Jen Aberle has a passion for student success. Aberle, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, is harnessing that passion as a new leader in Colorado State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences. After a year of serving in the interim role, Aberle accepted the permanent position of associate dean for undergraduate affairs and started on July 1.
“I am thrilled to have Dr. Jen Aberle on board in the permanent role of associate dean leading our undergraduate programs,” said Dean Lise Youngblade. “She is committed to the student experience in the college being outstanding, and she is insightful and creative in designing processes and initiatives that support student success. Not only is she an outstanding teacher, but she is also a visionary leader who is known and respected for leading with integrity, passion, respect, and inclusion.”
Aberle grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and attended Stanford University for her undergraduate degree before earning her master’s in marriage and family therapy in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in 2003 and her Ph.D. in a joint program between the department and CSU’s School of Education in 2007.
“I always thought I would go to medical school because I wanted to be in a position to have access to resources to help people,” said Aberle. “I was challenged by an adviser to think about different paths to take where I could help people make their lives better. I decided to defer medical school and was able to get a job working at a residential facility for adults with autism. I had the opportunity to care for the residents and learn more about developmental disabilities, family systems, and lifespan development. This fueled my desire to work with families and further my ability to support people in a variety of contexts and experiences. I decided I wanted to get trained as a therapist and started looking for a program. The Department of Human Development and Family Studies program in marriage and family therapy at CSU is exceptional, and that’s what brought me to Colorado.”
Teaching in Human Development and Family Studies
Already known during her Ph.D. program for her engaging teaching style and rapport she built with students, Aberle has served in various roles in the department since 2006, including internship coordinator, assistant and associate professor, director of undergraduate and online programs, and interim assistant department head.
Aberle has especially been interested throughout her career in supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
“I have worked very hard to enhance and infuse social justice and equity into our education and community so that students feel welcome here,” she said. “I have actively recruited underrepresented students, reduced retention gaps, and increased graduation rates by helping to create mentoring programs and improved support services in our academic programs. I work to integrate my commitment to DEI in all areas as dedication to DEI is not an add-on or an afterthought – it is a commitment to engaging in this work at all levels, from student interaction to policies, initiatives, and ways of being.”
Aberle’s research and teaching areas include a focus in the area of grief and loss, including teaching the HDFS course specific to this topic. With Aberle at the helm, the course rapidly became one of the most sought-after electives from students outside the major.
“I was asked to teach the grief and loss class by Kevin Oltjenbruns and Alicia Cook, who were pioneering faculty in this area. The class deals with death and dying, and I could really see this as an area where I could positively impact people,” said Aberle. “I taught it for 18 years, and it has shaped my life both personally and academically in many ways. It challenged me to find resources to become a better teacher because it’s a topic that many students feared upon entering the class. The challenge is that we don’t just teach policy and content in this class, we also teach people how to sit with their discomfort, to cope with difficult experiences, and I think that is a skill and a way of being that we can all get better at and that will help us no matter what career we choose.”
Aberle had devoted her career to improving student learning, and her skills as a curriculum designer and outstanding teacher were utilized when Human Development and Family Studies engaged in a reworking of the introductory HDFS 101 class, Individual and Family Development – a core course critical to inviting students into the major. Aberle quickly assumed a leadership role in organizing the different sections, engaging all of the instructors around a shared curriculum and a team approach to the best content and delivery of that content. Under her leadership, course enrollments increased steadily each year, and student conversions to the major increased dramatically following these changes.
“HDFS 101 is one of my favorite classes to teach,” said Aberle. “I have a huge heart for students – they are my why. Teaching this class has been about so much more than ensuring students learned lifespan development – it’s an introductory course to the discipline and an introduction to the college classroom for many. Ensuring my students saw themselves every day in our material, had opportunities to create community and feel empowered, and form their identity as successful students have been my goals and such a privilege to be part of.”
Aberle became director of the HDFS undergraduate program in 2013 and the online program in 2014. During this time, she led the process to redesign the undergraduate curriculum by identifying core competencies for students and tying courses to specific outcomes. The revamped curriculum was unanimously approved by faculty in the department.
“I have a passionate commitment to promoting student success,” said Aberle. “While leading the curriculum redesign, I deliberately developed student-centered strategies across several dimensions of the student experience to create more inclusive environments and practices.”
An advocate for teaching faculty
As chair of the University’s Committee on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty, Aberle led the initial charge to propose a bold new vision to improve pay and offer a career pathway for continuing, contract, and adjunct faculty. She met regularly with the President’s and Provost’s Offices and presented to the Faculty Council and Board of Governors to advocate on behalf of colleagues across campus. The fruits of her early efforts are being implemented, including progress on career-trajectory and secure appointments, increased salaries, and greater integration of teaching faculty.
“For 11 years, I have championed the teaching mission at CSU by uniting faculty to serve undergraduate students, elevating recognition for teaching effectiveness, enhancing promotion benchmarks for teaching, and contributing to pedagogical excellence training,” she said.
Leader for undergraduate initiatives
As associate dean, Aberle focuses on leading undergraduate student initiatives in recruiting and retention. She oversees the College’s Ram Welcome activities, commencement, and all aspects of their experience in between, including curriculum and advising. Aberle is looking forward to enhancing and supporting a holistic framework for student success, translating the University’s initiatives in our academic programs and units to help meet the University and college goals.
Along with supporting DEI initiatives and promoting interdisciplinary experiences for students, Aberle plans to be a resource for people around their immediate needs surrounding the pandemic and public health challenges that are still present. She is happy to continue to work with many of her colleagues across the college.
“Being part of this college for more than two decades and knowing our amazing community, I am excited to take on this role in the Dean’s Office and support the work of our outstanding faculty, ASCs, advisers, staff, and unit heads as they work to advance their programs,” she said. “I want to be a champion, resource, and advocate for them so that they can be successful in supporting our students achieve their goals.”