Professional organizations and support for professionals experiencing unemployment

Conor P. McLaughlin
Bowling Green State University

In February 2020 3.5% of the United State population was experiencing unemployment (Statista, 2020), though this number would climb substantially if it were to account for people who have termed out of access to unemployment insurance and have stopped looking for work (Economic Policy Institute, 2017). As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, more than six million people applied for unemployment assistance in March 2020 (Tappe & Kertz, 2020) and currently more than 20 million people in the United States are out of work (Long, 2020), and in April 2020 the US unemployment rate was 14.7% (Tappe, 2020).  Higher education is not immune. While many schools have shifted their operations to a virtual and distanced format, cuts to funding and increased economic precarity will bring furloughs, layoffs, and hiring freezes for the 2020-2021 academic year (Whitford, 2020a). Unprecedented times like these are when many professionals will be most in need of their professional networks and systems of support.

Professional organizations provide student affairs professionals with opportunities to network, develop relationships, give and receive mentoring, and develop systems for professional support (Reesor, Bagunu, & Hazely, 2013; Gardner & Barnes, 2007; Van Der Linden, 2005). Professional organizations, and active engagement in them, can be an important pathway to accessing resources that can lead to career advancement, among other things (Reesor et al., 2013). While professional organizations and conferences are not the only places to experience professional development, these combined with mentorship from supervisors can play a substantive part in creating a supportive professional environment (Renn & Hodges, 2007; Tull, 2006). How, then, will student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment access the resources and support professional organizations can offer?

Experiencing Unemployment

This is the first research study on experiencing unemployment in the field of student affairs. However, a body of literature does exist that illuminates the impact of experiencing unemployment within a larger society and which is relevant to professionals in student affairs. Employment provides many adults with a social circle, human interaction (Creed, Bloxsome, & Johnston,, 2001), and for 49% of US resident access to health insurance (Kaiser Family Foundation, n.d.). Unemployment can cause lower self-esteem (Creed & Bartrum, 2006; McKee-Ryan, Song, Wanberg, & Kinicki, 2005; Waters & Moore, 2002), and this can in-turn decrease likelihood for becoming employed (Waters & Moore, 2002). This decreased self-esteem is often exacerbated when people’s sense of self is strongly tied to their career (Mckee-Ryan et al., 2005). When people who are unemployed do not have access to social circles or access to healthcare they are more likely to experience negative physical and psychological health impacts (Herbig et al., 2013; Wanberg, 2012; Creed Machin, & Hicks, 1999; Rantakeisa Starrin, & Hagquist, 1999). Further, experiencing long-term unemployment can increase chances of mortality related to mental (depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, alcoholism) and physical (chronic illness, stress related illnesses) health issues (Herbig, Dragano, & Angerer, 2013).

Supporting Student Affairs Professionals

There has also not been research on the specific ways in which student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment can be supported, though a body of literature that discusses supporting professionals exists. Much of this literature focuses on new professionals and places the role of support and mentoring on their direct supervisor (e.g. Reesor et al., 2013; Renn & Hodges, 2007; Tull, 2003). Additionally, mentoring and mentorship are important to the advancement of student affairs professionals who hold one or more minoritized identities (Jackson & Flowers, 2003; Blackhurst, 2000; Twale & Jelinek, 1996). Literature on professional organizations similarly focuses on their utility for developing new professional’s networks and support systems (Reesor et al., 2013; Gardner & Barnes, 2007). Ongoing involvement can also foster and deepen the development of professional identity and commitment to the field for early career professionals (Hirschy, Wilson, Liddell, Boyle, & Pasquesi, 2015). While many interpret the need for competent advising and support as being an obligation to students, competent professional practice is equally owed to colleagues as is a commitment to removing systemic barriers to participation (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).

It seems logical to assume that accessing mentoring and participating in professional organizations would be more difficult, though not impossible, for student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment. They may not have the financial means or institutional support for involvement. They also would not have regular access to the same tools for connection to colleagues around a campus. These realizations helped to bring to light the questions which informed the larger study from which this article has been drawn.

Data Collection and Analysis

To answer the research question “how did student affairs professionals who have experienced unemployment feel supported” I used a paradigmatic narrative inquiry approach (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Polkinghorne, 1995). I used purposeful sampling (Bryman, 2012) through social media groups for student affairs professionals and email list-serves. I conducted the seven semi-structured interviews (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009) over skype or zoom. I transcribed them verbatim and identified themes through an In Vivo coding approach (Saldaña, 2015).

Findings From the Study

One of the more notable themes that emerged from the interviews was the role professional organizations played in feeling supported or unsupported while experiencing unemployment for this group of student affairs professionals. In fact, the theme of professional organizations was the only theme that was spoken to by every participant, which is noteworthy. Participants who were able to maintain their membership to professional organizations found that this added to the ways in which they were supported while experiencing unemployment.

Elan, who experienced six-months of unemployment after graduate school, said that maintaining his membership provided access to information and on-going training. He said “I was still reading the journals.  I still kept my membership to ACPA, which was helpful because I would get the journals and was able to attend meetings and workshops around the region and in the area.” Yvonne, who was unemployed for over a year after finishing her doctorate and was able to maintain her membership because of her personal financial circumstances, was able to continue to add to her resume and maintain professional relationships. She said “I was still involved with ACPA so I think people on my commission we’re all really supportive. I still did presentations at conferences, working with other [professionals] to do that.”

Other participants, however, experienced their interactions with professional organizations very differently. Edwin, who was unemployed for roughly 8 months after moving with his partner to be closer to their work, said it became an unnecessary expense, “with NASPA and ACPA I couldn’t really pay so I wasn’t really going to be able to spend the money to stay as a part of those organizations.” Elliott, who was unemployed for roughly a year after receiving their master’s degree, echoed this sentiment, “it’s hard to stay connected when you don’t have a source of income.” Devon, who was unemployed for over two years after getting their doctorate and only became employed by leaving the field of higher education, spoke to making a sustained effort to stay involved while struggling to navigate the financial obligation as well. They said, “I’ve tried to maintain some kind of connection, I’m on the ACPA convention planning team.” They continued, “It’s hard to be [involved] when you can’t afford to pay for it. I’ve had to petition numerous times to give my labor freely to an organization that wants to charge me.”

Shayne, who was unemployed for over a year after being terminated from a position, said the expense of involvement was a factor as well. She said, “part of it was I couldn’t afford to go.” She continued, saying that another part of the decision to not go was the stigma of having been fired, “I didn’t feel like I should go to those conferences—the local or the regional one. If I could have afforded I wouldn’t have gone to it because I would have run into former staff or other people.” Keagan, who was unemployed for roughly 9 months after her contract was bought out during a reorganization, agreed. “I intentionally remove[d] myself. [I] knew that I didn’t necessarily want to spend as much time with people discussing what was going on nationally because I knew it was going to make me upset.”

Personal Reflection

I experienced unemployment for 13 months between 2011 and 2012. During that time I stopped going to conferences because I couldn’t afford to maintain my membership. Even though at the time ACPA was willing to offer graduate student registration and membership rates to professionals who were out of work at the time (a policy they no longer advertise), that was still more money than I could afford after paying rent, internet, cell phone, and student loan bills each month. I kept my membership as long as I could, and I tried to finesse as many of the regulations as possible. Especially around convention time, it became very difficult to see pictures and hear stories about how excited everyone was to reconnect and whose proposals got accepted. I didn’t feel like my professional home had a way to welcome me. My participation in the field declined and my access to resources was entirely dependent on other people being willing to share what they had. It also made searching for a job even more difficult, and I ended up spending almost a year volunteering while collecting unemployment insurance as a way to hide a big gap on my resume. I now teach in a student affairs and higher education graduate program, and I see students wrestling with these questions every day. They appreciate access to webinars at a reduced cost, and do not necessarily see how going to another webinar is going to help them stand out in an over-crowded job market and keep a search from being canceled.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust higher education, the US, and the world into an amazing state of precarity. Cohorts of students are graduating from professional preparation programs as job searches are being canceled or frozen (Whitford, 2020b), and professionals at many levels are being laid off into that same job market (Whitford, 2020a). Student Affairs professional organizations should expect to see a drop in their membership and in participation. I would argue that this does not decrease their obligation to sustaining the communities that have been built around these organizations. The ACPA and NASPA Professional Competencies (2015) describe social justice competence as, in part, a practice of ensuring equitable access to resources and the elimination of systemic barriers to participation. The findings I have presented here suggest that when people can access professional organization membership while experiencing unemployment it can play a role in supporting them. We also can see that not everyone is able to experience this support and often the barriers to access are related to finances and stigma regarding unemployment. Both of these are barriers which this profession has committed itself to working to disrupt (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). It will be important to recognize that student affairs professionals do experience unemployment, that professional organizations have an obligation to alleviate stigma associated with this experience, and eliminate the evident barriers to resources and participation. While student affairs professionals were experiencing unemployment long before the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a moment in which professional organizations will have the opportunity to clearly demonstrate its commitment to competent practice.


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Author Bio

Conor McLaughlin is a Teaching Professor at Bowling Green State University in the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs. They teach classes on student development, college outcomes, representations of colleges in fiction, and multicultural leadership. Conor researches unemployment in the field of student affairs and practicing leadership in the field of student affairs.

Additional articles in this Issue

Recognizing COVID-19 as Trauma: Considerations for Student Affairs Educators and Faculty Developers

William L. Harder
Goucher College

Brian L. McGowan
American University

COVID-19 has disrupted the academic lives and professional trajectories of college students, faculty, and staff in an unprecedented manner. Over the course of a few frantic weeks in March 2020, higher education and student affairs educators began determining how to provide their services online and support students remotely. In addition, universities have been forced to move the vast majority of their courses from face-to-face formats to online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutional leaders have adopted new or expanded existing teleconferencing software systems such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoTo Meeting, Google Hangouts, Discord, and Zoho Meeting to hold professional meetings, teach courses, offer student support services including telemedicine or Telecounseling; academic advising; or recognize students, faculty, staff for their accomplishments.

Although universities have generally been able to hand most students the technical tools to sign-on and continue the courses they began on physical campuses, several questions remain about the nature of learning that is occurring in the wake of these unprecedented events. In addition, this pandemic has revealed the magnitude of housing, food, technology, and fiscal insecurities that many of our faculty, staff, and students are experiencing. While most universities have largely resolved the technical challenges of this shift, it is necessary to pause and critically examine the experiences of our communities at this time.

The pandemic, its associated economic and social contexts, and the unprecedented shift of higher education online together represent a traumatic event that university communities are experiencing together. Institutional leaders have made tough decisions during a time of duress where individuals have to practice social distancing; combat xenophobia and racism; manage being furloughed and unemployed; cope with the deaths of colleagues, friends, and loved ones; deal with significant financial losses; and manage new family responsibilities. Given the mental and emotional toll COVID-19 has taken on all who participate in higher education, we pose the following question: How much cognitive capacity do we have available for learning at the moment? Given our collective position as faculty members and administrators in a faculty development center, we have been thinking deeply about how to support faculty of varying ranks and appointment types during COVID-19. We have also been thoughtful about the ways that faculty and student affairs professionals care for students at this time. Our goal in this article is to brainstorm ways that faculty developers and student affairs professionals can collectively think about the impact of COVID-19 on our work.

Student Affairs and Faculty Development Fostering Student Success

Faculty development centers represent the primary institutional-wide point of contact for faculty on pedagogical topics. These centers create and implement learning opportunities for faculty to enhance their teaching and to create optimal learning environments for students. Student affairs professionals support students’ learning, growth, development, and success primarily via one-on-one conversations and programming. They are also dedicated to supporting the academic mission of the institution through the creation of deliberate co-curricular experiences for students. However, faculty development centers are voices that are too often absent from conversation with student affairs professionals. We contend that both student affairs educators and faculty development professionals would be better served by being more fully engaged with one another as they hear from students (directly and indirectly) in varying critical capacities.

During the initial response to the COVID-19 crisis, faculty development centers were key partners in facilitating the transition from face-to-face formats to online instruction. Similar to other institutions across the country, our faculty development center provided workshops, programs, and consultations to faculty. In addition, we implemented a faculty crisis-hotline to support faculty as they made this abrupt transition to moving their courses to the online environment halfway through the Spring semester.

While supporting faculty, we heard countless stories from them about what their students were feeling. It is commonplace for student affairs educators to hear similar stories from students and subsequently serve as advocates, mentors, and problem solvers. Student affairs professionals have also been called on to develop and implement new policies, procedures, and practices to do their work while continuing to care for students and maintaining connections in a virtual environment. A few weeks into this newfound reality for our faculty and students, we not only thought about the sheer existence of engaging in this new online space, we thought about the prevailing trauma that students and faculty are facing as they navigate COVID-19.

Toward a Trauma-Informed Approach to our Practice

Trauma stems from events or circumstances that are experienced by someone as “physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014, p. 7). Trauma is widespread and can occur at any point in our lives. Within educational contexts, the awareness of trauma and its negative impacts have become more prevalent (Davidson, 2017). For numerous individuals, COVID-19 has brought on a host of mental health issues such as depression, trauma, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

Given this prevailing distress, we advocate for SAMHSA’s (2014) trauma-informed approach that adheres to six key tenets that could help ease or impede people’s capacity to cope with traumatic situations. These tenets include: (1) safety, (2) trustworthiness and transparency, (3) peer support, (4) collaboration and mutuality, (5) empowerment, voice, and choice, and (6) cultural, historical, and gender issues. Educators should keep these tenets in mind and adopt trauma-informed principles and sensitivities in their work as we continue to make meaning of COVID-19 and its impact on our lives. Employing a trauma-informed approach involves a paradigm shift and requires an examination of institutional culture, policies, and procedures (Davidson, 2017).

What does a trauma-informed praxis look like in your work? How do you employ the above mentioned six tenets of a trauma-informed approach? How are you supporting students who are the most vulnerable at this time? How are you creating equitable and inclusive environments in the online setting? How are we extending grace to ourselves, our students, and others? These are questions that we have reflected upon and invite other faculty developers and student affairs leaders to do the same.

Guiding Questions for Reflection

Drawing from our own experiences in our faculty development center, we pose five guiding questions and encourage individual reflection and conversations with others as you process your own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, we offer our own brief observations on each question within the context of our work with faculty.

How do we support our communities beyond providing the technical capacity to hold class in a virtual space?

The initial transition to a virtual space largely focused on logistical questions of technological competency, capacity, and access. These topics represent an important first step, but provide an incomplete set of resources as they only address some of the issues faced. To be sufficiently responsive, universities must set the bar higher than simply addressing immediate technical needs. Many faculty members reached a minimal technical competency to facilitate class online fairly quickly. It was common to hear the refrain from faculty at the outset of this programming, “This is crisis management. I’m not looking to think about pedagogy, I just need to figure out the technical part.”

However, in our experience, by the end of a workshop the questions posed by faculty often moved beyond technical issues and focused on the pedagogical implications of their new virtual environments. As faculty move beyond technical capacity and toward pedagogical richness, faculty development professionals represent valuable thought-partners in effective ways to recreate student learning-environments in virtual spaces. Because they are typically located external to departmental units, faculty development centers can also serve as an important university-wide hub to bring together faculty from across the university to share their varied experiences with these approaches.

How do we collectively process the shared trauma of this moment and allow our students to center their own individual, lived experiences?

The current pandemic presents an important moment for us to consider both the collective and individual dimensions of trauma being experienced by our campus community members. We are all experiencing differing forms of trauma alongside adhering to governmental and university policies that are oftentimes top-down in nature. While the expansive and wide-ranging nature of these events can construct a collective experience for classroom communities to process together, they also present a situation in which individual experiences of trauma may be masked and minimized.

In this light, we must consider how we can best share our collective experiences and acknowledge the disparate individual experiences of our communities, particularly from those who are most vulnerable. Though all members of the community are exposed to some form of trauma, the nature of that trauma will vary. Some of this variation will be due to random chance, while others will be the product of systemic inequities. Acknowledging these dual producers of trauma with our students is an important aspect of our practice.

Policies of both governments and educational institutions are rarely equal in their impact across communities. As a result, communities of color and other historically marginalized groups often disproportionately bear the weight of these outcomes and as a result are exposed to additional trauma. Already, there is evidence that Black communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 deaths (Thomas & Anoruo, 2020) and Latinx communities are disproportionately impacted by pandemic related job-loss (Krogstad, Gonzalez-Barrera, & Noe-Bustamante, 2020).

Given the disparate nature of these traumatic experiences, educators must determine how to provide space for discussions of trauma. When engaging in discussions on these topics, consider offering multiple pathways for students to engage with the topic that both present opportunities to interact with the wider class and privately with the instructor. Though the nature of trauma will vary across students, the collective nature of the pandemic and the institution’s response make it imperative to be addressed in some way. Research shows that in the wake of traumatic events impacting entire communities, students both appreciate even the most minimal acknowledgement of the event by faculty and negatively take note when discussion of the traumatic event is absent or minimized (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

Lastly, it is essential that faculty members are aware of the services and resources provided by their student affairs colleagues. Often, free and confidential counseling services are available within student affairs. Additionally, some student affairs professionals have extensive training in facilitating dialogue related to equity, diversity, and inclusion and can help with this work in the classroom. During this time, faculty members should be intentional about providing information on campus services and partnering with student affairs in and beyond the classroom.

How do we support the entirety of our university communities during this process?

As we consider the various forms of trauma that individuals will be exposed to, we must also think about how the entire campus community is impacted by the pandemic. In addition to the impact on populations outlined above, it is important to understand the disparate traumatic impacts that this event can exert on other groups and individuals in our communities. For instance, we must consider what the reality of a return to a childhood home may mean for members of vulnerable populations including those in the LGBTQ+ community. We should also be mindful of increasing instances of domestic abuse worldwide (Taub, 2020). This is another opportunity for faculty members to partner with student affairs staff to ensure students have access to resources. 

For many students, the exodus from campus meant a return to their parents’ house, but there are others who were unable to return to their families for a variety of reasons. This includes students living in on-campus emergency housing and populations of students living off-campus who have elected not to or were unable to return home. Segments of the institution’s international student population are likely to be included in these groups and may be experiencing their own trauma due to COVID-19 closures and uncertainty about the future.

Much of the broader discussion around higher education’s response to the pandemic has focused on the undergraduate population. However, it is also important to reflect on how the experiences of this trauma in adult learners and graduate populations are likely to look different.

For our adult learners and graduate populations, impacts related to the pandemic may be more immediately and directly tied to their current and future economic and professional contexts.

Finally, institutions must consider the impact of this pandemic on our service, custodial, security, grounds, and other support staff. It is all too common for these staff populations to be rendered all but invisible during the normal functioning of the campus. Their work is literally deemed essential. Institutional responses to COVID-19 must keep these individuals in mind as they are the backbone of our colleges and universities and without them higher education cannot function.

How do we support our community as we move beyond the immediate moment of the Spring 2020 semester?

What happens after final grades are posted and the last virtual meeting of the semester is concluded? Many students will not have culminating experiences to celebrate their graduations and our students will likely face a summer that looks dramatically different than they had planned. For instance, many internships and summer programs have been canceled and some people may not secure employment due to hiring freezes. Travel to summer opportunities abroad will be nearly impossible. Due to the shift online, students will face this reality largely without the formal and informal university support systems in the form that they have come to know and depend on. For many students, this summer is likely to be an incredibly isolating time.

While it is important for faculty and staff to take a moment at the end of the academic year to exhale and practice some much needed self-care, it is also important to ensure that we do not abandon our students for the summer. Although many institutions will face significant budget reductions, colleges and universities should think critically about the services and resources that they will offer students during this summer. This is particularly true given that effects of trauma may manifest after the initial experience of it (Strøm, Schultz, Wentzel-Larsen, & Dyb, 2016) and that rates of trauma-related exit from college are higher for certain traditionally underrepresented populations (Boyraz, Horne, Owens, & Armstrong, 2013).

Summer 2020 will also likely look very different to faculty and staff than most previous academic summers. Pre-college programs, first year orientations, bridge programs, and other summer offerings will likely be impacted if not canceled. Not only will these changes impact the students who would have attended these programs, but they may also bring with them unexpected changes to supplemental summer income that faculty and staff had been anticipating.

Faculty development centers also have a vital role to play in helping faculty make meaning of the experiences that they had throughout the initial COVID-19 response. As the intensity of the semester gives way to isolation of an academic summer coupled with social distancing, faculty development centers can create spaces for faculty to come together to reflect on the experiences they had during this period and project forward to the next academic year. It is also important to consider how we prepare for the experiences our students will bring back in the fall. This is again an opportunity for partnership in learning and development with student affairs. Based on the recent experiences, what opportunities are there for these two areas to connect in order to support students, share information related to student struggle, and engage in powerful ways in the future?

The pandemic will continue beyond Spring 2020 and the public health and economic impacts will be felt for years. Rather than stories of summer internships, jobs, and travel, our students are likely to return in the fall with a wide range of new trauma experienced since we last saw them on campus. Faculty and staff should be mindful of the types of students who will enroll at their institutions for Fall 2020.  How we have come to understand online learners, low-income students, and adult students will be redefined due to the pandemic. We as faculty and staff would do well to devote time this summer to considering how we will support them when we are afforded the opportunity to see them again.

How do we show grace to our students and ourselves during times of crisis?

The final question that we pose also contains within it our only truly prescriptive recommendation: find ways to show your students and yourselves grace during this time. A pandemic, or any large-scale crisis, is wrought with both collective and individual traumas. As we, and our students, encounter and process these traumas, our interactions should be guided by empathy, understanding, and kindness. The ways in which to do so are numerous and individual, but we offer some considerations that may guide your praxis.

First, we can show grace to our students by attempting to reduce uncertainty in our interactions with them wherever possible. This can take place both within and beyond the course environment. Periods of stress and trauma are ripe with instances of uncertainty that can reduce our students’ cognitive capacity and impair their ability to be fully present in our classes (Verschelden, 2017). By offering increased certainty in the form of explicit instructions, clearly communicated changes, and a window into our own decision-making logic as faculty and staff, we can help our students regain the cognitive capacity that the larger context may have striped from them.

Second, we can show grace to our students—and ourselves—by explicitly naming our own vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and struggles to students. By modeling this behavior, we normalize struggle and the difficulty of the situation we find ourselves in. This behavior both humanizes us in our students’ eyes and gives them permission to be human themselves—something that can easily be lost when interacting in solely virtual environments.

Third, we can show grace to our students and ourselves by actively listening to where our students are and meeting them there. During this move online, many educators have put hours of work into transitioning courses and work into formats they believed would work online, only to come to the realization that they did not function the way we imagined they would. These realities may be due to a number of reasons, but a common one is that the students engage with the content and technology in ways different than we anticipated. See these moments as opportunities to invite our students in to co-create this newfound virtual space. Just as we deliberately co-create brave classroom spaces (Arao & Clemens, 2013) with students in the first few weeks of a face-to-face class, we must do the same in the virtual environment.

Finally, we can show grace to our students and ourselves by celebrating moments of resilience both large and small. In this time of uncertainty and isolation, moments of resilience are easy to be missed or minimized. As we name our struggles, we must name our victories. Given the impact of COVID-19, new questions have emerged for faculty developers and student affairs educators as we continue to engage in activities to support students’ curricular and co-curricular experiences. By adopting a trauma-informed approach in our work, we can create a culture of care that benefits all members of the campus community. 


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Taub, A. (2020, April 6). A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Thomas, E., & Anoruo, N. A. (2020, April 9). Coronavirus is disproportionately killing the black community. Here’s what experts say can be done about it. ABC News. Retrieved from

Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization (First edition). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Author Bios

William L. Harder, Ph.D. is the Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Goucher College where he directs the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching. He also holds a faculty affiliation with the Center for People, Politics, and Markets. Most recently, he served as the Qualitative/Survey Research Methodologist in the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University. His research focuses on inclusive pedagogy, research methods pedagogy, social media, and state politics.

Brian L. McGowan, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of Pedagogy and Higher Education Research in the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning and Associate Professor of Education at American University. He has held several professional roles in higher education including housing and residence life, a higher education research center, and a faculty member in higher education and student affairs graduate preparation programs. His research focuses on Black male college student and faculty experiences in postsecondary educational contexts.

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Teaching Student Affairs Administration Online via a Simulated Institution and a Pandemic

Becki Elkins
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Garrett Denning
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Beck Hawkins
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

I (Becki) left class at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL) on March 10th feeling both exhilarated and concerned. I was excited the class simulation had gone well, covering the broad range of intended content and, I hoped, achieving the essential learning outcomes. The students, however, looked a bit haggard as they departed class. And, why wouldn’t they? They had just spent the past two and half hours wrestling with problems seemingly beyond their experience, knowledge, and skills. Their simulated institution, Chapin University, was experiencing an epidemic and, serving as the Division of Student Affairs, they were tasked with responding.

The “firepox lab,” as it has come to be called by students, was written over a year before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. It was one of a series of situations the second-year master’s degree students in my Administration of Human and Organizational Resources course faced over the duration of a semester-long simulation. When developing this course, I struggled to conceptualize how to present the content in a way that would engage learners. Through conversations with my partner, who worked with medical students, I began to consider the possibilities offered through simulation and problem-based learning.

Simulations present “rich learning opportunities where all participating [students] practice, reflect on, and build from…experiences that closely approximate realistic problems of practice” (Dotger, 2013, p. 9). De Coninck, Valcke, Ophalvens, and Vanderlinde (2018) argued that simulation, when well-designed and situated in a supportive context, could present ethically-challenging scenarios; allow students to consider multiple vantage points and make mistakes without fear of harming others; and afford opportunities to practice applying theory, knowledge and skills to solve problems. Distinct from simulation, problem-based learning (PBL) is a learner-centered approach to curricular education that grants students opportunities to integrate theory with practice and apply their knowledge and skills to a viable problem (Savery, 2015). Essential to the success of this method is the selection of appropriate ill-structured problems – those lacking simple solutions – as well as opportunities for students to reflect on and debrief their experiences (Savery, 2015). Both simulation and PBL have been used extensively in health and helping professions education for years (Cant & Cooper, 2010; Dodds, Heslop, & Meredith, 2018; Neville, 2009). I incorporated both in the Administration course.

I developed a simulated university, drawing on data, organizational structures, mission statements, and strategic plans from actual institutions to craft Chapin University. The syllabus was presented as the “staff handbook” for the Division of Student Affairs. Before the semester began, students were given descriptions of a series of unit director positions as well as senior leadership positions (e.g., VPSA, dean of students). They were asked to consider their own strengths and interests, along with those of their peers.

During the first class, I entered as Chapin’s president, presented my hopes and expectations for student affairs, and then left the group to make collective decisions about who would assume what role for the semester. With position decisions made, we discussed the parameters for the course – (a) we would enter every class in our assumed roles, and (b) at the end of each class, we would have a “balcony” moment, where we stepped out of role to debrief. The division was organized into staff teams as well as committees on staff selection, budget oversight, and critical incident preparation and response. Each individual was presented with their unit’s organizational chart and budget.

Students were paired with a mentor with extensive student affairs leadership experience. Staff meetings and division meetings were facilitated by the students in senior leadership roles. Committees were responsible for developing and presenting professional development sessions on relevant topics. Three “lab” sessions were held over the span of the semester – touching on supervision, budgeting, and crisis planning/response. The group was presented with an ill-structured problem to which they had to respond.

In the Spring 2019 course, the “firepox” epidemic served as the crisis planning and response lab scenario. For the Spring 2020 course, I had intended to use it simply as the backdrop to a practice session focused on interpersonal conflict, to give students an idea of what to expect from a lab session. The students, however, focused their response solely on the crisis situation and refused to engage with any of the interpersonal conflict dimensions. At our March 10th balcony session, we discussed the many challenges associated with crisis incidents, including the need for, and occasional lack of, institutional plans for preventing, mitigating, and responding to crises. On Wednesday, March 11th, the UWL administration made the first of several announcements concerning the spring semester, ultimately deciding to move all courses online for the duration.

As I began to settle into the reality that I would not sit in a classroom with these students again, I also thought about just ending the simulation and holding asynchronous discussions for the remaining six weeks. As I watched my student affairs colleagues across the globe move to “working from home” scenarios, however, I decided that we would continue our Chapin University simulation – that our “firepox” epidemic would turn out to be part of the COVID-19 pandemic and that we, too, would be working from home. We moved all of our “meetings” online, held our committee-presented professional development sessions online, used the pandemic and the effects on higher education as our “ill-structured problems,” and spent our balcony moments debriefing, reflecting, and supporting one another.

Experiencing Class

The first day of class, I (Beck) walked into a room of my cohort members filled with apprehension and anxiety. In our last semester of graduate school, we thought we knew what to expect: lecture, notetaking, and discussion. Our Administration course would not give us the same comfort to which we had become accustomed. That day, we stepped into our roles at Chapin University, leaving our graduate student identities at the door. I was surprised at how quickly our university became real; by our second day, we were “seasoned” professionals navigating complex institutional situations.

“We are literally dealing with situations that happen in student affairs before we ACTUALLY have to deal with [them],” Jasmin, Chapin Vice President for Student Affairs, said. “I don’t know where else you would get that ever in your student affairs career.” The Division of Student Affairs at Chapin dealt with situations we have witnessed at institutions throughout our college career: pervasive relationship conflicts, rumors, budget cuts, student protests, etc. Yet, as graduate students, it felt difficult to truly understand the decisions happening behind closed doors.

Working at Chapin allowed us to experience making such decisions first-hand. “It’s really helpful to have an opportunity to test out what it’s like to operate within the constraints of our individual roles and positions in a classroom context with the ability to ask questions and discuss with peers, before moving into a purely professional role,” Laura, Chapin’s Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, shared.  This simulation gave us a glimpse into leadership roles we otherwise would not know much about until later in our careers. As Jasmin said, “It’s not every day you get hired for a Vice President of Student Affairs position with only 2…years of student affairs experience.”

Midway through the course, Chapin University faced a campus epidemic of “firepox.” The day started like any other. A few division stakeholders excused themselves from our typical division meeting to respond to various situations; students were exhibiting firepox symptoms at a rapid pace. We desperately tried to contain a situation that seemed insurmountable. We quickly learned “the importance of communication and having an emergency plan.” A student emphasized how “each person had their own version of information—something slightly different from everyone else,” which ultimately led to clumsy miscommunications and overall disarray. Laura described the simulation as “messy [and] stressful,” but noted “as a class we were able to joke about it in the moment.” We left Chapin feeling emotional and exhausted, thinking of how we could have changed our response and saved more lives.

Moving Online

There was not much time for my classmates and me (Garrett) to process the firepox lab, as the next day we discovered our classes would be moving online under the cloud of COVID-19.  Our places of sleep, relaxation, and rejuvenation soon also became our classrooms and graduate assistant work environments. The transition was stressful.  As Paula, Chapin’s Director of Student Conduct, stated, “It’s been harder to convince myself to sit and do the readings for sure. Time management is hard because of the balance of this supposed ‘overabundance of free time’ and the need to find those times where I can actually focus and do effective work and retain what I’m reading.” 

Becki changed some of the assignments due, but continued our class times and the simulation virtually, which some, like Paula, described as extremely helpful.  For others, the loss of in-person class was difficult, but moving online had unintended benefits.  “While in-person class makes the simulation feel more real, I do like how the online format has improved my technology skills and perception of online learning,” they said.  “I didn’t think we would be able to present to the class at the same level as an in-person presentation, but I was wrong. We were still able to have small group discussions and activities without much difficulty. There is way more that can be done with online learning than discussion boards and quizzes.” 

There was no level of normalcy to what we experienced. The move online affected us greatly. Paula explained,

I feel like the hardest part is that we’re all experiencing anxiety and this weird limbo-weightless-weighted-nonsensical feeling that impacts how we show up to class. When we were in person and experiencing our ‘normal’ levels of anxiety and feelings, there were still more nonverbals and different cues we could give and read and receive, and that’s not really a thing in class anymore because we’re as present as we’re able, but sometimes we’re only able to bring 10% of our energy to class so we’re either not giving those cues or able to read them as well as normal.

Trusting Ourselves and One Another

We shared a bond of trust throughout the experience. We had come far from the young graduate students we once were, having entered Becki’s History and Philosophy class as one of the most diverse SAA on-campus cohorts.  We had overcome strife and interpersonal conflict throughout our first three semesters, becoming stronger as individuals and as a cohort.  Our first encounter with Chapin demonstrated this growth, as we nominated one another for positions by opining what we admired about them and how they fit the role.

The trust in one another extended from a trust in ourselves and our ability to do this work. I (Garrett) worried that I was not what my peers thought I could be. Despite that fear, I knew the importance of my work as a Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and to rely on my peers and my mentors who trusted my abilities. I also knew to trust my intentionality in what I did. Others also experienced this self-trust. An anonymous student stated, “It pushed me to be a leader when I was so reluctant to ever take on that role. I feel a thousand times more confident in my abilities than I ever have before.”  Jasmin concurred:

I was apprehensive that I would not do justice in my position, but I actually was able to pull from a lot of my graduate experiences and felt qualified at times. Often times, I felt it was my job to make sure other cohort members felt just as comfortable as I became to be in my role….

This trust and dedication to each other continued throughout the class and came to its peak at the end of a presentation by our Crisis Response Team (CRT).  Knowing that leading and hearing a presentation on crisis response was weighing deeply on all of us, given the pandemic, the CRT turned to Becki’s “balcony moment,” allowing us to share how we were doing overall.  We shared tears, comfort, and encouragement in a way many of us would not be comfortable doing in any other class or with any other professor.  This was a moment of love and appreciation, likely informed by a pandemic and impending graduation, but nonetheless facilitated by each other in the hands of a professor we had come to trust. It felt real, as though we were truly a division of student affairs working from home and finding our way together through an unknown landscape.

Lessons Learned

Tuesday, May 5th, nearly two months after the “firepox” lab, we held our last class and our final balcony session. I (Becki) posed two questions to the students, asking them to consider what they had learned and what might have further enhanced that learning. From this conversation, I drew three conclusions. First, while students described the course as “definitely unique” and “difficult,” most of them saw it as a significant learning experience. They indicated that it forced them to address their own issues with imposter syndrome, helped them learn how to work under pressure, expanded their understanding of student affairs administration, nudged them to think more institutionally, and offered opportunities to question and critique institutional power, cultures, and politics. Second, students expressed a desire for additional balcony time to process what was happening and more coherently apply what they were learning from their readings and mentors. Nearly all of them echoed a need for more time to “talk about” what they were experiencing.

Finally, trust was essential to the success of the simulation. While they expressed trust for me – both as an instructor and in helping them navigate the online transition – they entered this course somewhat wary of one another. Having experienced many of the inevitable conflicts student affairs master’s cohorts face, they remained somewhat skeptical of one another even as they entered their last courses. Over the span of the semester, however, the students found themselves dependent upon one another to address problems facing Chapin University and, as noted earlier, increasingly grew to listen to and trust one another.

The face-to-face version of this course requires a great deal of work on the part of the instructor and the students. The transition to an online format required even more work as problems and logistics became more complex. Because of this work, each time I have taught the course, I have questioned whether to teach it again as a simulation with problem-based learning. With the transition to an online format and the “clunkiness” of the last half of the semester, I anticipated the students would agree that the simulation was too much. Instead, they told me they learned a great deal from their time at Chapin University, even working online in the midst of a global pandemic that was shaking the foundation of their futures in higher education. In turn, I am placing my trust in them and will begin preparing for next year’s labs.


Cant, R. P. & Cooper, S. J. (2010). Simulation-based learning in nurse education: Systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66(1), 3-15.

De Coninck, K., Valcke, M., Ophalvens, I., & Vanderlinde, R. (2019). Bridging the theory-practice gap in teacher education: The design and construction of simulation-based learning environments. In K. Hellmann, J. Kreutz, M. Schwichow, & K. Zaki (Eds.), Kohärenz in der Lehrerbildung. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer VS. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-658-23940-4_17

Dodds, C., Heslop, P., & Meredith, C. (2018). Using simulation-based education to help social work students prepare for practice. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 37(5), 597-602.

Dotger, B. H. (2013). “I had no idea!” Clinical simulations for teacher development. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Neville, A. J. (2009). Problem-based learning and medical education forty years on. Medical Principles and Practice, 18, 1-9. DOI: 10.1159/000163038

Savery, J. R. (2015). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. In A. E. Walker, H. Leary, C. E. Hmelo-Silver, & P. A. Ertmer (Eds.), Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Author Bios

Becki Elkins is assistant professor of Student Affairs Administration and director of the Student Affairs Administration and Leadership Ed.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She teaches courses in student affairs administration, organization, governance, history, and law and policy.

Garrett Denning (he/him | they/theirs) is a second-year master’s degree student in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is interested in services for LGBTQ students and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Beck Hawkins (he/him | they/theirs) is a second-year master’s degree student in Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is interested in case management, student success support, college students in recovery, and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Additional articles in this Issue