Dr. Dawn Kaiser's educational journey was paved by perseverance.
Her parents both came from big families in which they were the only ones to ever divorce. "They got a divorce in the sixties when it was taboo," Dr. Kaiser said. Because of this, she said, "I grew up hearing I'd never amount to anything."
Her reaction was simple: "Let me prove you wrong."
The divorce wasn't all that made Dr. Kaiser's home life far from ideal as she was growing up; her mom's boyfriend was abusive, as well. "School was my safe haven," she said. "I enjoyed school. Then I'd come home, lock myself in my room and study."
Still, college was never part of her family's paths—and wasn't initially part of Dr. Kaiser's—but then one class changed her course. "My goal was to be a Marine, a mud wrestler, or join the roller derby. I changed my mind senior year of high school when they brought in computers. You could stay after school an extra hour and learn basic programming."
She was hooked and enrolled in Alpena Community College in Michigan, thanks to two teachers who helped with the necessary paperwork. She received her associate's degree and then transferred to Lake Superior State University, where she earned her her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a specialization in Computer Information Systems Management—all while working to pay for her education. "I worked three jobs during my associate's degree and one job during my bachelor's degree," she notes.
Dr. Kaiser didn't slow down after that. She forged ahead to attain her Master of Business Administration at Lake Superior State. While she pursued her MBA, she taught part-time at a community college and worked full-time as the guidance secretary for Oscoda High School. During her time as secretary, she saw three deans come and go at the Huron Shores Campus of Alpena Community College. When the position opened up a fourth time, she took a chance and, with her master's degree in hand, applied. She was the only female applicant.
After five interviews, she was hired. "It was really hard to be the only female in a male environment," she said. "I had to become one of them. I watched them and watched how they did things. The big thing was keeping emotions out of it, because they didn't show emotion; they used stern voices. I had to find the happy medium between sounding stern and not sounding witchy."
Fortunately, she found middle ground and stayed in that role for seven years. During her time as dean, she pursued her Ph.D. while teaching part-time. In 2004, she was hired at AIU Online. Like many students juggling work, family life and school, she considered quitting at one point. "I was going through a divorce at the time and just thought, 'This isn't for me.'" But she persevered thanks to a phone call from her mentor, who encouraged her to keep going. "Mentors keep you on track to make sure you don't give up on yourself—or on your dreams." Dr. Kaiser fulfilled hers when she attained her Ph.D. in Organization and Management with a specialization in Leadership.
In 2006, she decided to leave the role of dean and spend her time in the classroom. She continued teaching at AIU Online, and her favorite part has always been the students. "It's the lightbulb. It's when students realize they can do it," she said.
Before being named program director for business at AIU, Dr. Kaiser taught Business 105, the introductory business course where many adults confront worries about their abilities to return to school. Dr. Kaiser's response was always, "Yes, you can. ... Take every class like you're eating an elephant—one bite at a time. Before you know it, you're done." Her dedication to providing students with a high-quality, career-oriented education helped her be named one of Career Education Corporation's Distinguished Educators in Academic Leadership in 2013.
Having experienced both brick-and-mortar and online campuses, she says learning online can be more challenging since there's a lot you do on your own—but you learn more because of it. The other benefits, of course, are that you set your own schedule and take control of getting your degree. "You have to do it for yourself. Don't do it for anybody else."
Dr. Kaiser now enjoys her role as program director, though she misses sharing her career experiences with students. "Students would say they want to run their own business and they would ask about financing. ... I was able to talk to them about the odd sides of funding, like having a silent partner." That in particular is one area in which she has first-hand experience, as she has been a silent partner in The Edelweis Tavern in Oscoda, Mich., though she says her role is now more visible than silent.
In addition to her role at AIU and as a partner in the tavern, she also runs her own business, Kaiser Consulting. The venture began serving mainly construction businesses, helping them set up payrolls and inventories, and then she took on Kirtland Community College as a client, training the school's leadership. From there, she took on clients all throughout Michigan, and these days, she takes on projects as time allows.
Not bad for a woman who was told she would never amount to anything!
In her spare time, Dr. Kaiser enjoys skiing, reading, boating, fishing, and dancing at festivals. She also runs half-marathons and 5Ks in honor of her brother, who has muscular dystrophy.
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