This article originally appeared on the UMass Boston News web page.
We all take different paths in life and, if we’re lucky, we have mentors guiding us along the way. As an undergraduate psychology major, 20-year-old Ellen Birchander was on track to fail her journalism class unless she completed an upcoming article assignment. She was directed by her professor to open the yellow pages and interview someone listed as a contact in the first advertisement she saw, which happened to be Greater Lynn Senior Services. Her assignment not only received an A but led to the first job she’d have in the field of aging.
Out of this serendipity came a passion for the work of aging that developed and evolved over the next 40 years. Birchander went on to lead the development of programs and delivery of services for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, where she served as Assistant Secretary for Programs. Now, after making a career transition from public affairs to public education, she is teaching, mentoring, and co-directing the Management of Aging Services (MAS) Graduate Program in the Department of Gerontology.
Birchander is the recipient of this year’s Graduate Program Director Award for Outstanding Student Mentorship, recognizing faculty members with a distinguished record of effectively mentoring graduate students in their respective McCormack Graduate School departments.
Students feel a mutual respect between themselves and their mentor, using words such as “caring” “thoughtful” and “encouraging” to describe Birchander’s mentorship and teaching styles. In response, Birchander says: “I am gratified, but I have a feeling that I get as much out of it than they do. I feel like I’ve been given a lot of gifts – every relationship I get to build with students is a gift.”
A majority of her students are juggling working full-time and their academic program, which is 100 percent online. Many students turn to faculty such as Birchander for support.
“We spend a lot of time working with them to ease back into an academic environment, to understand the field of aging and how it changes every couple of years, to find jobs, to help them develop skills to succeed at the graduate level,” says Birchander, who also credits her co-director Lillian Glickman. Even offering their personal phone numbers, the program leaders use a high touch approach to offer career and academic mentoring at all times during the day.
Birchander believes that developing students starts before they are accepted into the program; prospective applicants must interview with the directors to prove they are in it for the long haul. While many current students are already working in the field, others are seeking career changes or are interested in developing aging programs, policies, and various creative businesses.
“We spend a lot of time talking about interest and developing interest because aging is a field not a discipline,” Birchander says.
Birchander recognizes the tenacity and resilience of the work students do outside their academic lives – especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “The program is important to them; they really seem to want to learn more and do more, and that is so motivating [to me]”.
“We want to make sure that there’s a strong set of people with great skills and a strong base to contribute to the field,” she continued.
Many students use their degrees to get creative in the field, going on to work in state agencies doing public policy work, Councils on Aging, in housing and transportation. One even hosts a radio show for retirement counseling.
Birchander believes she immensely benefited from two idealistic mentors from her past and present: an undergraduate advisor who taught her to have courage, and Lilian Glickman, her current co-director, who taught the skills and determination to be able to do the things she wanted to do in life. Birchander incorporates these key lessons into her own mentoring styles.
“If we can give students the tenacity and the courage to do what they believe, then we’ve done our job,” she says.
Asked for advice she wanted to share with the Class of 2020, Birchander offered inspiring words of encouragement and conviction.
“Life is never a straight line. It’s like you’re standing at the plate getting ready to hit the ball, and nothing but curve balls are thrown at you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a curve ball, it’s how you hit it, or how you try to swing. You just have to be able to get up every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and like what you see. And if you’re true to yourself, you can. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. You just have to do your best.”
About McCormack Graduate School
The McCormack Graduate School was founded in 2003 to create a dynamic academic and research center in policy studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The school was built upon the foundation of its predecessor, the McCormack Institute, established in 1983 and named in honor of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John W. McCormack. In 2010, we changed our name to the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies to better reflect our expanded global mission. Nationally recognized as a model for public service schools, the McCormack Graduate School is committed to social justice and equity. We offer an interdisciplinary education and conduct cutting edge research that seeks to understand and remedy some of the most important social, political, economic, and environmental issues of our time. We welcome new students, research partners, and community collaborators to help us build a better world for all. Noting the public service mission of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, BestValueSchools.com ranks UMass Boston 29th in its list of the 50 Most Innovative Public Service Schools in the United States. To learn more, visit mccormack.umb.edu.