Dean’s Medal recipient Dr. Joan Burkhardt encourages fellow doctoral graduates to “Come to the edge!”

November 06, 2013

Joan Burkhardt, EdD, challenged her classmates in her speech at the College of Professional Studies Fall 2013 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony to fulfill their role as change agents by disseminating what they learned to help improve practice. Her doctoral thesis, which examined undergraduate international students’ personal constructions of successful adjustment, led to recognition with the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work, the highest honor awarded by the College to a doctoral student. Dr. Burkhardt is a graduate of the Doctor of Education program. Following is the text of her speech:

Dr. Joan Burkhardt:

Thank you so much for this honor. My work is only as good as my advising team. I share this award with my advisor, Elisabeth Bennett, second reader, Tova Sanders, and third reader, Kevin McKenna.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I got here. The fear and uncertainty I felt when I started this program is still fresh in my mind. Truth be told, I withdrew from classes during the first week, two terms in a row before finally making the third time a charm. Even then, I felt sick the whole first week and almost had a heart attack when I looked up what a literature review was. Christopher Logue speaks to what many of us felt in our early days in his poem, Come to the Edge:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.

And fly we did, Doctors! Look at us today! We have participated in a process that has transformed us from uncertain new doctoral students to change agents. Change agents. What does that really mean? Well, how many of you say the following on a frequent basis, “Wow, that would make a great study!” You might be a change agent. How many of you see a problem and immediately think how you might ameliorate it, recognize a need or gap and consider ways to help fill it? You might be a change agent. Now, how many of you have taken that critical first step – from good intentions to action – by actually conducting that study, helping ameliorate that problem, and helping fill that gap? That’s right: All of us. We are all agents of change.

In keeping with Northeastern’s commitment to equity and diversity, I sought to identify an underserved population and a specific area in which there was a knowledge gap about how to serve its members more effectively. One of the primary goals of my study was to recover undergraduate international students’ personal constructions of successful adjustment. In other words, what does “well-adjusted” or “very well-adjusted” mean to them? How did they get there? How is that construct maintained? One of the most surprising findings of my study was that participants recounted their personal adjustment processes as beginning before they even arrived at their U.S. university; they described mentally preparing to be flexible, adaptive, and take full advantage of new experiences here. Existing research on adjustment defines the process in terms of what happens from the point at which students arrive at a U.S. university. Knowing that students may actually begin their adjustment processes earlier – when they are readying themselves to engage in a new intercultural environment – may help universities design institutional interventions that more proactively facilitate adjustment by targeting international students before their arrival to campus. Now, as thrilled as I am to have identified something that helps fill a gap in the literature and to have proposed changes in existing practice, I view this as only part of my responsibility as a change agent. I have produced research that increases awareness surrounding my problem of study. Awareness. In other words, I have perhaps increased knowledge, concern, or interest in my problem – but what is the real benefit of awareness if it doesn’t spawn further action or result in actual change in practice?

Think for a moment about how you have spent the last several years. You completed a long series of the most challenging classes you have ever taken in your life, you spent many months, a year, or even several years refining your proposal, getting IRB approval, collecting data, hours upon hours in the abyss of data analysis, and then successfully defended what is, arguably, the most important document of your life to date. Now imagine that beautiful bound volume being placed in your hands, you run your finger across your name, its lettering embossed in gold, and then you slide it onto a shelf – to sit, gathering dust, forevermore. Is this what your work is worth to you? To your participants? To your community?

My charge to you is this: Come to the edge! We are Huskies now, Doctors! Huskies don’t need to be pushed! We charge off the line with drive and determination. Our work ethic is unmatched. I know this to be true, because we are among the roughly one percent of the American population who will experience the joy of a doctoral hood slipping over our heads. To some, this moment may be viewed as marking the end of a journey; I would disagree. To me, this sweet experience today is a well-earned celebration of achievement, but it doesn’t mark an end. It is a milestone in a continuing process – a new lifestyle in which we cannot ignore what’s broken. In order to fulfill our role as change agents, we have to take that next crucial step: Disseminate what we have learned to others who can help us improve practice. Speak about our work at a conference, submit a journal article or conference paper, share our findings on a local, regional, global level. You recognized your problem and married it for a reason. Get what you learned out there. Remember the late nights, the meltdowns, the feeling as your findings finally emerged and it all came together. Our work deserves more than one inch of shelf space, and there are people who stand to benefit from it.

One more word about Huskies: We work in packs. We are members of a group of talented, passionate scholar-practitioners. I know I wouldn’t be standing here had it not been for the unfailing support of the CPS EdD community. That support does not end here. Do you want to collaborate on a publication or presentation? Need help brainstorming solutions to a problem? Wondering how to take that first step toward exacting meaningful change? Looking for motivation, support, or just a bit of conversation when it all seems too much? Call on me. Call on us.

Come to the edge again, Doctors, and this time, leap, armed with knowledge, confidence, and others by your side. Be the change you wish to see.

I thank you again for this honor. Congratulations everyone!


Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) is committed to providing career-focused educational programs that are designed to accommodate the complex lives of motivated learners. Offered in a variety of innovative formats, CPS courses are taught by accomplished scholars and practitioners who have real-world experience. The result is an educational experience founded on proven scholarship, strengthened with practical application, and sustained by academic excellence.

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a comprehensive, global research university. The university offers more than 80 undergraduate majors and more than 165 graduate programs, ranging from professional master’s degrees to interdisciplinary PhD programs. Northeastern’s research enterprise is aligned with three national imperatives: health, security and sustainability. Northeastern students participate in co-op and other forms of experiential learning in 90 countries on all seven continents.