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Amber Longoria is a student in the Master of Health Administration program. Photo by Aly McClaran.

Level up

MSU Denver’s unique graduate programs help students advance in careers and fill shortfalls in Colorado’s top industries.

June 3, 2019

By Cora Zaletel

Amber Longoria has a modest goal: to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Given the obstacles she has overcome – abuse, homelessness and a traumatic brain injury – it would be unwise to bet against her.

Longoria is a student in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Master of Health Administration program, one of the University’s eight graduate degrees. She also works as the administrative officer of education at the VA Eastern Colorado Healthcare System, lectures on mental health at universities across metro Denver and serves as senior vice commander of the American Legion 5280 Mile High Post.

These accomplishments would have been difficult to foresee when Longoria escaped a physically and emotionally abusive father by joining the Navy at 19. She was raised to believe she would never succeed and, thus, never saw herself as college material.

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After four years in a high-security-clearance job as a Spanish linguist in the Navy, Longoria found herself unexpectedly on the verge of suicide. Living in her car and selling her plasma for food, she was still reeling from the social anxiety and feelings of isolation bred by her past.

“The military convinces you that being a vet is powerful and opens doors – and it can – but I didn’t get the skills I needed to transition into civilian jobs,” she says.

Longoria was persuaded by her mother to use the GI Bill and later earned a degree in economics from the University of Colorado Denver. During that period, she grew in self-understanding. She learned that she wasn’t unintelligent but that a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (the result of childhood beatings) meant she needed different tools to be successful. She also found her calling – serving vets – when she joined a student veteran organization.

She was ultimately hired by a homeless program at the VA but recognized that her aspirations were larger. A friend reminded her that graduate education was a good way to advance.

“I applied to MSU Denver because the courses were conducive to my work schedule, and the price was right, given that I had no GI Bill remaining,”Longoria says. “Part of the application was a personal essay in which I was able to show how much I had overcome in my life and to share my ambition for moving up at the VA.”

RELATED: The G.I. Bill at 75

Today, Longoria is a year from graduation. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating 2.3 million new jobs to be added in the health care industry by 2024, she’ll be poised to advance in a rapidly expanding field – the next step on the road toward making a difference in the lives of other veterans.

Longoria will be among the first graduating classes from the 2-year-old MHA program, which celebrated its first 10 graduates in December. The program prepares higher-level health care management leaders to meet the needs of a booming industry.

In many ways, the MHA is representative of all of MSU Denver’s graduate programs – seven current and one forthcoming – in that they combine a unique student-centered approach with a focus on addressing state and local workforce needs. The degrees explicitly target underrepresented communities and lean into the University’s urban environment to amplify opportunities for scholarly engagement and real-world practice.

“The same underrepresented populations who need access to higher education to pursue their careers also need access to postbaccalaureate educational options,” says Provost Vicki Golich, Ph.D. “Many careers now require a minimum of a master’s degree to enter the workforce successfully, making it critically important that MSU Denver provide graduate programs relevant to these needs in Colorado.”

A lesson in flexibility

Nancy McAlister began her career in retail management. After her four children were born, however, she chose to stay home with them to balance her husband’s heavy travel schedule as a national sales manager.

Two decades later, with three of her children in college, the 52-year-old Thornton resident started substitute teaching for extra income and fell in love with the classroom.

Nancy McAlister is enrolled in MSU Denver
Nancy McAlister is enrolled in MSU Denver's Master of Arts in Teaching program, which offers traditional and alternative paths for people to change careers. Photo by Aly McClaran.

In spring 2018, she decided to get her elementary-education teacher license through the Master of Arts in Teaching program at MSU Denver, which offers traditional and alternative paths for people to change careers and make a difference. While not for career teachers, the MAT provides strong pedagogical training in urban and suburban contexts to prepare future educators. The program also provides a way for those who have relocated to Colorado to obtain licensure.

“MSUDenver was the best fit for me, financially and geographically,” she says. “And I knew the program would have a more diverse age base in its student population, meaning I would have people close to my age as classmates.”

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In this “third chapter” of her life, McAlister appreciates the flexibility of course scheduling and being able to test pedagogical research (such as brain breaks) in the Adams 12 classrooms where she continues to substitute teach each week.

She’s also been impressed by the caliber of the faculty. “They are interested in our individual success but also are focused on sending teachers into classrooms who will make a difference and represent the teaching profession,” she says.

After she graduates next fall, McAlister will aim to do just that in her own third- or fourth-grade classroom.

A change of course

Swati Suri also wanted to switch careers. But she needed to find a Master of Business Administration program that didn’t require an undergraduate business degree.

From a long line of teachers, the native of India pursued teaching as an undergraduate, but when teaching jobs dried up, she switched careers, first to banking then to a software company.

After she and her husband moved to Denver, Suri chose to pursue an MBA at MSU Denver because it was advertised for people who weren’t solely business majors. In December, she became one of the first three MSU Denver students to graduate with an MBA degree.

“Honestly, it’s a dream come true,” she says. “It also was my parents’ dream to provide my brother and me the opportunity to get a better education, so it is a proud moment for my family and for me to be able to complete my MBA. I needed to add new skill sets, and while I learned a great deal about the varied approaches to business, I also learned a lot about myself.”

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Director of Graduate Studies Shannon Campbell, Ph.D., says regardless of whether a student seeks to change his or her field, or advance in their current one, MSU Denver has a program to fit their needs.

“We are strategic and mindful of the needs of the students but also of employers,” she says. “I would call our graduate programs applicable, necessary and entrepreneurial, as they provide win-win situations for students and employers.”

Past, present and future

The launch of MSU Denver’s first three graduate programs – the MAT, the Master of Social Work and the Master of Professional Accountancy – coincided closely with the institution’s name change to Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2012.

The MPAcc provides students with an accelerated road to an advanced accounting degree with emphases in high-demand areas such as public accounting; fraud examination and forensics accounting; and internal auditing and taxations. The program also provides the educational requirements to sit for Colorado’s Certified Public Accountant exam.

The MSW continues to grow in enrollment each year, offering fullyonline and customized mixed-delivery options. The program helps address significant workforce shortages such as the need for additional caseworkers and mental-health professionals in 57 of Colorado’s 64 counties.

RELATED: Graduate social work students take the stand

Beginning this fall, the latest graduate offerings from MSU Denver, cybersecurity and nutrition/dietetics, will address issues as broad as national security and as local as school lunchroom menus.

The Master of Science in Cybersecurity comes as the United States faces increasing vulnerability to cyberattacks and the potential for 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity positions by 2021.

Steve Beaty, professor of computer science, notes that more than 10,000 job openings exist for cybersecurity professionals in Colorado alone, and the need for these professionals will continue to rise because all professions are affected by cyberthreats.

He says the program was developed in association with local industry – commercial, nonprofit and government – and integrates social science and traditional science for a unique approach to investigativeonline security. The program straddles three disciplines – computer science, computer information systems and criminal justice.

RELATED: Shattering the cybersecurity glass ceiling

“We had meetings with professionals from each sector to make sure we were covering all bases while developing the degree,” Beaty says. “Those meetings will continue to ensure we remain responsive to the emerging needs of all organizations.

“The human element is crucial as most break-ins occur due to what we call ‘social engineering’ – tricking people to click on links or otherwise doing something they know they shouldn’t do.”

The Master of Science in Human Nutrition and Dietetics will fill a need as the only graduate degree of its kind in metro Denver, emphasizing experiential learning and real-world research projects as well as nutritional counseling and assessment techniques.

A unique service-learning component will involve assessing urban nutrition efforts and creating education initiatives with Denver-area agencies. As a part of the program’s culturally responsive curriculum, students will complete a research project on an issue critical to diverse populations. Also available through this degree are a graduate certificate in human nutrition science and a dietetic internship.

MSUDenver's newest graduate program will be a Master of Science in Clinical Behavioral Health/Addictions Counseling Emphasis, which provides a path to duallicensure in both mental health and addictions counseling so that graduates can work with clients withco-occuring issues. Applications will be accepted beginning in fall 2019, with classes starting in fall 2020.

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Campbell, the director of Graduate Studies, says the University will continue to engage in thoughtful, strategic and purposeful growth in graduate programs.

“There are no prescriptive mandates for growth,” she says. “Rather, the Office of Graduate Studies will continue to work closely with the provost to ensure that our programs meet the specific needs of students and the needs of Colorado."

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