Özlem Ersin2017 Rising Alumni

Özlem Ersin

Özlem Ersin is associate dean and associate professor in the College of Health and Behavioral Studies at James Madison University. She began her career as an information technology specialist before becoming a health professions educator, and today leads inter-professional education and research initiatives. She has a goal to break down disciplinary and departmental barriers. A first-generation college graduate, Özlem attributes her passion for learning to her parents, who presented education as a non-negotiable expectation of their children.


Associate Dean, James Madison Universtiy

CEHD Degree

M.Ed., Work Community Family Education, 2009

What is your favorite memory from the University of Minnesota?

At the time I was a student at CEHD, my graduate department was going through uneasy times. When my advisor left unceremoniously and on short notice, I was left with major questions and considerable anxiety; Would I be assigned a new advisor? Would I be able to complete my degree on schedule? Was this still the place I wanted to be? Understandably, faculty were as visibly stressed out as students, and did not necessarily have readily comforting words to share.

Through it all, two members of the administrative staff - Mary Gupta and Val Cremin - did their best to keep me on track, guide me through the changes, and serve as a calming influence overall. As stressful as this time was in my educational history, it remains one of the most influential also; now as an academic administrator myself, I remain very mindful of the consequences of my actions on our students and have made it a habit of practice to always involve staff when making important decisions.

Although that CEHD department no longer exists, Ms. Gupta and Ms. Cremin will remain my role models always for having shaped my approach to student support in my academic career.

What professor(s) or course(s) were most influential during your time in CEHD?

In Fall 2001, I was a first-semester CEHD student taking the Comparative Education course with Dr. John Cogan and Dr. Michael Paige. Shortly after the start of the semester, on September 11, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our nation unfolded in front of our incredulous eyes. Instead of cancelling class, Dr. Cogan and Dr. Paige used it as an incredible teaching moment in cross cultural understanding, tolerance, and empathy. They rearranged us into a perfect circle, and spent the class period helping us process our feelings (and fresh shock) and try to make sense of our now-altered world. There were many international students in class who had just recently arrived at Minnesota to pursue their degrees, and had not had a chance to establish their social networks. Dr. Cogan and Dr. Paige gave us a safe space years before "safe spaces" came into vogue in education. Despite our cultural differences, they helped us find common ground in our fears and hopes, and created a learning experience at the same time. That encounter stands out in my mind as one of the most influential "master classes" I have had the privilege of experiencing in my graduate education.

What skills are important to succeed as an emerging professional today?

I remember a lecture by the late Dr. Dick Nunneley who encouraged students in the audience to approach their research projects not so much as building a wall of knowledge or even contributing a brick to it, but rather as an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the work that has come before theirs and their familiarity with the discipline. Every profession has its specialized language, values, and code of conduct. To be accepted into the tribe, one must speak its language fluently. To learn the jargon, read as much as possible. Write. Have conversations with established professionals. Do whatever it takes to become proficient in the culture of your profession. I believe the ethnographic ability to study one's professional culture and perform its rituals are among the most critical skills to master as an emerging professional.

How do you describe yourself?

I believe myself to be honest to a fault, unselfish, inquisitive, and an ideas person. If you are a Strengths Finder convert, you'll appreciate to know that my top 5 strengths are "strategic, activator, adaptability, learner, and ideation"; what that means is that, to like-minded others, I am a big picture person who is equally interested in details, and, to others, I may seem like that annoying person who keeps asking questions like there is no tomorrow.

I am also tired and sleep deprived (thanks to two little ones under the age of 4), but keenly aware of my mortality and the fleeting nature of time. In that sense, I am someone filled with gratitude for simply being alive and having the privileges that I have been afforded.

How do others describe you?

These are some of the more positive adjectives others have used to describe me: Cheerful, intelligent, well educated (and "overeducated"), kind, funny, adorable, inquisitive, curious, questioning, dependable, consistent, and, most importantly, a good mom.

What's a good book you'd recommend to others?

"America's Bitter Pill" by Steven Brill offers an excellent look at the uneasy history of healthcare policy in the United States, and the financial, political and ethical aspirations that have come to shape the Affordable Care Act / Obamacare. Brill is also famous for his Time magazine cover story about the extraordinary levels of profiteering by the healthcare industry at the expense of patients, and taxpayers.

If you could have coffee with anyone from history, who would it be?

I lost my mother and my grandparents before I could get to know them as adults. I would love to sit down with them to learn about their lives that, as a child, I did not have much interest in. What had been their worries? What had gotten them excited? How had they chosen their mates? Any regrets? What advice would they have for me? How great it would be to meet them in the present day and have adult conversations!

What gets you excited about work?

I love my work because it gives me tremendous opportunities to help people feel less alone and isolated in our isolating world. Whether it is having a heart-to-heart with a student who is looking for their first professional mentor or breaking bread with a colleague in the lunch room, my work allows me to be myself and, through my person, feel connected to my fellow humans. As a tenured faculty member, I am expected to keep "teaching, scholarship, and service" at the forefront of all that I do. I get paid to learn all the time, contribute to the collective knowledge base of humanity, and to be of service. What other profession does that?!

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My maternal grandfather had been an army veterinarian in post-World War II Turkey, and had invented an incubation machine to hatch eggs. As a very young child, I wanted to be a veterinarian just like him. Later, when I started school, I fell in love with teaching and was named "most likely to return to high school as its principal." Today, I work as an academic administrator at a college of health and behavioral studies. Only in hindsight, I see how my career has managed to combine my earliest aspirations.

Outside of your job, how do you grow professionally?

I was blessed with a very strong liberal arts education that taught me to see through artificial boundaries such as disciplines and professions, and appreciate the unity of knowledge. With the right frame of mind and deliberate focus, one can learn just as much from marathon watching their favorite TV show as they can from attending a lecture by a Nobel Laureate. I try to remain alert to possibilities and see each encounter with a person, a book, or a problem as a learning opportunity.

What is a "fun fact" about you?

I am Turkish, married to an Argentinian, and we are raising our kids trilingual. Never a dull linguistic moment in our household!