Finding your Student Affairs compass


We speak a lot about the meteoric rise of student affairs professionals communicating on Twitter. Within #SACHAT, our participant numbers have grown 500% since our October 2009 debut. We have so many colleagues engaged that we had to add a second chat time three months into the venture. Our #SACHAT meet-ups are occurring around the spring professional conferences and organically as our student affairs family find themselves in similar locations.

I had an opportunity to meet several of our #SACHAT friends in conjunction with the ACUI conference and spent some time exploring New York City with one of those friends. We made a day of it, walking and sharing stories, stopping for lunch, shopping a bit, and before you knew it, found ourselves uncertain how to make our way back to the car. We stood at a busy street corner, attempting to get our bearings. We asked a passerby for directions and then headed off to find our way. After covering quite a few more blocks and not yet seeing any landmarks leading to the car, it dawned on me that I could use the map function on my phone to aid our quest. This handy little GPS tool is not essential for navigation in my small Midwest city, so I had forgotten that I had it.

We determined our present location, entered an address for the parking garage, and lo and behold, walking directions were magically provided. So, we started out again in the direction of our vehicle, enjoying the city scenery, chatting, and enjoying the day. Only to miss a turn and get off track, again. Ah, but this time we had the map and directions. We backtracked, paid more attention to our map, and finally made our way back to the car.

Early in my student affairs career, I found easy ways to network with colleagues. I joined professional organizations, served on committees, and chatted regularly with colleagues at other institutions as we planned trainings and conferences. As I advanced in my career, it seems that I lost some of those opportunities, as my own work required more of my time and focus. At some point along the way, I lost track of most of my network, also losing the community that helped me brainstorm and recharge with energy and new ideas.

Then along comes a social networking tool like Twitter and fun little communities such as the Student Affairs Blog and #SACHAT. Once again, I am linked with other professionals, sharing ideas, and learning new ways to do things. I am engaged in building a community that challenges and inspires me. It is a community that grew through social network technology and like a GPS, helped me find my way.

Triple Lutz Scoring in Student Affairs

It’s Winter Olympics time and we in the U.S. cheered as Evan Lysacek won the gold medal in men’s figure skating. The reigning gold medalist challenged him in this event, a Russian skater that burst onto the ice with a dynamic performance that included several complicated jumps. In the end, it was Lysacek, with a clean, consistent skate, who earned the most points. Juliet Macur explains that Lysacek used a new scoring system to his advantage, while his major competitor did not. The new figure skating scoring rewards bonus points for any jumps landed in the second half of the program. Lysacek landed five of his eight jumps in the second half of his program, while the Russian skater landed the bulk of his jumps in the first half of his program. This gave Lysacek an edge in points and ultimately the gold medal.

Institutions of higher education are facing critical financial situations and are changing the scoring as well. The University of Nevada Reno absorbed $33 million in budget cuts in the past year and is facing more. The Louisiana Community College System has lost $24 million in funding in the last two years. A $100 million budget gap is being faced at Dartmouth University. Very few colleges or universities have been unscathed in our recent recession. Institutions are revising budgets, raising tuition, eliminating staff, faculty, and programs. A new scoring system is at hand.

What is the new scoring reality in student affairs?

Think about your school’s strategic plan. When was the last time you read it? Does your program or unit align with the goals and desired outcomes of the plan? Find it, read it, know it. Your program mission statement should reflect the goals of your college or university. Use citations in your annual reporting to demonstrate how the work that you do meets these goals.

Think about how you measure success. How do you determine productivity? Do you collect student evaluations? Do your students achieve higher grades, improved retention, or higher graduation rates? Is your institution getting a return on investment from your salary, benefits, and program dollars? Programs that survive the next round of budget cuts are the ones able to show clear data supporting their value to the institution.

Think about why you are where you are. What service or leadership do you provide? Is it being provided elsewhere on your campus? Is someone else doing similar work better, stronger, faster? With whom do you collaborate? Be certain that you know your allies for support and funding. Build your community. Be certain that you are not the only one who can provide positive public relations for your programs.

There is a new scoring system throughout student affairs and higher education. Make certain that just like a new generation of Olympic athletes, you are using the scoring to your advantage.

Digital Storytelling: Adventures in the First-Year Experience

Like many institutions, my university participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to measure programs and activities that enhance student learning and personal development. The purpose of NSSE is to help identify areas to improve the undergraduate experience in and out of the classroom.

The scholarship program that I coordinate hosts a first-year seminar course each fall for the 100 recipients of the award. The course is loosely based on the University 101 model framed by John Gardner when he was at the University of South Carolina. It follows an orientation and transition format and includes community-building activities for our program. We have a large group lecture for one hour each week and students meet in recitation groups of a dozen students for a second hour weekly.

In the NSSE spirit of enhancing the course experience and engaging our students, we try to integrate fun and a bit of technology for student projects. Our latest adventure was digital storytelling. Staff and peer mentors selected random movie genres, and a student from each recitation section drew from the genre options. We shared examples of digital storytelling and creating storyboards. We suggested task assignments such as videographer, actor, writer, and film editing to help the project go more smoothly. We made certain to review campus computer labs for the appropriate editing software in advance and provided this information to students. Finally, we stocked up on sale priced Flip Camcorders and gave this assignment to students:

  • Create a media project that embodies the transition to college and your first semester experience.
  • Final Project: No longer than 5 minutes and must include a flash mob.

The final productions were screened during our class “Film Festival” complete with popcorn and soda. Students were encouraged to vote for “Best Picture” and create award categories to fit the projects. Winning productions were featured on our student-run cable news channel.


There were a few bumpy roads throughout the ten-week project, but overall the response and student evaluations of the project assured us that students were engaged and most importantly, community was achieved. On an unexpected side note, our first semester grade point average rose to the highest level in five years, with no change in entering student academic profile. Of course we already look forward to repeating the project with our next student cohort.


Check out the final productions and let me know what you think.

Mystery/Thriller

Blair Witch

Western

Romantic Comedy

Action/Adventure

Musical

Crime/Gangster Part I and Part II

Zombie

Like a box of chocolates


Like many of my colleagues in student affairs, my first job in the profession was the result of a student leadership experience, student tour guide to be exact. My work as an admissions tour guide as an undergraduate later led to a position as an admissions recruiter for a small private college. I like to think that working in admissions, helping students with their college decision-making, is where I honed facilitation skills that are critical to my current work. I had a couple of gigs as a director of admissions before turning my sights to program coordination.

Stanford business professor Robert Sutton suggests employees need predictability, understanding, control, and compassion. As anyone who has spent even a few months in a student affairs position can tell you, those items are few and far between. You learn early in your career that student affairs hours include nights, weekends, and other duties as assigned. The concerns of an 18-year old in college differ from year to year. Reactions to course assignments or program activities may not communicate their message or be perceived as useful. Faculty and academic units question the value of student affairs programming and services, particularly in challenging financial times. Student affairs professionals do, however, provide predictability, understanding, control, and compassion…for our students.

The graduate assistants who have worked in my unit over the years have enhanced my work and life. They went from grad to pro and are now high school teachers, logistics managers, academic advisors, independent consultants, and campus activity and orientation coordinators. Each of these individuals had an opportunity to make a difference in student lives. They used their creativity, energy, and enthusiasm to make our university a better place for students. When I think of my colleagues at the Student Affairs Collaborative, you may find us in campus activities, student union management, leadership development, residence life, career planning, scholarship programs, and consulting. Those paper titles do not include the personal counseling, financial advising, academic enhancement, and other duties as assigned that we provide on a daily basis.

I borrowed the title for this post from a former graduate assistant who is now blazing trails of her own. She used the analogy that Student Affairs is like a box of chocolates for a course assignment and it really stuck with me.

Student Affairs is:

  • Being a generalist in helping, listening, organizing, and facilitating, while a specialist in your position.
  • Never growing up as you surround yourself with 18-22 year olds.
  • Spending your life by the academic year calendar.
  • Justifying your existence with the belief that higher education is also about the out-of-classroom experience.
  • A real profession.

Student Affairs professionals work hard to make our colleges and universities more welcoming, engaging, and understanding for students because we believe in higher education and all that it offers. We get up every morning and face the day with a smile, because we never know what we’re going to get.

How do you define your work in student affairs?