Dr. A.J. Merlino: Leading the Way – How a Creative Mind is Shaping the Future of Education?

Dr. A.J. Merlino | Associate Vice President
Dr. A.J. Merlino | Associate Vice President

Dr. A.J. Merlino is a five-time GRAMMY-nominated educator with a passion for cultivating creativity and innovation in higher education. He started his academic career at Kutztown University, where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Music, and later earned his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

While studying at UNLV, Dr. Merlino also served as a performer, music director, composer, and project manager in high-profile events such as the Billboard Music Awards and Cirque du Soleil’s One Night for One Drop, held at some of the biggest venues in Las Vegas. Through this work, he collaborated with renowned artists like Cee Lo Green, Delta Rae, Eric Marienthal, Darlene Love, Ronnie Vannucci of The Killers, and Jay-Z.

Harrisburg University is a private non-profit institution in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with additional locations in Philadelphia, Panama, Dubai, and online. Founded in 2001, the university has gained a reputation for its innovative programs and focus on experiential learning.

We at CIOLook, interviewed Dr. A.J. Merlino to understand his vision as a coherent leader of the education sector.

Let’s delve into the excerpts from the exclusive interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as an education leader until your current position at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

In the final year of my doctorate, I secured a full-time teaching position at Kutztown University as an instructor of percussion studies and the director of various ensembles. While there, I founded the Reading Samba School, a 401(c)3 non-profit organization that provided free music lessons and workshops to the community. This organization boasted over 50 regular members until it ceased operations during the pandemic.

Following this experience, I was hired as the Director of Music Industry Studies and Assistant Professor of Music Business at Albright College, where I led the development of the Music Industry Studies major. I later became the Associate Dean of Student Professional Development and Experiential Learning and enhanced operations by developing articulation and partnership agreements with strategic institutions of higher education and businesses, significantly improving student postgraduate outcomes institution-wide.

During the pandemic, I felt compelled to positively impact higher education beyond my institution. Drawing upon my understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by educational institutions, I founded a higher education consulting business called Empower-EDU.

At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, I am the Associate Vice President of Student Professional Development & Experiential Learning and Associate Professor of Business & Live Entertainment. Firstly, I oversee operations in the Career Services and Experiential Learning Office and work closely with senior leadership and the wider HU community to develop and formalize an infrastructure that expands experiential learning options across the institution. Secondly, I am responsible for developing new programs in Entertainment Technology, Arts, Entertainment and Media Management, and Fermentation Science. This involves designing and instructing experiential career development, live entertainment, and entertainment technology courses.

To me, the most significant challenges and gratifying aspects of my career are interconnected. Most successful leaders in the education field consider themselves lifelong learners and thrive on continuous improvement and challenge. Achieving the balance between continuous improvement, professional development, personal growth, and familial obligations without sacrificing one is challenging. During this pursuit, I lost interest in writing and performing music, a significant part of my identity, for over two decades. I discovered that passion is not a constant state and can fluctuate. Losing interest in a passion doesn’t mean the things you once enjoyed are no longer valuable or meaningful. Instead, it shows that you are evolving and growing, and your interests are evolving too. When I lost interest in my passion, I took it as a chance to explore new things, find new sources of inspiration, and learn more about myself.

Tell us something more about your university and its mission and vision.

Harrisburg offers various undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs and certificates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). However, we aim to redefine what it means to be a STEM institution by including programs in Interactive Media, Project Management, Entertainment Technology, Entrepreneurship, Esports Management, and Game Design.

One of Harrisburg University’s distinctive features is our focus on hands-on, project-based learning. In addition to our industry partnerships, the university also features more than a dozen centers & institutes and the HU Presents concert series that provide experiential opportunities for students across a broad range of programs and interests. This approach brings students, faculty, government organizations, and businesses together to find solutions for real-world problems.

Harrisburg University Mission

The Harrisburg University of Science and Technology offers innovative academic and research programs in science and technology that respond to local and global needs. The institution fosters a diverse community of learners, provides access and supports the students to pursue a career in science and technology. It also supports business creation and economic development.

Harrisburg University Vision

  • To provide academic programs at undergraduate and graduate levels for a diversity of learners, using student-centered, technologically advanced, and experiential learning designs that emphasize student success, with a sharp focus on specific interdisciplinary competencies and strong linkages to career development.
  • The desired outcome is the emergence of well-qualified, technically expert graduates whose understanding of applied science and technology-related fields is honed by direct industry experience and rounded by a sound, cross-disciplinary liberal education.

Enlighten us on how you have impacted the education sector through your expertise in the market.

Throughout my experience as a performer and project manager, I have developed a unique skill set that allows me to resolve problems with creativity and innovation, helping me work collaboratively with institutions to improve educational programming and student learning opportunities.

I have worked with institutions to develop flexible curricula that engages learners and prepares them for the careers of the future, while also meeting the needs of a diverse student population. My experience in learning through hands-on application helps inform my efforts to create curricula and opportunities that blend theoretical knowledge with applied practice. Through my expertise, I have developed and implemented numerous strategies that positively impact student enrollment, matriculation, retention, and postgraduate success.

One of my strengths as a leader in higher education has been my ability to communicate effectively with key stakeholders to successfully present the goals and objectives of institutions and build critical partnerships that have promoted continued engagement.

Through my collaborative efforts with government officials, community organizations, and businesses, I have built critical partnerships that have promoted the continued engagement of all education stakeholders. Through these collaborations, I have successfully increased educational programming and learning opportunities for students while bridging the workforce skill and experience gap by connecting students with employment opportunities that match their skill sets and interests.

Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.

A set of core values, including diversity, inclusion, innovation, excellence, and social responsibility, drives Harrisburg University. These values are reflected in the university’s work culture, which is collaborative, supportive, and results driven. The university emphasizes the importance of teamwork to achieve shared goals and encourages its staff and students to be creative, proactive, and solution oriented.

Harrisburg University’s culture is characterized by a commitment to excellence in teaching, research, and service, focusing on meeting the needs of students and the community, and is dedicated to fostering a supportive learning environment that is inclusive and responsive to students’ needs. In addition to our internal work culture, Harrisburg University strongly emphasizes collaborations outside the university.

Undeniably, Technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your education resourceful?

Harrisburg University leverages technology in various ways to enhance our students’ educational experience. The institution has made significant investments to offer students access to high-tech equipment commonly used by professionals in their respective fields, matching industry standards.

In addition to physical and technological resources, our university offers online programs and digital platforms that enable students to access course materials and interact with peers and instructors from any location worldwide. Our online and hybrid learning models provide flexibility and accessibility, especially for individuals who face obstacles to traditional, in-person education.

Furthermore, we incorporate immersive technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, to enable students to apply their learning in practical settings offering hands-on experience and a deeper understanding of how the concepts learned in class apply to real-world situations.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in the education sector? How are you preparing to be a part of that change?

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend towards online and remote learning and high-flex curricula, requiring alterations to instructional pedagogy and re-evaluating the need for physical campus resources.

Institutions will increasingly collaborate with industry partners to obtain facilities and equipment to facilitate instruction, focusing on concurrent classroom and on-the-job training, similar to residencies and apprenticeships but within the framework of a four-year degree.

This shift will lead to greater customization and personalization of curricula to better suit students’ needs and abilities, improving student outcomes and engagement by tailoring the learning experience to each student’s unique goals.

At Harrisburg University, we are fully embracing these changes by providing a range of online programs and courses for remote learning. We have invested significantly in cutting-edge technologies and teaching methodologies, including extended reality and AI-powered educational tools, to support personalized and adaptive learning.

Our partnerships with industry leaders are integral to the learning experience at Harrisburg University and will continue to facilitate the alignment of our curricula with the needs of the industry.

Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run, and what are your future goals for Harrisburg University of Science and Technology?

I am an enthusiastic lifelong learner who enjoys acquiring new skills and competencies. The substance of my work is more important than my professional title.

My long-term aspiration is to positively impact the field of education by fostering more inclusive access to high-quality instruction and helping underrepresented populations build social capital through the programs I design. In addition, I aim to keep pace with the evolving education landscape and to collaborate with industry leaders to influence the development of future-oriented institutions that better serve students.

As a first-generation college student, I understand firsthand the difficulties of pursuing higher education with limited guidance. As a result, my objective is to help students overcome these challenges by developing opportunities and support systems that are sensitive to their individual needs.

At Harrisburg University, I hope to enhance the experiential learning offerings for our students, create partnerships with industry leaders, collaborate with faculty to develop innovative teaching methods and contribute to the institution’s global recognition as a leader in higher education.