Tricia Nolfi: Bringing a Lifetime of Experience to Leadership Education

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MAOL Program Director Tricia Nolfi, Ed.D.

Dr. Tricia Nolfi developed a passion for leadership studies as an undergraduate. A student leader herself, she went on to earn her master’s degree in educational leadership before working as an administrator developing student leadership programs at major universities such as Tulane, Kansas  , Western Illinois and Rutgers for more than 20 years. “I love leadership development,” she says by way of explaining her 30-year (and counting) career in higher education that ultimately led her to Rider University.

A year after completing her doctorate in the social and philosophical foundations of education, Nolfi joined the Rider faculty in 2015 when the university was looking to expand concentration in Higher Education Leadership to its Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program (MAOL). As an assistant professor and program director for the MAOL, her teaching responsibilities include courses such as The Practice of Leadership, Student Affairs and Experiences in Higher Education and Forms of Diversity in Organizations.

“I felt like the job description was written for me,” she says of the close fit between the Rider posting and her academic research on student activism and adult learning, her focus on higher education and leadership studies, her work experience and her desire to teach full time.

“It’s been with me for over 30 years,” Nolfi says, referring to her longstanding interest in leadership development that she’s putting to work at Rider, training tomorrow’s organizational leaders.

What Makes a Leader?

Are leaders born or made? Nolfi firmly believes it’s the latter. As an educator, she’s focused on teaching students the analytical, communication and decision-making skills they need to become creative, adaptive leaders prepared to confidently guide their organizations through change — a situation that’s in no short supply in workplaces and on campuses these days. “I push the idea that leadership is really contextual,” says Nolfi, adding that students need to learn to be agile and to understand that what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today.

With its multiple tracks — Life and Career Coaching, Developing People and Organizations, and Higher Education Leadership — the MAOL program attracts students from a wide variety of organizations and businesses across the public and private sectors, higher education and nonprofit worlds and beyond. Many, if not most, MAOL students are busy working professionals looking to advance in their careers or gain skills and confidence for leadership roles they already hold. What this diverse group of students has in common, according to Nolfi, is that they all have the capacity to lead.

One of Nolfi’s favorite courses to teach is The Practice of Leadership, which introduces all MAOL students to different leadership models and approaches to decision-making. Using case studies, students are encouraged to explore alternative ways to view problems in organizations and consider the context in which leaders act.

For example, students often point to Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as an exemplary leader. But rather than focusing on Gates as a role model, Nolfi encourages her students to consider the context in which she operates and think about how they would behave in her place. By the end of the course, students are encouraged to develop their own leadership philosophy and identify its guiding values and beliefs.

Another important takeaway from the course, adds Nolfi, is that “leadership is not a position” and can be exercised by anyone at any level in an organization. As organizations have become flatter — with fewer layers of management between top-level and staff-level employees — the rank and file is increasingly asked to step up and lead. As such, the MAOL program recognizes that it’s turning out leaders, but not necessarily senior executives.

Higher Education with a Customer Focus

Technology and the growing trend and acceptance of online learning — even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — have been a boon to adult education, enabling nontraditional students of all ages and backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees while continuing to work or care for families. However, not all online degree programs are the same.

Rider, with deep experience catering to working professionals, was already well prepared when the pandemic made online instruction mandatory in the spring of 2020. As a happy coincidence, Nolfi’s recent research has focused on what separates good online learning programs from bad ones — in the same spring, she published a book chapter on how to have effective online discussions and promote higher-order thinking in online forums.

Nolfi’s ongoing research informs both her teaching and her work as the MAOL program director. Her list of the characteristics of effective adult and online learning programs includes:

  • Layers of flexibility
  • Multiple modalities (100% online, hybrid and on-campus options)
  • Convenient class times
  • Flexible access to advisers and instructors, including nights and weekends
  • Personal contact

“An effective online program focuses on relationship building,” says Nolfi, emphasizing the need to keep remote students connected to the university, even if they have to “stop out” for a semester or two. Nolfi follows up with lapsed students to discuss getting them back on track to complete their degree. By tailoring the program to the needs of nontraditional students, Rider’s MAOL boasts close to a 90% completion rate within six years.

Prepare for a Career as an Organizational Leader

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) helps students develop the leadership and communication skills they need to enhance an organization’s operational efficiency and competency. Students can choose the on-campus or hybrid learning options, including a 100% online accelerated option, that meets their needs. The MAOL program offers three concentrations: Life and Career Coaching, Developing People and Organizations and Higher Education Leadership. Learn more about Dr. Tricia Nolfi and how Rider University can help you embark on a new chapter.

Recommended Readings 

Understanding the Core Leadership Models in Organizations

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Organizational Leadership?

What Is Transformational Leadership? A Look at a Model of Motivation