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UNF Graduate School changes lives

Len Roberson

Sanjukta Chandra is out to change the world — or at least her corner of it — and the University of North Florida is a big part of her plans.


The native of India is studying electrical engineering at the master’s level at the University of North Florida. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from her homeland. She is highly proficient in her field, but it is not her passion. If she had had her choice, she would have studied classical Indian dancing. But as a product of the middle class in India, her profession was not her choice. As is the custom there, parents choose the educational and professional path of their children.


“Parents in India want their children to make safe career choices,” the petite brunette said. “They want their children to be engineers, management graduates or doctors or to study information technology so they will be assured of a good salary and a secure life. But that is not how it should be. Children should follow their interests, their passion.”


Chandra likes electrical engineering well enough, but it is not the path she would have selected for herself even though it does pay much better than dancing professionally ever would. And it wasn’t until she came to UNF that she understood it does not have to be that way.


Once she met and worked with Dr. Len Roberson, the dean of the Graduate School, she realized that education and passion could be combined and often is in the United States. Chandra was already deep into her UNF studies when her parents decided to send her younger brother to the U.S. to also study mechanical engineering. UNF soon became the top school on the list and Chandra was the point person to get her brother into school and to obtain the correct immigration status.


“My brother was trying to get into UNF as a graduate student and we were having a hard time,” she said. “I was so lost and did not know what to do. I finally sent an e-mail to Dr. Roberson and within an hour, I had a reply. He asked me to come in and meet with him and that he would do everything he could to help. I could not believe it. Here was someone who did not know my brother at all but he was willing to help us.”


And he did. One of the things that sets UNF apart from other colleges and universities is its employees’ devotion to students. Time and time again, one hears about faculty and staff members who have gone out of their way to help a student overcome a situation. Roberson is no exception.


“He did everything he could to get my brother accepted into UNF and to find a graduate assistantship to help offset the financial burden on my family,” Chandra said. “It came down to the School of Engineering and whether or not he would be accepted to the mechanical engineering program. Then one day I was sipping a cup of coffee and Dr. Murat Tiryakioglu (director of the School of Engineering) walked past and said, ‘I accepted your brother.’ I could have hugged him. First Dr. Roberson and now Dr. Murat had helped my brother without even knowing him.”


And that was when Chandra made a decision to change the education system in India. Along with her husband, Mayukh Das, a Ph.D who works as a business analyst for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, Chandra hopes to return to her native land and begin to educate parents and their children about how to combine a passion with an education. “If I dream of living a life doing the things I most enjoy, it is because of my husband,” she said. “ It was not that I was unaware of my passion, but I lacked the courage and support to follow it as a career path. Mayukh is the one whose guidance, inspiration and constant support encouraged me to think outside the box and to do the things that give meaning to my existence.” Now, she wants to — with her husband — help her countrymen and women to understand that passion and a secure future are not mutually exclusive.


“If a student has an interest in a subject, they will work hard to learn all they can about it,” she said. “And they will find new ways to apply the knowledge and to grow their field. The more interest they have, the better they will be. And the better they are, the more money they will make. It is simple, really. But we have to show them it can be done.”


At UNF, that is already the norm. The faculty and staff in the Graduate School live and breathe that mantra. Students who choose to study at the master’s level at UNF can combine their academic interests with a solid professional career. A UNF degree will open many doors for them in the future.


In concert with the University’s academic colleges, the Graduate School supports and promotes graduate education at the University of North Florida by developing, maintaining and enhancing strong graduate programs and an excellent graduate faculty. Its programs cultivate advanced knowledge and skills in their chosen fields, encourage proficiency with research and other forms of scholarship and are relevant not only to its students, but to the communities it serves through discovery, community-based learning and academic excellence.


Dr. Len Roberson, in his second year at the helm of the Graduate School, has been at UNF for 13 years. The father of seven has been on the faculty of the Department of Exceptional Student and Deaf Education, served as the program director for the deaf education graduate program and was its department chairman for nearly four years. He earned his doctorate in deaf education from Gallaudet University, holds a Master of Education degree in educational leadership from the University of Central Florida and a bachelor’s degree in deaf education from Flagler College. He holds national certification as a sign language interpreter from the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. He is involved in several national organizations, led the development of the new ASL/English Interpreting program at UNF that has both an undergraduate and graduate program in interpreting and has published several articles in the area of teacher effectiveness and interpreter education.


And he has a vision for the future of the graduate school. “I would love to see us more forward with additional doctoral programs,” he said. “We have a long-standing Ed.D and the doctor of physical therapy and the doctor of nursing practice which are both entry-level degrees for the field — meaning that they are the minimum required degree for the profession — but I would love to see our University graduate programming expand to include doctoral programs that meet our regional and local needs.”


“As the University of North Florida continues to grow, it must also continue to meet the needs of the community we serve,” said Dr. Mark Workman, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “More and more professionals are returning to the classroom to seek master’s and doctoral degrees as they round out their educations and careers. We are continually working to determine which programs fit our strengths and which meet the needs of the community.”


Roberson said that is the challenge — to determine which programs have the depth and breadth necessary to expand at the graduate level. Growth is good, he said, but not just for the sake of growth. Academic expansion needs to be strategic and forward-thinking.


Roberson said another goal is to explore alternative delivery methods of graduate degree programs such as distance learning. With more and more of the population wanting to pursue advanced degrees but still needing to work full time to finance the further education, potential graduate students want to be able to enroll in programs that can be provided wholly online.


“The students may not be able to attend a 3 p.m. class in a building on campus,” Roberson said. “They want the convenience of taking online classes that are of high quality and from an accredited university. They would love those programs to be at UNF.”


Roberson said UNF’s reputation precedes itself at both the undergraduate and graduate level. “UNF offers a high-quality education with pre-eminent faculty who not only teach, but are active in their professions and in research. To be able to offer even more graduate-level programs for which there is a demand from students and employers will only enhance that reputation.”


What sets UNF’s graduate programs apart from others in the region and in the state is the small faculty-to-student ratio and the relationships that are formed between faculty and students in and out of the classroom.


“Because of our small class sizes, there is a direct connection with the faculty, and students build an experience base for a career,” Roberson said. “Our graduate classes provide opportunities for faculty-student interaction, formal research and ongoing relationships that help our students feel connected to their program and the University as a whole.”     


And that experience begins with the first contact a potential student has with the Graduate School. Roberson and his staff of six are committed to working with students from the moment they inquire about a UNF graduate program to the moment they walk across the stage at commencement to receive their graduate degree.


“The dedication of our staff to graduate student success is phenomenal,” Roberson said. “The staff is absolutely committed to making sure the students have a positive, student-focused experience during their time at UNF. Their studies might happen in one of the academic colleges, but we take care of just about everything else they need from helping students maneuver through the academic system to getting answers about financial aid. We have to know a little bit about everything to provide that high level of service that students have come to expect from us. And we would not have it any other way. The staff won’t let anyone fall through the cracks.”


Chandra and her brother can certainly attest to that.


“I told my brother he was the luckiest person I know,” Chandra said. “Dr. Roberson did everything he could to help us and he never met my brother — never exchanged one single e-mail with him — and he helped my brother through the application process, helped him find a graduate assistantship and additional funding for his education. How can a person be so helpful to a stranger?”


Because it is the UNF way.