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Dr. Julie M. Ballaro shepherds doctoral students to success

By Elizabeth Exline

When Dr. Michael Mazzi attended the graduation ceremony for his doctorate degree, he found himself at an emotional intersection. He’d spent five-and-a-half years working toward his Doctor of Management (not counting the false start he’d had at a previous university) while holding down a full-time position in civil service. And while he had himself and his family to thank for this achievement, there was another person who was pivotal to his success: His University of Phoenix (UOPX) dissertation chair, Dr. Julie M. Ballaro.

The funny thing was Mazzi wasn’t the only one indebted to Ballaro. As he sat with five or so other graduating students who had worked with Ballaro, he discovered that her impact went far beyond his own life-changing experience.

"We were all sitting there talking, and we all loved her," Mazzi recalls. "We started sharing stories about how she will call just to call. She’ll check up on you. She doesn’t just talk about your paper. But there is a standard there. You have to meet the standard."

Ballaro’s personability, Mazzi assures, is not necessarily the norm among doctoral faculty. "I’ve met some interesting people who had degrees that were piled higher and deeper, but never did I meet one who was actually interested in me," he explains. "And I think that is important. In the military, from day one, we’re taught that there are no individuals. There’s only a team. And a team does so much more than one … [Ballaro] didn’t treat me just as a student. She treated us as a team. And as a team, we were going to get through this."

Staying out of the spotlight

As Mazzi’s graduation experience suggests, Ballaro’s team approach has resonated with more than one student over her 19-year tenure at University of Phoenix. Ballaro currently serves as the University Research Methodologist for the College of Doctoral Studies and has previously held such positions as doctorate chair, certified advanced facilitator and master mentor.

Given Ballaro’s rather prolific number of roles, and considering her deeply rooted approach to student success, it’s no wonder she was named UOPX Faculty of the Year in 2020. This distinction is awarded to just 15 faculty members out of more than 1,300 student, faculty and staff nominations.

Perhaps what’s even more interesting than Ballaro’s recognition, however, is her reluctance to discuss it. When asked for an interview, Ballaro declined, explaining her need to stay behind the scenes so she can focus on what her priority is: the success of others.

The testimonials

And so Ballaro pointed to those people like Mazzi who could speak to her accomplishments at UOPX. The thing is, those people weren’t just "happy to speak" about Ballaro. They were downright enthusiastic.

Ballaro’s colleague, Dr. Julie Overbey, for example, had this to say: "I’m really happy that you’re spotlighting Julie, because she’s just amazing."

Another former student, Dr. K Holland, marveled at Ballaro’s commitment to his doctoral journey, which encompassed seven years, a military deployment to Afghanistan and at least one dissertation detour.

"She is a very genuinely caring person," Holland observes. "She cares about the whole person and whatever is important to that individual … She is very approachable, very calming, very level-headed, very constant."

Then there was Mazzi, who went so far as to say that Ballaro is one of his favorite people in the world.

A student-centric approach

That Ballaro is equally committed to her students seems to explain the effusive loyalty her name elicits.

"[Ballaro] is a true partner and a real champion of our students," Overbey says.

By way of example, Overbey recalls the way some students will happen upon a little-known methodology and want to apply it to their research. "They can come up with some doozies," Overbey admits, but Ballaro will see it through nonetheless, committing herself to understanding it before deciding whether it really applies to a student’s research.

Ballaro’s commitment can also mean dedicating personal time to a student’s cause, including nights and weekends. She doesn’t just tell students to go learn more about a given subject, Mazzi says. She walks that path with them.

For Holland, it’s Ballaro’s steadfast support that sets her apart. After completing the first three chapters of his dissertation, the approval he needed to use a particular agency for research was suddenly rescinded. Holland was devastated, but Ballaro remained undeterred. Soon, she guided Holland to a new source of research, and he was back on track to complete his degree.

Over the years, Ballaro never directed him, Holland notes, and she never gave up on him. Ballaro, he says, "always provided me hope."

The dividends of commitment

In some ways, Ballaro’s unwavering commitment to her students is a natural extension of her dedication to achieving her own goals in life. In addition to serving as a faculty member at UOPX, Ballaro is the owner and CEO of a consulting company, which specializes in mentorship, management, leadership and related services. She has 33 years of experience in executive management and leadership within the Department of Defense. And she is a mother to two daughters and grandmother to four grandsons.

Ballaro, in other words, exemplifies what it means to see things through. There’s no halfway mark with her, no limit to doing what’s necessary when a goal or success is on the line.

One example of this mindset is the way Ballaro strives to get her students published. On the surface, this doesn’t sound particularly important, but to doctoral students, it can mean the difference between employment and not.

"After I graduated," Overbey recalls, "My chair didn’t help me publish, and it took me a year to get published."

For Holland, the stakes were even higher. When applying for a teaching position, he was in direct competition with one other applicant. "I got a job because I had been published," Holland says.

From publishing to providing references to calling just to say hi, Ballaro remains as invested in her students after they complete their degree as she is at the outset of the journey. It is a commitment that makes all the difference for her students.

As Holland awaits a decision pertaining to his becoming a dissertation mentor in his own career, he pauses to reflect on this path. "It’s all due to Dr. Ballaro preparing me for bigger and better things," he says. "It didn’t end with completed research."

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