Meet Ashlee Balcerzak: Paving the Road to a Career in Higher Education

July 20, 2020
Ashlee Balcerzak is a second year graduate student specializing in ecological engineering

For Ashlee Balcerzak, a second-year graduate student specializing in ecological engineering, higher education is a pathway to help others. It’s a dream that became more vivid with the unique opportunity to shadow the Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences in the autumn of 2019. 

Ashlee’s path to attending The Ohio State University started quite young; in fact, it began at birth. 

“My family, especially my dad, has always dreamed that I would attend Ohio State. In fact, I have a picture of my dad holding me as a newborn baby in a full Ohio State outfit,” she said.

Ashlee as a baby with her fatherAshlee started at Ohio State as an undergraduate student studying pre-med. Like many students, it took some time for Ashlee to find the major that was the right fit for her. Though pre-med seemed like the perfect major to help others, something wasn’t clicking.  

“Despite enjoying the scientific coursework and research, I did not feel like I had found my true passion and couldn’t imagine a career in the medical field,” she recalls. “After traveling to Guatemala for a mission trip and seeing how many people lacked clean water, I wanted to do something about it. It was then that I rediscovered my true passion; it was all about water, ecology and the environment.” 

Originally from Maumee, Ohio, Ashlee grew up surrounded by water, spending the majority of her time on the shores of Lake Erie. So, changing her major, and eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental science, was a natural fit. But Ashlee didn’t want to stop there, she wanted to pave the way to help others. 

“I decided that if I wasn’t going to become a medical doctor to help people, I was going to become a different kind of doctor who could also help people, I wanted to use my love for learning and education to help others and make a difference in the world,” she said. 

Now, Ashlee is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE), specializing in ecological engineering. By pursuing a PhD and a career in academia, Ashlee knows there is more to the work than just teaching or research. So, Ashlee sought a shadowing experience from a true expert in higher education administration, Dean Cathann A. Kress. 

Dean Kress serves as Vice President for Agricultural Administration and Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State. She is responsible for leading the college, which also comprises OSU Extension, research centers including the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, and the Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster. 

Ashlee with Dean Cathann Kress"What I think is so incredible and encouraging is Dean Kress is the first female dean in CFAES’ history. Additionally, she does not have a traditional scientific background as she is a social scientist,” Ashlee said. “In that sense, she is a role model to me."

Ashlee met with Dean Kress at least every other week for a semester. Together, they would attend events like Farm Science Review, a congressional tour of Ohio State’s Wooster campus, and internal Ohio State events such as faculty planning meetings. 

“With a wide range of events, I was able to see a little bit of everything and understand how different each day in the life of a dean really is,” Ashlee said. “After each event, we reflected on the experience. This was important in understanding what the purpose of each day was and the role of a dean at each event.”

From this experience, Ashlee has gained invaluable knowledge about the innerworkings of higher education and learned important lessons regarding communication and adaptability.

“I learned so much that I carried around a notepad to write every experience down because it was so interesting to observe,” she said. “I learned that every day is different, and communication is important when leading a team. Additionally, I learned that being a dean comes with a great deal of responsibility, but this duty also gives you a chance to make a difference in the campus community.”

Ashlee’s advice to other students who are interested in mentoring opportunities is to reach out and initiate a conversation with the person you want to shadow. “It never hurts to ask,” Ashlee said. “If you don’t reach out or try for something you really want to pursue, then you will never know what you could’ve accomplished!”  

 

by Kiersten Wright