Mills faculty and staff look forward to experiential learning, being part of global university system

two students sit on a bench
Northeastern students Sihang Chen and Ankit Mehra study outside of the Lokey School of Business and Public Policy at Mills College. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—Before Helen Walter graduated secondary school in her native England, she was accepted into some of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious colleges. But she chose to enroll at Coventry University.

Why? Because it required undergraduate students to spend a full year working in the industry of their choice before earning their diploma.

“Looking back, it was the Northeastern model of success,” says Walter, comparing the Coventry program two decades ago to Northeastern’s 100-year-old signature co-op experiential learning program.

Helen Walter, visiting associate professor of biology at Mills College, poses for a portrait. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Walter’s decision paid off when she applied for her first job after graduation. “I was up against somebody who went to a much more prestigious university,” she says. “They had a much higher grade point average and a first-class honors degree, but they hired me because I had that experience.”

Fast-forward to today and Walter is now a visiting associate professor of biology at Mills College, which is expected to officially merge with Northeastern on July 1.

Starting a co-op learning program at Mills was on the agenda for decades, but that’s where it stayed, Walter says.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like that here at Mills,” says Walter, who arrived on the Oakland campus as an adjunct professor in 2005. “We’ve talked about it a number of times, but we just didn’t have the resources to be able to do it.”

Kate Karniouchina, dean of the Lokey School of Business and Public Policy at Mills College, poses for a portrait. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Walter knows it takes industry connections—and lots of them—to make experiential learning successful. And Northeastern has built those relationships over the past century, she says.

“It’s not something you can just go, ‘boom,’ and it’s gonna happen,” Walter says. “So that part of Northeastern is so exciting to actually finally get the opportunity to put my students through.”

Constance M. Yowell, Northeastern’s senior vice chancellor for educational innovation, is excited to extend the co-op experience to students studying on the Oakland campus.

“We know from our employer partners that Northeastern students are highly coveted because they have so much experience and are ready to contribute from day one,” Yowell says. “We look forward to offering all our students on the Mills campus amazing co-op experiences in the Bay Area and around the globe.” 

Experiential learning is not common at West Coast colleges, according to Walter, who believes the promise of Northeastern’s co-op program will attract students to Mills from California and beyond.

“It’s something that isn’t really a strength here in the Bay Area,” Walter says. “And yet we’re in this place where we have numerous research labs that are always looking for people. We have so many biotech companies and other companies that are really looking for people to mentor.”

The Betty Irene Moore Natural Sciences Building on the Mills campus is an impressive 26,000-square-foot facility built with sustainable design strategies. The first LEED platinum building in Oakland, it includes an inviting lobby, exhibit space, spacious outdoor courtyard, and modern classrooms and labs.

It’s here that Walter conducts research on things like vaccines, cerebrospinal injuries and alcohol addiction. It’s also home to the Hellman Summer Science and Math Program, which Walter directs.

But she believes her students deserve more. And that can’t all be found on the Mills campus.

“We do see the benefit of putting students in our own research labs and working with them one-on-one,” Walter says. “But having those opportunities in a different lab away from us. That’s going to be really powerful.”

Walter admits she didn’t fully appreciate her industry experience as an undergraduate—until that first job offer.

“I don’t think they’ll necessarily appreciate it when they first go into it. I’m sure I didn’t,” Walter says. “But when you come out of that experience, you’re like, ‘Oh, yes. That’s why we do it!’”

Kate Karniouchina is a professor of business at Mills and dean of the Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. She loves the Oakland campus, its diverse student body and her research. Karniouchina hopes the Mills-Northeastern merger will allow her to do more of the latter. So far, so good.

“I was blown away by the research support I’ve already received from Northeastern,” she says. “We didn’t even officially merge yet, but we’ve already filed for a couple of grants. And we’re exploring all kinds of collaboration.”

In the past, Karniouchina would typically partner with faculty at larger schools—such as Rutgers and the University of Utah—just to receive access to resources such as databases and fast computers. Those days are gone, she says.

“I’m excited about the expansion of the pool of colleagues that we will have,” says Karniouchina, who described the mood on the Oakland campus as “forward-thinking.”

“There is some nervousness, but also a lot of excitement,” she says.

You can add Kellie Kendrick to the list of Mills faculty and staff who are excited about the merger. She was born and raised in the East Bay, arrived at Mills as a wide-eyed 18-year-old college freshman and never left. Seventeen years later, she’s the manager of technology support services and technology training.

On the front lines of the college’s infrastructure needs, Kendrick watched firsthand—as a curious employee and proud alumnae—as the Mills-Northeastern partnership came to fruition. Prior to that, she was involved in conversations Mills had with other colleges, but those were not the same, she says.

“It was very different from day one talking with Northeastern,” Kendrick says. “We were never an acquisition. It never felt like they were just going to replace you and do their own thing.”

Kendrick’s colleague, Diana Martinez, has been Mills’ assistant director of admissions for three years. She’s originally from Southern California, grew up in Oregon and attended Mount Holyoke, a historically all-women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

She was raised by a single mother, a college sociology professor, and has lived in Oakland for the past nine years. She’s a champion of diversity and was thrilled when Northeastern selected her to sit on the selection committee for its Torch Scholars Program, which benefits first-generation students from diverse backgrounds.

“The applications were so inspiring,” Martinez says. “I’m very happy that Northeastern is doing its part and I was able to participate in this program.”

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