You can trace Illinois State University’s college student personnel administration (CSPA) program to 1991 when Neal Gamsky, the retired vice president of Student Affairs, was asked to join the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF) as a full-time faculty member. By 1994, he had created the CSPA concentration in the EAF master’s degree program.

Gamsky still remains involved with the CSPA program today as a major donor, funding the Neal R. Gamsky Endowed Graduate Assistantship.

“I have never been challenged more academically than I was at ISU, nor have I ever received the kind of support the faculty provided.”—Jason Ramirez

In 1994, Lemuel Watson became the program’s first full-time faculty program coordinator. In May 1996, the first students—seven in all—graduated with CSPA concentrations.

By 1998, Watson left, and the program was without a leader. Marcia Escott Hickrod, an EAF Ph.D., who had retired five years earlier, came out of retirement to lead the program, but only on a temporary basis. Hickrod, now 80, intended to stay for one year. But, she is still at her desk in DeGarmo Hall, happily serving as an advisor to CSPA students.

“I’m still here,” Hickrod said. “I love it. I love working with students.”

Hickrod led the program for a year until McCluskey-Titus, who came with a wealth of experience and ideas, was hired.

“I’d been a student affairs practitioner for 18 years,” McCluskey-Titus said. “I had a vision for this program. Now it’s a national program with alums all over the country.”

The two-year, five-semester program designed for full-time students now boasts 400-plus alumni working in 42 different states and a job placement rate near 100 percent. Students come from 30 states and four foreign countries to prepare for CSPA careers. Since 2000, 15 graduates have earned doctoral degrees in higher education and an additional 24 are enrolled in a doctoral program.

First-year CSPA students in 2016.

Professor Phyilis McCluskey-Titus (far right) with first-year CSPA students in 2016

Once graduates find their way into the profession, they usually stay. Five years after graduation, 89 percent of graduates remain working in student affairs, McCluskey-Titus said, adding that the University’s “student-centered, teaching-focused.” culture contributes to the program’s success.

McCluskey-Titus called CSPA a theory-to-practice program where learning is crucial and students are able to immediately apply what they’ve learned. That pragmatic approach begins with each student having at least one graduate assistantship (GA) and two internships to introduce them to the inner workings of higher education. The GA experience is a “learning lab” for students, she said.

Second-year CSPA student, Jenny Kryszkowski, is a former middle school math teacher; she graduated in May 2017.

As part of the program, she’s worked in admissions, orientation, and as a coordinator of family orientation. Teaching convinced her that she enjoyed working with students outside the classroom in sports and youth groups. She wants to work with college students in what is commonly known as “the first-year experience.”

“I like recruiting students, getting them here—that’s the admissions piece,” Kryszkowski said. “I like showing them all the tools that are available to them—that’s orientation.

And, the advising part is, ‘You’re here so I’m going to help you academically and socially to feel supported by the University.’”

All facets of student affairs are interconnected, she said. Kryszkowski appreciated the GA opportunities and her
practica, especially spending a summer as a coordinator of family orientation at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was Krysyzkowski’s first visit to the Southwest.

“Dr. Phyllis encourages you to get new experiences and to get out of your comfort zone,” she said. “It makes you well rounded.”

While finishing up the program, she accepted a position as transfer admissions officer at Northern Arizona University, her preferred geographic area.

Jason Ramirez

Jason Ramirez

Jason Ramirez, M.S.E. ’02, graduated from Illinois State and made a couple of stops along the way to his current position as associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Southern Utah University.

After graduating from Illinois State, Ramirez spent three years in student affairs at Carthage College in Wisconsin
before taking a housing position at Western Illinois University for a year. He returned to Carthage as associate dean of students and served as acting dean of students for a year before being named associate vice president for student affairs/dean of students.

After 13 years at Carthage, Ramirez was offered a job at Southern Utah. He oversees conduct, housing and residence life, student involvement and leadership, student activities, Greek life, multi-cultural affairs, counseling and psychological services, health and wellness, and SUU outdoors.

Typical of most CSPA students, Ramirez started in a different direction before deciding on student affairs.

“I went to a small, private liberal arts institution in Iowa where I received a Bachelor of Arts in arts administration,” Ramirez said.

“I fell into student affairs by way of student activities. I loved programming and creating a social community
on campus.”

He commended the University for staying true to its mission of maintaining a small-college atmosphere.

“ISU has not grown so much that faculty are too busy to work with you,” he said. “I have never been challenged more academically than I was at ISU, nor have I ever received the kind of support the faculty provided.”

Ramirez called McCluskey-Titus an amazing leader and teacher. She has similar feelings about the caliber of students she’s sent out into the student affairs world over the years.

“They leave here well trained, and they represent themselves and Illinois State University well,” she said.