Social Change Talk with Jon Kaplan, President of Walden University

learn-main-photo A few weeks ago, I featured Walden University’s new advertising campaign, centering around their social change-focused brand positioning: “A higher degree. A higher purpose.” I was instantly struck by their TV spot because they put their money where their tagline is in demonstrating the end result of a Walden University degree, and spotlighting the change that is possible when you choose an institution aimed at serving the greater good.

The goal is to attract like-minded individuals whose core values align with Walden’s, and they are, in turn, committed to equipping those agents of change with the practical tools they’ll need toward becoming the leaders of tomorrow. The campaign is inspirational without coming off cheesy, so I decided to learn more about the vision behind it in an informative interview with President, Jon Kaplan. And with the level of dedication they put forth in facilitating avenues for positive change, the next time you meet someone who’s making a difference, they may just have a Walden University diploma hanging on their wall.

I was inspired by your recent campaign with your positioning, “A higher degree. A higher purpose.” Can you please tell us more about why you chose that brand position, and how you are supporting it through your institution?

Social change has been at the heart of our mission at Walden University for nearly 40 years. Part of what drives our students, faculty, staff, and alumni is a shared desire to make a positive difference in their neighborhoods, their communities, their careers, and in the broader world. At Walden, we focus on giving students the skills and knowledge they need to solve real-world problems that can have a positive impact on their communities. Our new campaign is a reflection of some of the outcomes experienced by our students and alumni every day.

How does your curriculum cultivate social change leaders? Can you share a few examples of courses designed specifically for that purpose?

Our largest programs are in education and health—two professions that are fundamentally about people helping people. But every program at Walden engages students in social change in some way: our counseling program, for example, includes sessions on meeting the specific needs of under-served populations, our public policy and administration programs incorporate discussions about ethics and social justice, and our M.B.A. classes explore ways in which corporate leadership can drive action in the social sector. When students propose topics for their dissertations, they’re required to explain how their research addresses a societal need.

What do you offer aspiring change agents that other higher education institutions don’t?

Walden is an online institution with a tradition of applying education to challenges and opportunities in the real world. Our students are adults who are already in the workforce, and many enroll because they realize they need to further their education in order to address needs in the world around them. We allow students to design their own research projects so they can begin exploring—and solving—those problems from day one.

For example, one student in our psychology Ph.D. program has been a nuclear technician for seven years, and she is now studying to be a counselor who works with technicians to make sure they are mentally prepared for the stress of working in a nuclear facility. She’s chosen to stay in the same field while shifting her career to a role where she feels she will have a greater impact on the quality of life in her community.

What types of positions have your students secured post-grad?

Walden considers students’ post-graduate success one of the most important measures of educational quality. In fact, more than 80 percent of our doctoral graduates were promoted as a result of earning their degrees, and within just a year of finishing their degrees, two-thirds of our master’s graduates received promotions. While there is no “typical path” for Walden alumni, our alumni are making significant contributions as executives, psychologists, researchers, authors, professors, nurses, and teachers, as well as leaders in the military and government. One alumna became a sign language interpreter at a technical college, while another is a candidate for mayor of Atlanta.

Who are some notable Walden University graduates? What are some examples of the change that has been led by them?

Laura Ybarra immediately comes to mind. She’ll be the first public nurse to live inside the Grand Canyon in three years, where she’ll provide care for members of the Havasupai Native American tribe. The tribe has lived in the canyon for 800 years, and some would argue they are the country’s most isolated patients. Laura’s extensive training makes her well prepared, as she holds a Master of Science in Nursing and is currently pursing her M.S. in Mental Health Counseling from Walden.

Another alumna, Madeline Frank, is a concert violist who studied at Juilliard before earning her Ph.D. in Administration/Management at Walden to become a music educator. Now, she’s able to better help adults and children overcome neurological, physical, and emotional challenges through music. For instance, she helped one 6-year-old boy learn to read by teaching him to play the violin, making the lessons into a game.

Have you seen an increase in enrollment since you launched this campaign?

We’ve received great responses to the campaign, especially from our current students. Walden’s enrollment numbers have been steadily growing and we believe this is due to the fact that our mission of social change speaks to such a wide range of students.

What do you think resonates most with people about it?

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to improve some element of the world around them. There is a line in the spot that says, “It’s not about the money.” What we’ve been hearing from students is that when they’re choosing a job, that’s really true—it’s not just about the money. It’s about making a difference, an impact in their communities, in the lives of others. That’s what Walden helps them to do.

Where do you see the greatest need for change, and how do you think the Walden University program can be integral to it in cultivating the leaders of tomorrow?

We take our cues from our students and are able to adapt our programs based on what changes they want to see in society. Walden’s most popular degrees already have an element of public service built into them. For instance, the majority of our students naturally gravitate toward programs in community organizing, government service, teaching, nursing, and public health. These individuals have an innate desire to help others—what better reason to become a teacher or nurse?

And as an institution, we think about what society’s needs are, too. When we’re designing programs, we don’t simply focus on the ones we think are going to be the most popular. We think about the programs that are going to fill emerging needs in society and the economy. For example, we anticipated the shortage of nurse educators and nurses with the skills needed to manage hospital floors when we designed our nursing program curriculum. As a result, our nursing students are prepared to work in a field where there is an immediate need for their skills.

How do you think your vision can be applied to more traditional coursework?

The goal of our coursework already aligns with traditional universities: we want our students to learn. The key difference at Walden is that the majority of our students are working adults, and it’s critical that we accommodate their schedules. A misconception is that, in doing so, we sacrifice quality. That’s not the case. Our students still operate in the familiar realm of syllabi, weekly discussion topics, required readings, and homework—but in an environment that’s better tailored to meet individual needs.

What else do you have planned to further your role as a harbinger of change?

Making a positive impact has never been more important than it is today. We want to make sure our students are leading positive social change. Every year, we host a Social Change Conference with leading experts from around the country. This year’s event, scheduled for September 30, Social Entrepreneurship: Taking Action, Leading Change, will focus on what helps social entrepreneurs succeed and the new partnerships that are springing up to lead change in our country and our world. We will also host our annual Global Day of Service where hundreds of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff participate in service projects around the world.

Gennefer Gross is a writer, producer and co-founder of Gross Factor Productions, an independent film and television company focused on scripted comedy. An avid writer, author and idea cultivator, Gennefer thrives on creativity and contributes regularly to Triple Pundit on a variety of sustainable business topics. She also pens the popular series Hollywood & Green, exploring socially responsible cinema that helps connect consumers with important causes and environmental issues. And somehow she finds the time to write for her own blog, Tasty Beautiful, covering food and fashion in and around Los Angeles. Gennefer will also be launching Philanthrofoodie(TM), a charitable venture designed to spark social change through shared food experiences. An eternal student of life with an eclectic background, Gennefer brings unique insights on everything from breakthroughs in renewable energy to the latest dish in celebrity consciousness.