Pat Lawton Has a Simple Message: Students First


Dr. Patria Lawton was named the Interim Director of Graduate Studies for TLI last year, and she has wasted no time in making her mark on TLI’s grad programs.

Jumping in with both feet seems a pretty natural state for Lawton, an indefatigable life-long learner who attacks every new challenge with energy and verve. A successful communications pro with an entrepreneurial streak, she has long been a champion for students at the collegiate level, seeing education as the most important factor in self-improvement and generational prosperity. 

She talked to us about her history, the state of play in the grad school game, what she hopes to achieve in her new role, and how focusing on students as the number one priority is critical for TLI’s mission.


Q: Pat, tell us a bit about your background, and what you studied during your undergrad years.

Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to do something around communications. I went to Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minnesota for my undergraduate degree, majoring in communication studies with a minor in English. I played volleyball while I was there, all four years. 

And I thought initially, when I entered college, that I was going to be a newscaster. That’s what I wanted to be –  a reporter and newscaster. I had looked at some other schools for journalism, but decided to stay a little closer to home and pursue communications studies.

After doing my undergrad work I decided I really liked communications studies and decided to go straight into graduate school. While I was working on finishing my MA in Communication Studies, I got a job at a small manufacturing company called Minnesota Wire; I was doing the marketing for them. That opened the door for me to the  marketing and communications world. 

I really liked the work. From there I got involved in the Defense Alliance, which focuses on accelerating technology commercialization, which is now funded through the SBA [Small Business Administration]. But at that time, it was in its infancy, and we were just beginning to understand that there was an ecosystem in the region of small businesses that needed help with contracting, specifically for the defense industry.

So I thought, well, this is great. I'm working here and I'm loving corporate life, so I need to re-up my skills. So I went back and got my MBA from Augsburg. 

Q: Was that around the time you started teaching?

A: Yes, I had just finished the program at Augsburg when someone I knew from my previous master’s program contacted me and said, “I have this course open. Do you want to teach it?” And I said, “Well, I'm kind of busy at work, but yeah, I'll give it a try”. 

And so I taught a course –  I think it was public speaking or interpersonal communication. The first course I ever taught, and I really liked it. 

I kept teaching on the side, and one day realized that teaching was filling my cup more than the marketing work I was doing. So I switched over to teaching full time, and eventually got a tenured faculty position at Inver Hills Community College as a faculty member in the communication studies department. 

While I was doing that, I was continuing my consulting work with the Defense Alliance, which was really ratcheting up at that time. We were named as an SBA regional innovation cluster, which came with funding, which allowed us to continue that important work. So that's been a lot of fun to be doing on the side, and that's really where my tech knowledge comes in from that work with our members.

So there I am teaching and I'm liking it a lot, and I’m learning a lot about the workings of higher education. I figured it was time to re-up my skills again. So I went back and completed my doctorate in educational leadership at Minnesota State Moorhead. 

Q: What topic did you pursue in your dissertation? 

A: I'm a qualitative researcher, I'm really interested in people's stories and people's experiences, and that was an opportunity for me to understand the actual job of a faculty member in a specific institution. 

Community colleges are under a ton of pressure from legislating bodies to be everything to everyone. They're open-access institutions, so any student can come in and enroll. They don't need to go through an admissions committee saying yes or no. They apply and they're in. So that causes a really diverse and vibrant student population to come in the doors, and it's great, We need open-access institutions!  The focus on the faculty is almost solely on teaching at a community college.

I wanted to understand the experiences that faculty were having in three different categories. They were scholarly work, service to the college, and teaching. 

I think it was important to capture that data to paint a picture of what it's like to be a faculty member at a community college. And to let the community college faculty members know that they're not alone in their experiences, that some of the themes that came out were quite universal, and to let them know that they're not in isolation with their experiences. 

Q: How did you end up with TLI?

A: I got connected here with Kirk Froggett, who was teaching courses in interpersonal and team effectiveness. I really enjoyed coming in and co-teaching with him, and I’ve been teaching at TLI ever since. Most of the classes I taught were in the ST program, so when the posting went up in 2022 for an ST Fellow it seemed like a good way to support the faculty.

Q: Did you see a path to DGS at that time?

A: No. But I think it's a nice fit in terms of the needs of TLI and what I can bring. I have the communications and business background, the teaching background, and certainly the background around academic structure and functions. It’s good to consider the overall academic picture -   what we're providing to our students and how we’re supporting faculty at the same time, how we’re keeping our curriculum up to date and reviewing our curriculum and just putting some of those more formal, rigorous academic processes into place here. 

Q: What do you see as some of the challenges that an institution like TLI is facing right now?

A: We have a changing demographic. We have a much larger international student population than we’ve seen in the past. Many of our students are younger than what we’ve seen in the past. So the question is, how are we adapting what we're offering to be able to meet students where they're at when they're coming in our doors? 

We want to be a place where students come back over their 40 year career and get trained and retrained. And sometimes now that's happening earlier. So how do we make that easier for students? How do we best support them, how do we provide a curriculum that serves them well at that point in their lives and in their careers?

Understanding and meeting that changing demographic is number one.

Number two is all about stackable credentials. If students want to come for a certificate, awesome. If they need that just-in-time training in their career, they can come and get a certificate from us. And if they find that interesting – or if a little time elapses and they want to come back and ladder up into the next degree –  that we have the flexibility for them to do that. 

We know that not every student is going to be attracted to a full-on master's degree right away. Sometimes they want our technology leadership certificate or the electrification certificate. Being able to ladder those into something more when they have the resources, the time, or whatever it is that they need to build a solid foundation for the next phase in their career is critically important. So being able to meet people at different progressions in their educational endeavors with credentialing along the way. 

Q: What does TLI offer currently that other similar tech programs around the country don't?

A: Our leadership core really sets our programs apart from many other institutions. “Leadership” is right there in our name. 

We want every person who comes through these doors, whether they're doing an electrification certificate, or a MS in medical device innovation, whatever their academic path, they all need to benefit from the core set of skills that we're teaching in those classes. We’ve worked really hard to develop that core set and refine it and make sure it provides a solid foundation for our students. That’s a unique shared experience that every single person that TLI touches is going to get if they come through any of our certificates or our MS programs. 

That sets us apart. It acknowledges that not only do you have to have the technical skills, but you also need to have those leadership skills in order to excel as a leader in your organization.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about four-plus-one programs at the collegiate level, and the College of Science and Engineering is rolling out its own program over the next year. Can you explain what a four-plus-one program is and how students can benefit from it?

A: It's another avenue for us to meet the students where they're at. Some students have been taking college credits in high school. That means instead of the traditional four years, they have a little bit of room in their schedule and they're thinking ahead to their next step.

With the four plus one, we're able to have them start their Master's work in the senior year of their undergraduate studies. That way they have one more year stacked on, hence the four plus one, and then they walk out the door with both their undergrad and their graduate degrees in five years. 

It’s another example of flexing with a changing demographic. We have more students interested in skilling up right away after their undergraduate work is complete. So providing an avenue for them to do that is really important. And it helps us, again, think about training the next generation of technology leaders.

Q: There’s been a lot of buzz about AI and how it’s going to play out in the security technology space. Having been the Fellow in the ST program, where do you see that going?

A: AI is going to play out in every space. What's happening right now is people are trying to wrap their head around the possibilities, trying to wrap their head around how to use it. So it's touching everything right now. 

The next generation of technology leaders is going to have to understand how to use AI smartly, understand when and where it’s appropriate to use, and understand the science behind how to use it effectively. 

But it's going to touch everything and drive business decisions. 

One of our ongoing tasks at TLI is to build a unified vision around topics like this – whether particular technologies need a one-off class, or need to be part of an overarching strategy.

With something like AI, the answer is maybe a little bit of both, but it’s going to keep coming up in a lot of different contexts. If you are studying supply chains, for instance. Where does AI fit in there? How does it change how you think about security in a supply chain? How does it impact vendor sourcing in your supply chain? It's really a component of everything we do now.

Q: As the new DGS you’ve been working on a full curriculum review. Why are these regular reviews a necessity in an organization like TLI?

A: We need to make sure the curriculum for each of our master's programs, and in each of our certificates, tells a story about how someone can be successful in that space or in that discipline. That is going to be really important for us moving forward as we're thinking about curriculum review and refining our overarching program goals. 

We regularly review the overall program goals to make sure that they're as current as possible and as relevant as possible for what our graduates are going to need, all while thinking about how our courses and the curriculum align to those program goals. 

Q: When you talk about program goals, can you give me an example of that?

A:  In the MOT review that was just completed, there are seven overall program goals. These are essentially objectives, but at the programmatic level. Every student coming out of MOT should have these seven core skills. 

Once you have that, you can make sure that the curriculum is aligned with those overarching program goals. This process helps to identify any overlap, but also any gaps where we might need to bring in more content.  

Q: There are a lot of competing interests for a DGS to pay attention to, so what do you regard as your top priorities?

A: I feel like I’m a broken record when it comes to focusing on the students, I always think that’s a big part of my job. This is why we're here. Sometimes what we lose sight of that in higher ed – there's just a lot of things to do and a lot of moving parts. We have to schedule the classes, faculty, deal with mountains of paperwork, do all of the things that make the machine work right. But here’s the thing we can’t forget, there are students who walk into the classroom every day, and they're thinking about their futures. For some of these folks, this means generational prosperity that they can build because of these skills, for others it means growing in their current roles and for others it means moving into a field where they find joy in the work. This is life-changing stuff. We can’t minimize that - it's so important to keep front and center: students first. Always. That's my motto. Everything we do needs to be student focused. I’m confident that the staff and faculty at TLI are on board with that philosophy. 

I think that's a really good motto to have and to be thinking about: students first, the way that we interact with them from a customer service perspective, from the minute that they're interested in TLI to the minute they walk out the door as proud graduates. And then beyond – even after graduation, they should be our number one priority and continue to be our number one priority. So it's been really fun for me, because I've been teaching in the program for so long now, to carry that philosophy forward first as a program fellow and now the DGS - it’s personal to me. 

Thinking about how we can stay engaged with the alumni continues to be a priority. We have made a lot of efforts to bring them back for panels and to be thinking about them even as faculty, bringing them back to teach some things to share their knowledge. There are a number of alums teaching in the ST program who want to give back to the field that they love so much. So I think that's really cool. 

But just keeping tabs on the alumni and understanding where our alumni are is critical as part of the curriculum review process. We want to engage alumni as well to say, how did the skills that you learned translate out to where you are now? If you look back at your career at TLI, what was really valuable that maybe you didn't think was important at the time? Where are the gaps and the strengths?

Q: TLI alumni always seem to comment that they love the fact that our instructors have worked extensively in their fields, they’re not just academics.

A:  Our instructors are amazing. I’ll say that over and over. The fact that the faculty across all of TLI have direct involvement or experience in their fields allow them to impart relevant skills, have knowledge of industry trends, and be able to share their own experiences with the students. Our industry-affiliated faculty have incredible professional networks that they can leverage for things like guest speakers and connections for the students. The level of dedication to student success that our faculty demonstrate is unparalleled and I feel fortunate to support them.