It was at Dr. Robert Manzer's first teaching job that a lightbulb turned on and he discovered his career path.
"Within the first week on the job, my perspective shifted, and I realized I wanted to change the model of higher education," he said. Two things affected his view: First, seeing that for so many students – especially first-generation college students – college was their big opportunity to advance professionally, and second, seeing that colleges could do a much better job preparing them for that advancement by being more intentional about their success. "I remember seeing parents dropping their children off to start college, and thinking about how much they had invested in their children's success, and I felt badly that we weren't as focused as we could have been on helping their children move forward in the world."
Since that eye-opening experience, Dr. Manzer has made it his goal through a variety of roles in educational leadership to evolve that higher-education model to make it more student focused. Today, he serves as AIU's provost and chief academic officer, where he views his role through the lens of that dedication to students.
He got his feet wet at the University of Dallas as a professor of political science, but the feeling that he could have a larger impact drove him to seek a leadership role, and five years later, he earned the position of associate dean. The next step on his career ladder was becoming associate vice president of academic affairs at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU), and it was there that he began making his mark. At NWU, Dr. Manzer developed the state's largest concurrent enrollment program, designed to afford high school students the opportunity to enroll in college courses, with 30 high schools. He also embraced his passion for political philosophy, creating a Washington D.C.-based Capitol Hill internship program with a 10-school consortium, with the goal of giving students real-world, first-hand experience before graduation. "Washington D.C. runs on interns," he said. " It's great for students to have these experiences. ... They're indispensable in preparing students to move forward in the world."
Dr. Manzer experienced this firsthand in his own career: He interned with Congressman John McCain, who was completing his first term in the House of Representatives at the time. "I was a bit green back then. You have these points of view, and then you learn they're based on limited experiences. I learned a lot." Replicating these types of experiential learning programs in the online environment in some way is one thing he's exploring in his role as provost and chief academic officer.
He's held many leadership roles over the years, including serving as chief operating officer for the Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations and regional vice president of Synergis Education, Inc. In his educational leadership roles, Dr. Manzer also has experience developing new degree and non-degree programs—all to benefit students with a forward focus. "The key is getting students ready for the next step after college."
His main advice on how students can find success is simple in theory but not always in practice. "The No. 1 thing is to become reflective—thoughtful—about what you're doing. Be able to give an account of who you are and what you've done in relation to where you want to go," he said.
Dr. Manzer has experience helping students with this concept of reflection in working to prepare them to compete for nationally competitive scholarships like the Rhodes Scholarships. He would advise them that their personal and educational accounts needed to be so powerful that the panel would think, "If we don't give this person a scholarship, the world will suffer."
Continually reflecting on your path, he believes, holds the key to success. "Internalize your education. Don't keep it at arms' length—get the most out of it," he said.
But above all, earn your degree. "In today's economy, a college degree is a necessity. Not having a degree really limits you in terms of career prospects," he says. "Everyone faces challenges and decisions that alter their paths, but earning a degree is important."
These thoughtful pieces of advice seem to carry more weight as Dr. Manzer's own educational journey didn't start out on such an auspicious note: Shortly before he was scheduled to graduate high school, he dropped out. He was doing well in school, he said, but lacked the focus and understanding to follow through on finishing.
Yet he wasn't away from school for long before he decided to finish what he started and earn his high school diploma. He then moved on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Carleton College in Minnesota and his Master and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. "I went from a high school drop-out to a Ph.D. I took it one step at a time," he said. "It's the nature of how people move through the world. You make progress, get to a different place, and see what happens."
Today, Dr. Manzer enjoys the opportunity to evaluate and remold the higher education model at AIU. "I have the opportunity at AIU to tweak and change the model to be more about helping students succeed," he said. "Getting an education can not only open doors; it can prepare you to walk through them."
Dr. Manzer was awarded the 2004 President's Award for Outstanding Administration by the Adult and Continuing Education Association of Nebraska and has authored articles in leading political science journals, including American Political Science Review and American Journal of Political Science.
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