own curriculum and continue to work full-time as a UVM staff member.
I managed to complete the program in two years while working full-time, which couldn’t have been done without numerous sacrifices and the full support of my family. The days were long between working, attending class, and then staying up late to complete my assignments, but I loved everything about the program. I had the opportunity to take courses that focused on higher education and student affairs, counseling, and leadership, which all helped me become a better professional. One of the most inspirational and meaningful parts of completing my master’s degree was graduating with Beverly Colston, the Director of the Mosaic Center for Students of Color, and my colleague, Monique Swaby, who was the Coordinator for Leadership Development in the ASC at the time.
IMPACT: You mentioned Dr. Robert Nash; I believe he was your advisor. Tell us about him and any other faculty in the program who were particularly helpful.
Maria: I was very fortunate to have Dr. Nash as my advisor and professor for many of the Education Foundations courses. It was through his courses that I learned about the Scholarly Personal Narrative (SPN) methodology, moral conversation, and finding purpose and making meaning of one’s life. This work was life changing for me, and after completing my degree, I had the opportunity to co-teach Religion, Spirituality, and Education with Dr. Nash. I also contributed some of my own SPN writing to two of his books: Our Stories Matter: Liberating the Voices of Marginalized Students Through Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing, co-authored with Sydnee Viray, and Crossover Pedagogy: A Rationale for a New Teaching Partnership Between Faculty and Student Affairs Leaders on College Campuses, co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Jang and Patricia Nguyen.
I enjoyed all of the faculty who taught my courses, but some who were most notable, in addition to Dr. Nash, were: Mary Martha Whitworth who taught Building Students’ Self-Esteem and Communication Skills; Dr. Anthony Quitiliani who taught Happiness, Mindfulness, and Health Promotion; Dr. Denise Pickering who taught Motivational Interviewing; Dr. Jane Van Buren who taught Women, Power, and Leadership in Organizations; and Dr. Deb Hunter who taught Controversies of the Academy and Leadership and the Creative. Many of the skills and activities that I learned in these courses have continued to inform my work today as a higher education and student affairs practitioner.
IMPACT: It was nice to see that you mentioned Sydnee Viray, who went on to be the Director of Admissions here at the UVM graduate college before pursuing her doctoral degree. What was the topic and subject matter of your master’s thesis?
Maria: In the Interdisciplinary Education program, a thesis was not required. However, my comprehensive exam paper was essentially my thesis, Listening to My Life: Discovering my Vocation as a Meaning-Making Mentor. By using the Scholarly Personal Narrative methodology, I was able to reflect on the mentors that had guided me throughout my lifetime, explore my role as a mentor to college students, and offer suggestions and a curriculum for a Master of Education in Meaning-Making based upon the courses that I completed for my degree.
IMPACT: After graduating with a UVM Master of Education (M.Ed.) in 2011, what did you do next?
Maria: After attaining my master’s degree, I decided that it was time to pursue other opportunities outside of Vermont. Because of the limited number of higher education institutions in Chittenden County, there weren’t a lot of options available for director-level positions because people stayed in their roles for a long time. After our oldest daughter, Alexa, graduated from Burlington High School, we moved to North Carolina in 2012 to begin a new life in the South. After working in the Multicultural Center at Elon University and the Duke University School of Nursing, I had the opportunity to return to the public, state university environment in 2016 at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
IMPACT: Did you feel like UVM prepared you well for that path?
Maria: Absolutely! UVM will always have a very special place in my heart because I started my career and received my master’s degree there. It is also the place that began my social justice, equity, and inclusion journey on behalf of students from underrepresented backgrounds. All of the work I’ve done since leaving UVM has been informed by my time as a staff member and a graduate student.
Even though I miss UVM dearly, the Vermont Connection is real and spreads across the nation, especially in my field of higher education and student affairs. I love that I meet UVM alumni no matter where I go, primarily those who graduated from the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program. It’s important that I continue to give back to the institution. I am still an undergraduate admissions alumni representative and regularly reach out to admitted students in the North Carolina region. I also participate annually in the Alumni of Color Networking event that happens over Alumni and Parent/Family Weekend in October. Each year, it means a lot to reconnect with former students of mine at this event who now have flourishing careers and some with their own spouses/partners and families.
IMPACT: What are you doing now?
Maria: I currently serve as Co-Director of Diversity & Student Success (DSS) in The Graduate School at The University of North Carolina. It has been one of my greatest joys and accomplishments to have created a program that supports and retains diverse graduate and professional students. It’s one of few formal programs that exists at the graduate and professional education level and broadly defines diversity. I have created four initiatives and one empowerment group since my arrival in 2016. They are Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS (first-generation graduate students), Global Grads (international students), Military-Affiliated Grad Students (active duty, veterans, National Guards, Reserves), Queer Graduate & Professional Students (LGBTQIA+ students), and Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Grads.
In addition to my initiatives, Kathy Wood, my amazing co-director, manages the Initiative for Minority Excellence for our students of color, and the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline, our recruitment effort for diverse undergraduate students. All of the activities of these initiatives and our other empowerment groups are centered around building community through academic/professional/personal development and social events.
My role has also allowed me the freedom to develop workshops using the concepts and knowledge I gained while pursuing my graduate degree. One of the workshops I’ve been facilitating since 2017 is Meaning-Making for Graduate Students, a 3-week series. Through a combination of activities, free write, and discussion, I am able to replicate the educational setting that was so meaningful to me when I was taking Dr. Nash’s courses.
After three-and-a-half years of all of these initiatives being in place, we are seeing tremendous growth and a positive impact on the experiences of our diverse students. This year, DSS was recognized as the recipient of The University of North Carolina’s Diversity & Inclusion Intergroup Collaboration Award, as well as being nationally recognized by the Center for First-Generation Student Success as a First-Forward Advisory Institution because of our work on behalf of first-generation graduate and undergraduate students. The Center for First-Generation Student Success is a partnership between NASPA (the national student affairs organization) and the Suder Foundation.
IMPACT: We’re so pleased to have this opportunity to highlight you and your career. Anything else you'd like to add?
Maria: I have continued to do some writing on the side. In 2017, I edited and co-wrote with Dr. T. Leon Williams for his book, The View from the Mountaintop: What Would Dr. King Have to Say Today? Just recently in October, I contributed a chapter to Jerrica Stovall’s book, Be Encouraged: 20 Testaments of God’s Faith, Love, and Loyalty, a collection of 20 testimonies from women of color across the country. In 2020, a chapter co-authored with Dr. Sonja Ardoin, “First Generation Graduate Students: Reducing Barriers with Support Mechanism” will be released in A handbook for supporting today's graduate students.
I am extremely proud that my oldest daughter, Alexa Erb, is a second-generation college graduate who is also an alumna of the UVM Graduate College and the College of Education and Social Services (CESS). She completed her Master of Education degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs in May 2019 and is currently the Program Coordinator of Student Activities at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
IMPACT: Maria, thanks again for your time and best wishes for continued success. We hope to see you at Homecoming again next year!