[dropcap]S[/dropcap]erena Salloum believes there is nothing better than working out at her favorite CrossFit gym.
At 5-foot-3, she can lift 175 pounds while doing back squats, and she loves the challenge of sprints that leave her legs quivering. During the workout of the day, she focuses on getting better, transforming her mind and body.
The native of Troy, Michigan, takes that drive into her classroom as an assistant professor in Ball State’s educational leadership department.
“CrossFit has taught me that if I work hard and focus, I can get better at anything in life. That is what teaching and research are all about — working harder. Every day, I push myself to new levels. And I try to get my students to bring that same attitude to class and their professional lives.”
Many of her students are school administrators pursuing their doctorates of education through online classes, which the Rawlings Outstanding Distance Education Teaching Award winner has taught for several years. She helps them, even if they’re a very far distance — say, about 15 time zones away.
Rachel Geesa, now an assistant professor of educational leadership, was working in South Korea on a master’s degree from Ball State in 2009 when she decided to enter the university’s doctoral program. All of the conversations she had with Salloum took place via Skype; they didn’t meet in person until summer 2013.
“Dr. Salloum took an instrumental role in chairing my doctoral committee, and I successfully defended my dissertation in 2014 via Skype after I moved to Japan,” Geesa said. “Dr. Salloum mentored me throughout my journey of obtaining my doctorate, and she continues to be an amazing mentor and colleague to me today.”
Focused on getting the degree
Salloum understands the desire to get a doctorate.
“Working on a doctoral can be isolating, but these are driven professionals because of the amount of time required in the program,” Salloum said. “Many are currently school administrators who dream of receiving that doctorate. It is a major goal in their lives. They just want to get better for their students and teachers.”
Communication between professor and student is key, she said.
“To be successful in distance education, you must be aware of all the different technologies available and then try to use them to meet the individual needs of your students,” she said. “We can use various technologies that allow us to have a meeting, edit student works simultaneously as we move through (Google Docs). And we can use an online video chat to discuss various issues.”
Meeting students where they are best sums up what students and peers say about Salloum, said Marilynn Quick, an assistant professor of educational leadership who nominated her colleague for the Rawlings Award.
“In the literal sense, she employs Skype, Google Hangouts, the phone, text messages and apparently nearly every Starbucks in central Indiana to meet and touch base with her students,” Quick said. “Even though her courses primarily are taught online, all of Serena’s students feel that she is always accessible to them.”
Adapting to today, challenging her students
Joe McKinney, a professor in educational leadership, also praised Salloum’s adaptability. “She has spent countless hours mastering the changing technology that defines our program,” he said. “Dr. Salloum’s efforts to use technology to reach our distance education students, coupled with her direct face-to-face contact with her students, are premised on her genuine belief that effective teaching is all about forming relationships. Not just teacher-to-student relationships but, importantly, student-to-student relationships (through teamwork) in the context of online education.”
And just like the work she puts into the CrossFit gym, Salloum encourages her students to tackle the most challenging projects for their dissertations.
“My goal is to have students conduct very rigorous research,” she said, “but we know, as school administrators, that can be difficult. They simply can’t take a month off to collect data. We have to think creatively about how to do the research while keeping the quality of their work at the highest levels.”
The best part: Getting the doctorate
This past May, David Pillar received his doctorate. He said Salloum’s feedback on students’ work sets her apart from any other educator he’s encountered.
“Her thoughtful and supportive compliments, suggestions and criticisms of the work always left me saying, ‘That’s so much better,’ ” said Pillar, the principal at Jackson Creek Middle School in Bloomington, Indiana. “She is intellectually engaging, generously considerate and genuinely kind, and she is so worthy of any and all accolades that come her way.”
Salloum said that after years of hard work by both students and faculty, the best part comes at Commencement.
“We have a lot of people in the program who are first-generation college graduates, and helping them fulfill that dream of earning a doctorate is amazing,” she said. “It’s a privilege to share that moment.”