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Reflecting on Three Years as Dean of the Wellstar College: A Journey of Growth, Success, and Gratitude

Usually, I write blogs about my research lab and projects, but today I wanted to write about my service as Dean.

Today, I reflect on my three years as the Dean of the Wellstar College of Health and Human Services at Kennesaw State University (KSU), I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the incredible journey. It all started on March 1, 2021. And, who knew what these years would bring? But, I think I can best sum it up with these three words; Growth, Success and Gratitude.

KSU and our Wellstar College have grown rapidly. KSU is now one of the top 50 largest Universities in the U.S. with over 45,000 students and with the designation as an institution with high research activity. And, our Wellstar College serves about 6,000 students with undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs.

In the Wellstar College, we have about 130 faculty members and 70 staff, and we serve students reflecting diverse backgrounds, with a high proportion of first generation students. As a Dean I am the Chief Academic Officer and also the Chief Financial Officer, providing oversight to over 50 budgets. Our annual budget exceeds $25 million dollars per year. As a Dean I have 12 direct reports (not counting my research projects) and serve the College with an amazing leadership team.

While we have a diverse range of health and related disciplines reflected within the college (e.g., nursing, public health, integrated health science, exercise science, sport management, social work, human services, physical and activity leadership, nutrition, prosthetics and orthotics, social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management and mHealth), collectively we embrace student success, a focus on transforming lives and community engagement. Last year, our Wellstar College students provided over $12.2 million in in-kind service to the community through internships, service learning and volunteer activities. We also have the Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth, the oldest and largest of such units in Georgia offering inclusive post secondary education.

Leading this thriving, rapidly growing, and dynamic college has been both an honor and a privilege. At a time when our graduates are needed more than ever to fill the urgent workforce demands in health and wellness, it has been truly rewarding to witness the collective impact we have had on our students, our community, and the field as a whole. Maybe this explains why our shared vision is Transforming Lives! We use the hashtag #TransformingLives on all social media channels (and I also embroidered it on my favorite blazer). But, it really is our time, this is the era of health. Our key strengths as a college are centered around health equity, mental health and rehabilitation.


One of the most gratifying aspects of my tenure as Dean has been witnessing the remarkable success and growth of our college. We have just about 6,000 students in our programs. And, we have seen unprecedented growth in enrollment, expanded our programs and offerings, and forged meaningful partnerships with industry leaders and community organizations. Our growth is a testament to the dedication and hard work of our faculty, staff, and students, who are committed to excellence in everything they do. We have expanded the leadership to serve the College and students, and as part of that is our terrific and hard working staff who work behind the scenes to keep the College operating at the highest level.


Our success in research has been particularly noteworthy. Over the past three years, we have seen a significant increase in external funding and also seen growth in terms of publications and scholarship, further establishing the Wellstar College as a leader in health and wellness research and thought leadership. This year, for the first time ever in our College, we host a an academic research journal, "Health Promotion Practice" with Dr. LaNita Wright as the Editor-in-Chief. Listen to her thoughts and reflections about this new and impactful role. During these three years we have also received the largest grants in the College's history. Dr. Monica Nandan and her colleagues received a $4.4 million grant from the Department of Education to provide school-based mental health resources to rural northwest Georgia. Dr. Irene McClatchey and her colleagues received a $1 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to prepare students for behavioral health careers, serving rural Georgia. Dr. Geza Kogler and colleagues received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to diversify biomedical engineering-related research. And, I also received a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study women's mental health trajectories in Uganda. We're also launching our new mHealth concentration for doctoral students in data science this fall, an exciting partnership with the College of Computing and Software Engineering which will further elevate interdisciplinary health-related research and leverage new technology.

This collective research advances our understanding of important health issues and also provides valuable opportunities for our students to engage in hands-on learning and make meaningful contributions to their field. We are proud to produce what we call research with relevance.


Word Cloud of our Google Scholar Colleagues Research Keywords

Equally important to our success is our unwavering commitment to student success. As I say all the time, student success is all of us, every day! From providing personalized support and mentorship to creating innovative programs and resources, we are dedicated to ensuring that every student has the tools and support they need to thrive academically and professionally. We are improving our retention, progression and graduation rates supporting our diverse and non traditional students in new and innovative ways though our holistic student eco system. We have even published research on our approach to student success, an initiative led by Dr. Jenn Wade-Berg. These success stories are a testament to the effectiveness of our approach and the impact it has on the lives of our students. And, did I mention that our faculty get recognition as outstanding teachers? Dr. Ann White, in our Wellstar School of Nursing was recognized last year as the most outstanding teacher at KSU. We also serve students who are parents, recognizing that they have unique needs. Read about Dr. Allison Garefino's exciting and much needed Children and Family Programs, which have received national recognition.


We have a student success research and writing group, led by Dr. Jenn Wade-Berg, Assistant Dean of Student Success, to use data and metrics to drive our strategies to serve our students.

Building community has also been a central focus of our work over the past three years. We have worked tirelessly to foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity within our college, creating a supportive and collaborative environment where everyone feels valued and empowered to succeed. Our strong sense of community enhances the student experience and also strengthens our ability to achieve our goals and make a positive impact on the world around us. We make a difference locally and globally.

As a global health researcher, I am very grateful to be studying the mechanistic pathways of mental health trajectories in a prospective cohort of young women in Kampala, Uganda as part of our NIH funded TOPOWA project. We will also test if a community-based intervention comprised of vocational training, entrepreneurship skills and women empowerment strategies will improve mental health trajectories in this low-resource setting. I work with several amazing KSU faculty, across 3 Colleges, on this large and interdisciplinary research project. But, the team of researchers span 8 institutions. And, it is very special to share this community-based work with students who travel with me as part of a study abroad course we call the "Social Determinants of Health in the Global Context: The Role of Power, Privilege, Place and Policy" and we use the hashtag #KSUganda if you want to see what we are planning. This year the students will engage in a PhotoVoice project and present their findings to the community.

The many intersecting disciplines and concepts that are part of our NIH Funded TOPOWA Women Empowerment project examining the impact of vocational and entrepreneurship training for women in poverty in Uganda.


As I reflect on our collective accomplishments and successes, I am also struck by what truly defines us as a college. It is not just our impressive growth or our groundbreaking research, but rather our unwavering commitment to excellence, innovation, and making a difference in the lives of others. It is the passion and dedication of our faculty, staff, and students that set us apart and drive us forward each day. It is what makes this a very special place to work and to learn.

We have so many reasons to celebrate, our Wellstar School of Nursing has the largest major at KSU and our students perform better on their licensing exam (NCLEX) than most other programs when they graduate. Similarly, our clinical Master's in Social Work students have the highest pass rate on their licensing exam than any other institution in Georgia. Also, we host one of only 13 Master's Programs of Prosthetics and Orthotics in the U.S., training practitioners for this very important field. Our research on exercise is highly relevant and in demand. As an example, more than 125,000 people have read Dr. Buresh's recent article on tracking daily step counts and similarly, Dr. Geil's article on how babies crawl. But, our faculty expertise spans so many areas and they serve their disciplines at the highest levels. Dr. Kandice Porter led the development of the performance standards for health education in Georgia and also in the Nation. And, Adrian Hill serves on the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association's Board of Directors.

While there have been many significant milestones worthy of celebration these past three years, I am particularly proud of receiving the honor to serve as the Dr. Betty L. Siegel Distinguished Chair in Health and Wellness. The investiture for this new role was last year, May 4, 2023. And, it was a great celebration with colleagues, friends and family. This endowment brings additional and significant resources to the Wellstar College, allowing us to support new initiatives that would otherwise not be possible. This year we launched our Transforming Lives Series addressing complex but urgent health issues using interdisciplinary approaches.

To the left, Debbie Pike, Trustee for the KSU Foundation; Center and the Benefactor of the Dr. Betty L. Siegel Distinguished Chair in Health and Wellness; Center, Dr. Kat Schwaig, KSU President

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to serve as Dean of the Wellstar College and to play a role in shaping the future of health and wellness education and research. As I look ahead to the next chapter for us, I am filled with optimism and excitement for all that we will continue to achieve together.

With gratitude in my heart and a renewed sense of purpose, I am confident that the best is yet to come for the Wellstar College and all who are a part of it. A special thanks to the entire leadership team for their collegial approach, steadfast commitment, and exceptional service to the College.

It is a great honor to serve.

The Wellstar College has finalized our collective vision of what defines us. It's time to share!


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