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Business professor teaches 'Practicum' students practical realities of work-life balance

Mary U. Henderson works with marketing/management student Kate Scarrella during an advising appointment.
Mary U. Henderson works with marketing/management student Kate Scarrella during an advising appointment.
Photo by Andy Ferron.

Why would an associate professor of business administration pursue a doctorate when she already has a full-time job in academia and a busy family? "It was a goal to earn a doctoral degree," replies Mary Unger Henderson '80. "I love to teach and I love to learn, so it was great to get to be a student, too."

Henderson has been juggling multiple priorities for a long time, including during her 18-year corporate career at B. Dalton Bookseller/Barnes & Noble, Lifetouch and The Musicland Group. She also has been an adjunct in undergraduate and MBA programs at the Carlson School of Management, Inver Hills Community College and the University of St. Thomas.

But her heart is with St. Kate's. In the late 1990s, Henderson answered her alma mater's call for a buying executive to speak to a class. St. Kate's never let go, tapping her first as an adjunct instructor and, in 2000, making her a full-time faculty member.

Now a tenured associate professor, Henderson teaches courses in management, marketing and sales, and is the "queenpin" of the "Business Practicum" course that is part of all business administration internships taken for credit. Students work in internships or entry-level professional positions at places such as 3M, the American Red Cross, Cargill, EcoLab, Upsher Smith and WellsFargo.

Henderson gets rave reviews from students and faculty colleagues alike. Her peers chose her for one of two Faculty Teaching and Advising Award Honorable Mentions in 2009, citing her ability to challenge students academically and make topics relate to everyday life.

Back-to-school 101
Henderson returned to the University of St. Thomas for her doctoral work, completing an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the School of Education in 2008. She had earned an MBA from the (then) College of St. Thomas in 1988.

Like St. Kate's "Business Practicum" course that Henderson now oversees, the St. Thomas "cohort model" — in which students collaborate with peers who represent diverse organizations, fields and personal backgrounds — suited Henderson well. "It was very energizing, learning from professionals from a variety of fields," she says.

Like the many St. Kate's students who juggle academic, job and personal responsibilities, Henderson lived a back-to-school life. She knows what it takes and offers students practical counsel.

As a starting point, she advises them to take a holistic view of themselves and assess their work style. "Figure out the environment you need to work in, where you get energy and how many hours you can work in a sitting," she explains. "As an extrovert I liked to work with noise, people and energy, whether in a coffee shop or library."

Henderson was clear about her professional priorities. "My students and teaching were always first throughout this process," she says.

She created an overall plan with goals for each month and week, and she established writing goals for each session or day. "That helped me," she recalls. "It felt like there was progress."

Her time-management strategy included carving out writing time in the late evenings and during weekends. She also used dedicated time during St. Kate’s Writers’ Weeks in the January Interim, and she wrote during the University’s Summer Scholars’ Retreat at Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, Minn.

Although Henderson had "a very rewarding learning experience" pursuing her doctoral degree, she concedes that it was a lengthy and at times daunting process. "I don't think I realized how much work would be involved."

Henderson has a "home team" who helped her persevere: husband, John, and sons Tom, 21, Nick, 18, and Joe, 11.

“They were great. My husband and three boys were cheering me on from the sidelines, including sending me a letter at 'camp' [during the Gainey retreat] to encourage me to keep going. My mom was a huge supporter and believer in me doing this work on a personal and professional level, and helping other women.”

For students who don't have such a personal support system at home, St. Kate's faculty, staff and students are generous surrogates. Chief among them is Henderson herself, who coaches "Business Practicum" students one on one. And, as peers, students coach one another in class. "It's a wonderful learning lab that involves the synergy of applying the theory from business to the practical working experience," says Henderson.

Real-life learning
"Business Practicum" has two parts: time on the job and time in class. Each student sets learning goals for the work experience, in consultation with Henderson and a supervisor at the organization sponsoring the student’s internship. For the classroom component, students read and discuss business-related texts.

In class with Henderson, they also study and role-play strategies for workplace success, including communicating with managers and peers, delivering effective presentations, presenting a professional image and speaking up with confidence.

Speaking up in normal business circumstances is one thing, but it's messy and distressing when the circumstances raise ethical red flags. While taking a course on feminist perspectives of leadership, Henderson was inspired to study female whistleblowers for her doctoral dissertation. The scandals at Enron and WorldCom also influenced her choice.

From her research, Henderson is armed with practical advice straight from the courageous whistleblowers themselves. "As I work with my students in business administration courses, I bring up the potential realities of the workplace — what ethical challenges they possibly could face — to help them think about these things ahead of time," she says.

Calling Henderson "phenomenal," Megan Kalina, associate professor of business administration, says, "The 'Practicum' course is her passion. She's been blessed with a gift: She can really connect with students, and she is a fabulous mentor and coach. Once she has students in her 'Practicum' course, she's got them forever. She takes calls from students after 10 o'clock at night. That's just who Mary is."

That is indeed Mary Henderson, practicing what she preaches and teaching what she practices.

Oct. 15, 2009 by Karen K. Hansen

See also: Business, Faculty, Leadership, Students