Tobi Bruhn has witnessed the evolution of Rowan by first attending Rowan for his bachelor’s degree in communications in 1995, then immediately returning after graduating in 1998 to receive his master’s in public relations, before finally returning for his doctorate of education in educational leadership in 2011. During this time, he served in a variety of roles at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania before being appointed CEO of a private grant-making foundation. Even after graduating from Rowan, he remained connected by serving on our alumni board.
Glassboro has changed through the years. Rowan University has gone through many changes from Glassboro Normal School from 1923 to 1937, to New Jersey State Teachers College at Glassboro from 1937 to 1958, Glassboro State College from 1958 to 1992, then Rowan College of New Jersey from 1992 to 1997 until Rowan earned its University status in 1997 — a historical change that Tobi witnessed.
“I arrived shortly after the institution changed from Glassboro State to Rowan College of New Jersey, and then there was the excitement about Henry Rowan’s gift and we thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to become Rowan University.’ It was a very exciting time when I first enrolled because there were so many changes happening in a short amount of time, like new buildings, new initiatives, new majors.” It was not just a matter of excitement but also a matter of pride, a pride that the University carries to this day. “I think the way Rowan is going about its growth is smart, and the vision for South Jersey is exciting because the state needs another leading university to educate the next group of leaders.” While he mentioned the importance of growth at Rowan, the feel of a close knit college has also been well preserved. “I think they have done a good job to keep that South Jersey feel in the community, consistent with the values, and obviously with where they want to go as an institution.”
Tobi continued to stay involved after earning his Rowan degrees. After earning a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate at Rowan, it only felt right to him to get involved with the alumni board and give back. The eight years that he was involved with the alumni board allowed him to meet people in other fields of study that he may not have had the opportunity to meet during his time in the classroom. He was also able to see the benefits of Rowan’s growth by meeting some of the first medical school graduates. Further, the role offered him a behind the scenes look into how the university functions. “You get a lot of really neat insights into the way Rowan works and the way it wants to grow in the future.”
While Tobi has maintained his connections to Rowan, he currently teaches at a community college in Pennsylvania. Part of his drive is the connection to his students and the interactions between the wide variety of students he has from various walks of life, “I really enjoy teaching at the community college level because in my courses I have students of all ages, those coming straight out of high school and going into college, and those enrolling later as adults. It’s nice to see when that atmosphere comes together and you see the interactions between people giving tips to one another, sharing experiences, helping out with technology needs. It’s usually the younger students helping the more mature students. So it brings me a lot of enjoyment, it’s a lot of fun, and hopefully they keep having me back to teach that course [Editor note: Effective Speaking].”
Teaching has only been one of his career paths as he spent time on the administrative side, too. The multitude of responsibilities that he had as president of advancement included going out to help individuals grasp the importance of education and the benefits to one’s career. Working as part of the president of the community college’s cabinet was also an insightful experience, “Also serving on the president’s cabinet you had a little more input in the strategic direction of the institution.”
After being a part of the administrative side for a long time, a new path that was equally rewarding and impactful opened up. Becoming executive director at Foundations Community Project, a private grant foundation that supports local nonprofits to tackle behavioral health and human service issues, was an opportunity to touch people’s lives in a different capacity, “So it’s another outward kind of role so you interact with a lot of nonprofit leaders which is a lot of fun. You get to learn about how to help vulnerable populations and hopefully we can figure out a way we can support them through grants so it’s another very rewarding role that I’ve had. It all kind of comes to helping people and meeting them in terms of where they are and what they need.” Even with the new job being exciting, the element of uncertainty stepping into a new role and new environment was present. But the intrigue of what he could help others achieve helped quell the nerves, “You know the big names like the Red Cross, but I think what I found in this role is there are so many small nonprofits that really do a lot of important work and kind of getting to know that and getting to know the people who run these organizations and figuring out a way how we can be helpful.”
Although a switch in careers could be viewed as daunting, Tobi felt that both his previous work experience as well as his education prepared him for working at Foundations Community project. As coordinator of development at Bucks County College helped give him insight into building a network that could not only connect him to different people but so he could connect others together as well. Connecting people together is a tool that is often handy working in private grants, “One of our objectives is to also build collaborative relationships between the nonprofits because I think of the curses of nonprofits is duplication of services so when you have two nonprofits kind of doing the same thing, you want to do your best to say, ‘Hey, you should talk to one another to either combine, figure out where the gaps are that maybe one of you can fill those gaps’. So I think development is a really good profession to learn some of those skills along the way. I think my experience has been that if you do those things, you connect people, you provide leads, it comes back around and people will remember that.”
By coming back to Rowan for different levels of degrees, Tobi has a unique insight into the challenges and benefits of being an adult learner. Certain questions had to be asked before returning to the classroom, “It was a little daunting pursuing a doctorate degree. It’s like 1) am I ready for this 2) do I have the time, I had a young daughter at the time. You’re playing it out, it sounds good but when you’re in the courses, because they were eight-week courses and it’s fast paced, is that really something I can really handle? I figured that I was never going to figure it out from the sidelines so I might as well go for it.” Yet one of the positive aspects was that as an adult he was able to structure his time to care for his family, continue to work, and fulfill his education obligations.
It’s rare that a student gets to observe the evolution of a university through multiple periods of time, however Tobi Bruhn was grateful that he did and decided to give back– a theme that has persisted through his careers.
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Story by: Thomas Ubelhoer, junior double major in political science and international studies