PESLA offers College staff a ‘great avenue’ for pro development

Photo of PESLA Cohort #1
IE Academic Advisor Morgan Kuryla (center) with PESLA Cohort #1
Photo of Morgan Kuryla & poster
Kuryla’s project was titled “StrengthsFinder and Engineering Major Choice”
Photo of PESLA planning activity
Kuryla (2nd from r) and PESLA participants work on a planning activity
The Purdue College of Engineering recently graduated the inaugural ten-member cohort of a transformative staff leadership training program, including IE academic advisor Morgan Kuryla.

The program was first proposed March 2016, when Leah H. Jamieson, then-John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering, rolled out an initiative to transform the College into a more efficient, transparent, and inclusive operation. Eric VandeVoorde, Director of Professional Engineering Master's Programs, initiated the idea of the first-ever Purdue Engineering Staff Leadership Academy (PESLA), a program exclusively offered to College Administrative/Professional (A/P) and Management/Professional (M/P) staff members. 

"PESLA has given me a bigger understanding of the university as a whole, as well as individual areas," said Kuryla. "In my role as an advisor, understanding the bigger picture has helped me connect students to resources I would not have known about had I not been a part of PESLA."

"The inaugural PESLA cohort was a resounding success!" said VandeVoorde. "Our participating colleagues followed through on the two-year commitment with consistent engagement. We were fortunate to benefit from the expertise of many colleagues throughout the College of Engineering and Purdue University at large who joined as session facilitators."

During the first year of the program, participants learn about all areas of the university. During the second year, they put their knowledge to work in a research project related somehow to their work in the College.

"My project was an analysis of the StrengthsFinder results of engineering students that began in Fall 2016 and their engineering major choice," Kuryla explained. "In my findings, I found that some engineering majors had very similar strengths profiles, but were also somewhat unique/telling for that particular major. The benefit I find to this analysis is seeing what strengths students have and using them as an approach to advising and problem solving."

"The ten cohort projects addressed a wide range of both current needs and new initiatives, including a 'Graduate School 101' video series, transforming staff culture, ABET accreditation, and much more," VandeVoorde said.

The academy's cohort model teaches participants to become better leaders in their respective College units, as well as show them how to be valuable contributors to broader institutional goals. The participants explored real-world case studies, engaged in small group discussions and interactive presentations, completed a project of their choosing, and learned to think beyond their respective administrative areas. 

PESLA organizers hope the program will improve retention among staff participants, enhance staff recruitment power, expand connections between CoE and University staff, and help staff to produce additional projects, publications, and presentations.

"At its core, PESLA is for staff, by staff," explained VandeVoorde. "The University has excellent professional development resources already in place, but this was an opportunity for targeted learning within the College. Purdue University sets a standard for excellence in all areas, and we want to carry that torch as staff members, too."

The inaugural cohort began in February 2017 and concluded in January 2019 with a poster exhibition on January 29 in the ARMS atrium followed by a graduation awards luncheon in the Purdue Memorial Union Anniversary Drawing Room. Besides VandeVoorde, the original leadership team included Cristina Farmus, then-managing director of the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering; Marsha Freeland, Director of Faculty Success Programs; Will Sondgerath, Assistant Dean for Staff and Director of Administration; and Steve Duket (retired), then-managing director of the School of Industrial Engineering.

The second PESLA cohort began February 5 with 12 participants, including two more IE staff members: Elizabeth Allum, senior academic advisor, and DeEtte Starr, communications specialist. Besides VandeVoorde, Freeland, and Sondgerath, this cohort's leadership team includes PESLA alumni Nina Robinson, administrative director of the Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering, and Dr. Janet Beagle, senior director of graduate programs.

There will be some changes for the second cohort. "The PESLA curriculum is a living entity that will be updated and improved for each cohort," explained VandeVoorde. "For Cohort 2, with feedback from Cohort 1 graduates in conjunction with our leadership team's vision, we are retaining well-received core curriculum topics while adding focused content on change management, career planning, team-based strategic diversity, and much more."

"Staff transformation is an ongoing process," he continued. "We as staff leaders want to take ownership of that process in conjunction with active support from our faculty administration."

"PESLA is a great avenue for professional development and learning more about the university and its resources," Kuryla said. "It also brings people across the college together for networking. I was able to meet a variety of people from my cohort that I may not have if I was not in PESLA."

Source: Morgan Kuryla,; Eric VandeVoorde,; and Purdue College of Engineering News, "New leadership academy invests in its own CoE staff" (2017)

Writer: DeEtte Starr,