Brian Burt, Choosing College as a Profession

(From Current, summer 2014)

Throughout his college career, from his bachelor’s degree to doctorate, Brian Burt felt connected to Grand Rapids Community Foundation. He received his first scholarship when he graduated from Ottawa Hills High School in 2000, and, for the next decade, while he was pursuing his goals, the Community Foundation was with him. “It was significant and symbolic to receive the Community Foundation scholarship—knowing that someone outside my family valued and affirmed my dreams. It was the support I needed. Every year that I received a scholarship was like someone telling me, ‘You made it, keep pushing.’ I felt like the Community Foundation was there with me every single step of the way. To me, that’s what a family is like,” he said.

Brian began his college career at Indiana University, which he chose for its music program. “At the end of high school, I wanted to be a world-renowned symphony conductor,” he said. Once there, though, he discovered his passion was more for teaching people to love music than for performance. He changed his major from music to English education. “I always wanted to be a teacher, and, in school, it was always English and music for me.


“When I left high school, I felt so fortunate to have the scholarships and support, so I made it my mission to go back on breaks and talk with students. Things weren’t always perfect for me in college, but I felt like I was an example of keeping going and persistence,” Brian said. He didn’t wait to visit Ottawa Hills until he earned his degree. Instead, he talked with students as he made his way through college, so they could know of his real-time experiences. In grad school at the University of Maryland, he discovered he could devote himself professionally to his passion for the college experience. “Most of my mentors and friends were graduate students and Ph.D. candidates in the field of higher education. Lots of signs were pointing me to this field—coming back to Grand Rapids to talk to kids about college admissions, being an orientation leader at Indiana and being a residence hall advisor. I found that I really loved college and was spending my time talking to students about college, so I wanted to test out the higher education field,” he said.

Of the 14 years Brian has been out of high school, there were only two where he wasn’t pursuing a degree. “I stayed at the University of Maryland after my master’s and worked in the business school, where I was in charge of scholarships and special programs. I knew there was more I wanted to and could do. I wanted to be at the decision-making table  and needed to get a terminal degree. I chose a Ph.D. in the field I love, higher education, and at my dream school, the University of Michigan.”

Brian is finalizing his doctorate in higher education at U of M this summer and will start an assistant professorship at Iowa State University in fall 2014—teaching higher education. His research looks at the educational pipeline and workforce pathways. “I study students in kindergarten through 12th grade to understand how they’re experiencing education and how their education prepares them for college. And I’m looking at how college-through-grad-school experiences prepare students for the workforce,” he said. He also studies Black male students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and how they cultivate community rather than competition to ensure one another’s success.