Interview with Xiaodan Hu, Ph.D. – Program Coordinator for the Online Ed.D. in Community College Leadership at Northern Illinois University

About Xiaodan Hu, Ph.D.: Xiaodan Hu is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where she also serves as the Program Coordinator for NIU’s Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) Community College Leadership Program. As Program Coordinator, Dr. Hu oversees course planning, advising, recruiting, student record-related request reviewing, and leadership event planning.

As an Assistant Professor, Dr. Hu teaches courses related to higher education administration, finance and policy, evaluation methods, and community college leadership. Her research typically employs quantitative methods to examine the impact of state policies and institutional initiatives, focusing on educational equity issues of historically marginalized student populations. She also studies the role of leadership and best practices in community colleges. Dr. Hu has recently published on the impact of performance-based funding, the pathway of upward transfer, and the financial implications of community college baccalaureate programs.

Dr. Hu obtained her B.A. in English from Beijing Forestry University, M.S. in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education from Texas A&M University – College Station, and Ph.D in Higher Education Administration and Policy from University of Florida.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Northern Illinois University’s Ed.D. in Higher Education with a Specialization in Community College Leadership, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students to lead education improvements in a variety of community college settings?

[Dr. Hu] The Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at NIU aims to prepare community college professionals to advance in a variety of administrative and academic positions. Emphasizing applied practice and action-based research, we strive to provide a leadership preparation program that support midcareer professionals in different roles to develop the 11 core competencies outlined by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Our faculty have a diverse array of expertise in higher education administration, critical pedagogy, LGBTQ topics in higher education, Black studies, finance and policy, international education, and so on. We also have a strong adjunct pool with professionals in the field of community colleges to provide the most relevant and updated knowledge. As of 2019, we have students from the states of Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The CCLP Ed.D. program consists of 54 credit hours beyond the master’s degree. The program’s curriculum was structured to prepare students to specialize in the content area, scaffolding their research skills throughout the program. Content-wise, the first semester starts with a general overview of the landscape of higher education, and the courses then narrow their focus to specific areas, such as financing, enrollment management, pedagogy, and academic administration. Similarly, the research courses start with a general overview, followed by specific courses in qualitative, quantitative, and evaluation methods. The research sequence ends with a dissertation proposal preparation course. And then student can go out to formally conduct their practice-based research and writing up the Dissertation of Practice (minimum 12 credit hours).

Logistically, students will take two courses per semester. Summer courses are a blended format to foster connections with faculty and other students. Fall and spring courses are delivered online. For our online courses, instead of taking two 16-week long courses at the same time, students only need to focus on one course in the first 8 weeks, and then the second course in the latter 8 weeks. While the accelerated courses are intensive, this format allows the working professionals to navigate their graduate-level coursework and to manage multiple roles in their life. During the summer semester, students will take two five-week courses (mid-June to mid-July) at the same time. Usually the second week is a week-long face-to-face meeting, which I will talk about in a bit.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Northern Illinois University’s Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Hu] We use Blackboard. Most of the courses are asynchronous, but faculty members have the flexibility to add in synchronous meetings. In fact, the CCLP cohort starts in the summer, so students will meet with their cohort and faculty for a one week face-to-face in Naperville, IL. Beginning their doctoral journey face-to-face allows students to build a community of practitioners before participating in online discussion. This also allows our students to interact and network within and beyond their groups. As much as we believe in the flexibility brought by technology, the face-to-face component has successfully strengthened the cohort model and supported advising and dissertation completion. They also meet face-to-face during the following summer which further fosters collaborative, collegial connections.

[] Northern Illinois University’s Community College Leadership program requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation entail, what process do students undertake to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Hu] In alignment with the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) framework, our dissertation of practice aims to support students to solve real-life problems. It is our goal to provide learning opportunities through coursework focused on theory-to-practice and inquiry-based educational practices. Upon completing the content-related courses and research courses, students are equipped with the necessary skill set and background knowledge to conduct research independently. On top of that, our faculty have different areas of research expertise to provide highly individualized feedback and support student projects in student affairs, teaching and learning, finance and policy, educational equity, and so on. Peer support during the dissertation stage is not formally organized by the program, but it usually turns out to be one of the most important motivations for our cohorts.

As for dissertation of practice topics, our students have the chance to choose a problem of practice, for example, whether a first-year seminar course impacts student completion, the acculturation of international students on a community college campus, or how students perceive challenges in competing career and technical education (CTE) programs. These projects have directly positioned our students better in their professional setting. One of my students is currently conducting a case study, understanding how community colleges can better support adult learners. Because of this project, he is now on a state-level committee to: 1) identify the perceived barriers of General Education Development (GED) and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, and 2) identify best practices to use throughout the state. We are proud to see our students making a real impact on community colleges as they complete the CCLP program.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Northern Illinois University’s Community College Leadership program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. Hu] I would like to provide a bit contextual information before getting to the question directly. Illinois has the fourth largest community college system in the nation, and the need for a CCLP program is relatively high in the region. However, we intentionally limit the size of the cohort so each of the admitted students can receive individualized advising from the faculty.

Our faculty do not only know our online students by their names from the roster; they build ongoing relationships with these students. Because the vast majority of the CCLP students are working professionals, they have a diverse array of needs. Depending on their individual goals, we as faculty either provide advising and/or mentoring, or connect them with someone who has the expertise to do so. Faculty are always accessible, and we proactively check in with each of them during the middle of the semester. Again, peer-mentorship is not formally organized by the program, but we build up the community of learners so other types of peer support can flourish.

[] For students interested in Northern Illinois University’s Community College Leadership program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Hu] In preparing their personal statements, the most important information students share includes what they aim to accomplish with the degree, their previous experience in higher education, and their understanding of higher education in the community college context. Our program is rooted in the social justice perspective, and promoting educational equity is a shared goal among our faculty and students. We would like to see our candidates to demonstrate collaboration and communication skills to work with diverse communities and to build partnerships.

The applicants do not necessarily have to be employed in the community college sector. We do have students working in the four-year sector, but they usually have connections to the community college transition point. For example, the broad P20 area with a focus on postsecondary access or community college transfer.

Half of our current CCLP students are students of color; many of them are first-generation students; and many are a product of community colleges themselves. We believe it is key to build up a community college leadership pipeline reflecting the demographics of current community college students.

[] What makes Northern Illinois University’s Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in community college leadership, both in the classroom at the larger education systems level?

[Dr. Hu] A couple of points I touched on: 1) A flexible online program with in-person connections with peer colleagues and faculty; 2) Strong cohort model and committed faculty to support student progress; 3) Belief in social justice and practices to connect research to practice in the community college context.

Over the years, our program has built a wide alumni network and many NIU alumni work in key leadership positions in higher education. The current CCLP program has been through a quite thorough reform to meet the needs of working professionals, so they can apply what they learn in the program to make positive changes and solve real-life problems in their institutions.

Thank you, Dr. Hu, for your excellent insight into Northern Illinois University’s Online Ed.D. in Community College Leadership!