Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
"Something that I absolutely love about online at Arkansas is that I have a connection to my professors. If I need one of them in any situation, I can reach out to them and know that they know who I am....It’s something that I immensely value in an online program."
Communication, community, and personal connections are important to Kirstyn Salehi. She found all three at the University of Arkansas.
Salehi, 30, wanted a personalized degree program, somewhere she could connect with professors and classmates, where she was more than a student number. She is now one of 14 in a cohort of the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership degree and plans to graduate in December 2022.
“Something that I absolutely love about online at Arkansas is that I have a connection to my professors,” Salehi said. “If I need one of them in any situation, I can reach out to them and know that they know who I am. They know what I’m like as a person. They could recognize me on the street. It’s something that I immensely value in an online program.”
The small size of the class cohort was another powerful draw for Salehi. The cohort shared the same classes every semester, which led to greater communication and connections between Salehi and her classmates, as well as a steady, reliable exchange of ideas and support. The small size of the group created a sense of familiarity and fostered relationships that could last a lifetime, she said.
“There are 14 of us, and I know everyone,” Salehi said. “We’re in a group chat. We had class once or twice a week together online, and if it weren’t for COVID, we would have had our meeting on campus once a semester. Despite not getting to meet initially, I felt like I knew them, and I felt like I knew my professors.”
From the very beginning, Salehi was given a program outline that showed what classes she would take each semester. If she ever needed help on an assignment or project, the cohort group chat allowed her, or anyone in the cohort, to ask questions. One person would contact their adviser or the instructor, then share the response with the group, she said.
For Salehi, meeting with her adviser is a chance to talk about school, career ventures, and turn any “crisis” into personal growth, she said.
“She provided my program of study that outlined the coursework that I would take each semester,” Salehi said. “Our back and forth turned into a wonderful relationship. If I have a freakout about something, I know I can call her. She’ll give me the guidance that I need, whether it be career-related, class-related, or dissertation-related. She is thorough in her feedback, and our shared research interests made her a great fit to ultimately be on my dissertation committee.”
In Salehi’s time as a K-12 teacher, she came to realize that many educators don’t know how to use their voice, that many believed they had to be in a “position of power” to make a difference. As she examined the dynamics of education, Salehi saw an opportunity to use data and stories to elevate the voices of teachers. Her desire is to impact the field of education to make teaching a sustainable career.
“When I first started pursuing educational leadership, I learned how to involve the community, how to work with stakeholders, and how to take teacher and student voices and elevate them to make change,” Salehi said. “I can broaden my impact on education by collecting meaningful data and making research- and experience-based suggestions for improvement."
Salehi works as an education industry manager for a visual effects software company. While she never imagined her career taking her out of public education, she recognizes the impact an ever-changing world has had on her.
“The pandemic changed everything, including my career path,” she said, “I now leverage my experience in K-12 and higher education to support equitable learning opportunities for students and instructors. It’s a surreal shift that I reflect upon daily.”
Salehi has worked in education since 2013 when she graduated with an undergraduate degree in Spanish.
“After I finished my undergrad, I moved to Madrid and taught English there for a year,” she recalled. “When I moved home, I taught Spanish in Arkansas public schools, ranging from fifth to 12th grade. While teaching, I pursued a master’s in gifted and talented education and a specialist in educational leadership.
“I grew up as a military kid, and so I moved around a little bit until about middle school, but my family is from Jonesboro,” Salehi said. “My dad is a teacher, my aunt is a teacher, so education came naturally to me. I also have a family history of loving the Hogs, so it’s never been a question that I wanted to get a degree from the University of Arkansas.”
To support her experience as a student at the U of A, Salehi has taken advantage of several long-distance benefits offered to online students, in particular access to the Mullins Libraries. With her home in Arkansas being a few hours' drive to the Fayetteville campus, she is also able to benefit from perks available to the campus-based students, she said.
“I’ve relied heavily on the online library,” Salehi said. “The librarians have been a wonderful help anytime I need an article or interlibrary loan. Also, the UARK subscription to Headspace has been amazing. I absolutely love it and all the little student benefits that I didn’t expect to have as an online student at the University of Arkansas – being able to get a student ID and student discounts. I can read the New York Times free as a University of Arkansas student.
“I know at a lot of universities, when you’re an online student, your tuition and fees don’t cover the quote-unquote ‘extras,’” she said. “At the U of A, I feel like I belong. I am not ‘an online student.’ I am a Razorback.”
In addition to her classes, Salehi also conducts research for conference submission. One article of which she is particularly proud was titled, “Arkansas Teacher Job-Demands & Self-Efficacy During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which she presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy annual conference in 2021, she said.
“It was a side project of mine with a colleague at another university. Since I am a University of Arkansas student, I went through our IRB (Institutional Review Board) and had amazing support from Ro (Windwalker), the IRB coordinator,” Salehi recalled. “She was super helpful through the IRB process. The professor who is now my dissertation chair supported me as faculty supervisor even though it wasn’t part of my coursework.”
Her interest in how the COVID pandemic affects Arkansas teachers is also reflected in her dissertation topic, which examines teacher experiences in Arkansas and how the pandemic has changed their desire to stay in the classroom.
Salehi was one of 25 people to receive the W.E. Manning Memorial Scholarship for online U of A students for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“I was excited when I found out I got the scholarship because it takes the burden off of having more in student loans,” she said. “I didn’t have student loans until I started graduate school. Student loans have always scared me, and every little bit that I can get that doesn’t get processed through a loan is a huge relief to me.”