Published November 8, 2022
At 73 years old, Paul McAfee was the oldest graduate to walk across the stage at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education’s 2022 commencement ceremony. Throughout his doctoral studies at UB, McAfee’s research focused on the definitions, descriptions and value of experiential learning expressed by students, faculty and administrators.
While McAfee just earned his PhD in curriculum, instruction and the science of learning (CISL) in May, his education and experiences in teaching began long before he enrolled in the program.
Before moving to the education sector, McAfee’s interests and leadership skills led to a career with a wide range of positions spanning different industries. From 1968-71, he served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and Germany. For more than 35 years after, he excelled in several executive-level management, sales and marketing roles throughout the U.S., including serving as the vice president and general manager of Sprint’s Philadelphia market and the director of marketing process development at the Eastman Kodak Company.
From 2001-10, he used his business acumen in a new way as an entrepreneur-in-residence at UB, where he helped early-stage companies develop and implement their new business strategies. Shortly thereafter, a former colleague reached out to McAfee to ask if he would be interested in teaching leadership, marketing and international business courses in China and Vietnam for Keuka College. He said yes.
Teaching in Vietnam from 2012-17 was therapeutic. “I have first-hand knowledge of the damage we did to their country, and I know how many Vietnamese people died as a direct result of the war. Teaching my students was a way for me to give back to the country and its amazing people,” said McAfee.
He maintains relationships with many of his former students in Vietnam. Although almost a decade has passed since taking his courses, several students vividly remember what they learned—and happily record video testimonials for McAfee’s new students, describing the professional success they achieved from completing his coursework.
“What I learned from the course is how to sell yourself,” McAfee’s former Vietnamese student, Hannah, said in a video testimonial. “It’s really, really important… You have to know how to present yourself and how to make people believe in you.”
His time teaching overseas also solidified his interest in expanding his understanding of learning and instruction. While he had extensive content knowledge in business, he recognized that he wanted to build upon his pedagogical expertise.
After an encouraging conversation with Suzanne Miller, former professor and chair of GSE’s Department of Learning and Instruction, he applied and enrolled in the CISL program. The program allowed McAfee to nurture his quantitative and qualitative research and analysis skills.
He also had the freedom to explore his interest in experiential learning and project-based learning—processes he employed in the business management classes he taught in Vietnam, Singapore and the U.S.
“By the time I got to my dissertation, I was really comfortable with the literature. I had done massive amounts of literature review. I knew the theorists I wanted to look at, and I’d also done three pilot research projects,” said McAfee.
He recognizes Mary McVee, professor and director of GSE’s Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction, as a source of guidance and support throughout his time in the program. “She was accessible in a way that nobody else was… She provided me with the sounding board, the mentorship, the coaching that I needed. She was gentle yet stern,” he said.
Her support proved to be invaluable as McAfee worked on his dissertation, “Exploring Definitions and Perceived Value of Experiential Learning at an American University in Singapore.”
The admiration was mutual. McAfee’s dedication to the research and writing process impressed McVee.
“One of the things I admire most about Paul is the fact that, as a researcher, he is incredibly meticulous. He did the most amazing tables and figures for his dissertation,” said McVee. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the degree of codifying every qualitative step in the analysis that he did. He did such a good job.”
With the PhD program behind him, McAfee continues to work as a researcher and educator. This fall, he is teaching entrepreneurship and strategic management courses for the UB School of Management at their Singapore campus. His doctoral research on experiential learning informs his approach: In addition to studying, his students work on semester-long team-based projects, meet with business leaders, work together on project teams and write vision statements for business ideas.
He also plans to engage in research that helps other teachers understand and communicate how and why they teach. “There’s a lot of research about how to teach. It’s prescriptive. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to say: Know how you teach. Understand why you do that. Figure out if it’s the best way for you to teach and involve your students in the process. That’s an area that I need to do research on because I don’t have literature on that—and then I want to write about it,” he said.
“As long as my health holds out, I’d like to give it five more years of teaching and five years of research publishing and maybe a book, but at the moment, I think I’d do better to get things out in pieces that are useful to other teachers.”