Series: Student Affairs Emergency Management (Part I)


Emerging Research on Student Affairs Emergency Management:  Lessons Learned and Issues Yet Unexplored

Danielle K.  Molina
Mississippi State University

Mahauganee D.  Shaw Bonds
Independent Scholar and Consultant


While student welfare and campus safety have long been underlying concerns for United States student affairs administrators, deliberations about emergency management on our campuses remained largely in-house; that is, until we were thrust into a post–9/11 era of uncertainty and crisis.  Although 9/11 did not occur directly on a college campus, the event heightened our collective sense of vulnerability in the spaces where individuals went about their daily lives (Kennedy, 2011).  Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech, thereafter, brought these fears home, testing our policies, procedures, and overall resilience in the face of unthinkable tragedy.  On one hand, these events exposed emergency management efforts in higher education to the outside world, garnering both public praise and scrutiny for related efforts.  On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech compelled student affairs administrators to speak up in defense of their specialized roles related to student-centered crisis intervention and their comprehensive roles in institution-wide emergency management efforts crossing student, policy, and administrative concerns.

As such, a movement led by practitioner scholars has taken up the challenge to make meaning of this complex arena, sharing lived experiences as guidance for addressing the quickly evolving demands of the emergency management arena in student affairs.  In upcoming issues of Developments, a series of articles will highlight emerging ideas on the topic directly from colleagues in the field.  This article will serve as an introduction to that series, providing a broad overview of the knowledge we have drawn together over the intervening decade of examining the emergency management landscape in contemporary student affairs practice.  We hope that this thoughtful approach to reflecting on emergency management not only provides insight for handling campus emergencies, but also suggests areas where practitioners’ expertise is needed to further enhance campus safety in increasingly complex environmental contexts.


Developing a Common Language around Emergency Management in Student Affairs

In the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Virginia Tech, three things became evident.  First, student affairs administrators play an intricate and nuanced role in managing crisis on college campuses.  Second, the wisdom gained from managing front-line responses for such events is largely localized and rarely articulated.  Therefore, third, there was an urgent need for administrators to channel their hands-on knowledge about emergency management into generalizable tools for the profession.  A few researchers took up the challenge in important dissertations at the time.  Akers (2007), for example, examined the existing structure, policies, and plans of emergency management efforts on college campuses. Johnson (2007) focused on the leadership decisions that were made by campus leaders in the midst of disaster response.

At the same time, others attempted to connect student affairs scholarship to the broader discourse on emergency management outside of the field.  Harper, Paterson, and Zdziarski (2006) and Zdziarksi, Rollo, Dunkel, and Associates (2007), followed by Myer, James, and Moulton (2011), penned overarching books that encourage readers to adopt a disciplined approach to dissecting, analyzing, and building intentional emergency management capacity in higher education.  While their efforts yielded significant contributions to student affairs and higher education, the texts shared two formative lessons for the profession: knowing the terrain and understanding the process.  Today, these tenets guide scholarly inquiry related to student affairs emergency management and shape the way administrators approach their work therein.


Knowing the Terrain

Before responding to an emergency, it is useful to understand what you are dealing with.  Therefore, it is critical that student affairs practitioners and scholars develop a common linguistic framework for expressing and examining relevant ideas.  For instance, terminology describing an event is particularly important in emergency management work (e.g., distinguishing a critical incident from a campus emergency from a disaster).  The label we assign to an event shapes how we interpret its importance in the scope of our regular work, the immediacy with which we deploy response efforts, and the types of resources we engage (Maitlis & Sonenshine, 2010; Zdzarski, Rollo, & Dunkel, 2007).  Likewise, categorizing sources of emergencies in student affairs (e.g., environmental, facility, criminal, human, and technological) helps attune administrators to the common places where emergencies are likely to arise.


Understanding the Process

In order to effectively manage emergencies, it is also helpful to understand how multifaceted pieces of the administrative puzzle fit together.  Therefore, it is important that student affairs administrators integrate conceptual frameworks used broadly by emergency management personnel across different organizational settings to discipline their work.  Arguably the most important of these conceptual models outlines emergency management as an articulated process with five distinct phases: prevention/mitigation, planning/preparedness, response, recovery, and learning (Harper, Paterson, & Zdziarski, 2006; Zdziarski et al., 2007).

Adopting the five-phase perspective on emergency management has profound consequences for practitioners and scholars of student affairs emergency management work.  Primarily, it dispels us of the notion that emergency management is a one-time task undertaken only by a trained responder in the moments of an unfolding event.  Rather, emergency management begins preemptively, in anticipation of crisis, and extends well beyond as a campus endeavors to heal, return business continuity, and learn from the events that have transpired.  When done well, emergency management is a comprehensive, ongoing, and cyclical process.

The conceptual model also encourages us to acknowledge the array of stakeholders truly engaged in any given campus emergency management effort.  These range from policy makers, legal counsel, front-line campus administrators, and students to media outlets, counselors, external professional emergency personnel, and local community members.  As such, the framework helps administrators recognize that the challenges of managing power, control, collaboration, and coordination amidst crises are normal parts of the emergency management process rather than insurmountable frustrations.  Finally, the model helps both practitioners and scholars understand the shifting roles and responsibilities of these various stakeholders amidst evolving emergency events.  For instance, whereas administrators might take proactive actions in the mitigation and preparedness phases, they must fluidly shift to reactive actions in the response and recovery phases, and highly interactive actions in the learning phase of an emergency.


Building a Repository of Knowledge out of Hands-On Experience

As practitioners in student affairs have developed a more structured way of understanding emergency management in the field, they have also begun to examine its nuanced dynamics with a more critical eye.  The contributions from student affairs administrators are particularly important because the body of work offers a potentially different perspective than many of the pieces authored by scholars interested in higher education more broadly.  In their own research, the authors of this series have recognized some important patterns related to these distinctions.

First, as opposed to offering an executive level view of emergency management in higher education, student affairs scholarship often represents more of a front-line perspective on how crises emerge from both anticipated and unanticipated sources.  Second, the student affairs perspective considers the role that grassroots, bottom-up leadership plays in emergency management than does the strategic, top-down decision-making scholarship related to executive crisis response.  Third, student affairs scholarship on emergency management keeps people at the center of emergency management inquiry, highlighting imperatives for human concerns related to prevention, intervention, and healing alongside managerial concerns about planning, protocols, and business continuity.

While student affairs leaders certainly have the capacity to contribute important and unique perspectives on higher education emergency management, our research suggests that it is often difficult to locate pertinent scholarship outside of the aforementioned textbooks.  There are few forums where lessons learned from emergency management can be systematically and easily shared across institutions.  While publications in professional magazines can offer a platform for those who have recently managed a campus emergency to share thoughts on emergency management, those stories rarely provide generalizable guidance to a wider audience.  As a branch of scholarship largely in its infancy, peer-reviewed research on higher education emergency management is also scarce.  To fill this gap, we have seen an increase in the number of higher education dissertations addressing different aspects of emergency management.  Still, unless dissertation research is transformed into subsequent publishable research, administrators may not have the time or access required to engage these sources of information.

If practitioners cannot easily find information to reflect meaningfully on emergency management in student affairs and to guide important decisions on campuses, they will not put the wisdom gained from existing sources into good use.  In response to this conundrum, we, as co-chairs for Research, Scholarship, and Practice in the Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness, have developed a set of strategic goals.  One of our objectives is to recognize the disaggregated efforts individuals have made to advance understanding of student affairs emergency management.  Another goal is to identify keywords and topics that may be relatable to student affairs emergency management work, but not conscientiously written under the guise of emergency management or higher education.  A final, more ambitious, objective is to bring these efforts together into a collective repository of scholarship that can guide and further develop emergency management capacity on behalf of the profession.  Included in this repository will be examples of scholarship focused specifically on the different phases of emergency management and targeted at a student affairs audience.



Prevention/Mitigation scholarship focuses on averting, reducing the likelihood of, and reducing the damage that may occur due to crises on campus (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  From a managerial perspective, one path to finding relevant scholarship in this area is to pursue legal inquiry and advice related to campus safety.  For example, Miller and Sorochty’s (2015) Risk Management in Student Affairs identifies known concerns on college campuses that might be prevented or mitigated in the interest of campus safety.  These include student activities, hazing, substance use, and mental health.  Other scholars add campus violence (Hemphill & LeBlanc, 2010; Jablonski, McClellan, & Zdziarski, 2008) and sexual assault (Wooten & Mitchell, 2016) to the list.  Another avenue to locating prevention/mitigation scholarship may involve turning to counseling literature such as Penven and Janosik’s (2012) research on threat assessment related to student suicide risk.  Social work approaches to prevention/mitigation have also been recently incorporated into the student affairs discourse on student safety.  For instance, Sharrika, Hazelwood, and Hayden (2014) lay out a compelling argument for incorporating case management as a tool for identifying at-risk students and providing early intervention.



Preparedness scholarship emphasizes the steps an organization must take to strengthen its readiness for emergency conditions, both anticipated and unanticipated (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  Therefore, scholarship related to this branch of emergency management draws attention to policy design, protocol development, resilient infrastructure, and emergency management training.  An example of existing preparedness scholarship in student affairs addresses the preemptive relationships emergency personnel require for effective readiness.  With respect to infrastructure, Stein, Vickio, Fogo, and Abraham (2007) suggest strengthening relationships across student affairs and other campus departments to increase institutional capacity for emergency management overall.

More recent scholarship goes one step further by advocating for student voices in emergency planning efforts on campus (Auletta, 2012; Jackson, 2016).  With respect to training, Molina (2016) and Trahan (2012) suggest that we more carefully interrogate the lessons we impart upon entry-level professionals.  Molina examined the process of socializing entry-level residential life professionals into emergency management responsibilities, while Trahan explored the types of crisis management training included in the curricula of master’s level courses in student affairs preparation programs.  Finally, Farris and McCreight (2014) outlined how the emergency management function within higher education has changed over time and more recently shifted towards becoming a formalized profession.



Response scholarship examines the conditions of critical situations as they unfold, and dynamics related to enacting related responses (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  Because this particular aspect of the emergency environment is often unpredictable and fast-paced, it is one of the more difficult areas to research.  At the same time, it is the branch of emergency management scholarship that can be most strengthened by the perspectives of student affairs practitioners on the front-line.  Therefore, lived experiences play an important role in building our knowledge base about response.

For instance, case studies have been used to examine the evolving conditions surrounding student-centered mental health crises (Van Brunt, Denino, Raleigh, & Issadore, 2015), active shooter scenarios (Eaker & Viars, 2014; Guskey, 2013), and various other emergency scenarios (Engstrom & Mathiesen, 2012; Hancox & Allen, 2007; Shaw & Meaney, 2015).  Lived experiences have also been used to investigate technologies that impact the speed with which response occurs, such as social network media (Asselin, 2012) and mass notification systems (Butler & Lafreniere, 2010).  Related to mass notification systems, Johnson and Frick (2016) examined how generation-based dispositions to crisis potentially shape student reactions to campus emergency alerts.  Finally, research also explores team decision making.  Harper, Paterson, and Zdziarski (2006) question the tension student affairs responders experience between making morally versus procedurally right decisions in the midst of unfolding emergency scenarios.  Similarly, Molina (2010) attempted to elucidate team decision-making among residential life emergency responders, specifically focusing on motivations to follow protocols versus improvising responses around protocol.



Recovery scholarship spans a wide range of activities, experiences, and policies related to transitioning an organization from crisis back to “regular” operations and its stakeholders back to “normal” life (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  From an organizational standpoint, discussions related to this discourse may include business continuity and stabilization.  For instance, restoring operations post-Hurricanes Katrina and -Rita has inspired researchers to reflect deeply on both the student affairs operational and administrative resources necessary for the task (Jarrell, Raymonda, & Martin, 2008; Shaw, 2012, 2016).  From a stakeholder standpoint, research may focus on stakeholders’ physical, psychological, and relational healing.

Organizational or personal healing, learning, and resiliency are topics related to both organizational and human perspectives on emergency recovery.  For example, research posits that the tacit knowledge gained from hands-on emergency management experiences improve related skills among student affairs administrators (Catullo, Walker, & Floyd, 2009; Treadwell, 2017).  Thus, student affairs administrators can often advance their own recovery from crisis by sharing hands-on experiences through case studies (e.g., Bataille & Cordova, 2014).  Moreover, handling crises on-the-job may have long-term effects on leadership, resulting in the development of additional compassion (Treadwell, 2015).



This final phase in the emergency management cycle highlights the importance of applying the information learned in the response and recovery phases back to the planning and mitigation phases.  Essentially, this phase closes the loop of emergency management, making the scholarship produced on all other emergency management phases relevant to this phase as well.  This is the phase where student affairs professionals who are no longer actively managing an unfolding emergency may also take the time to collect and review scholarship that might be useful in the other phases.


Building the Repository of Knowledge to Improve Student Affairs Practice

By adding to the scholarly discourse, we are raising awareness for this increasingly demanding aspect of student affairs work.  In reviewing the emergency management literature related to student affairs, it is quite apparent that there is so much terrain yet to be explored.  As an intellectual exercise, emergency management scholarship challenges student affairs administrators to reflect on the intersecting aspects of their practice ranging from student development to leadership and organizational behavior.  It challenges student affairs educators to apply theories in more robust ways that have consequences for both short-term and long-term success of students.  The existing literature also shows that higher education has only just begun to chip away at the tip of the iceberg.  There is so much gained wisdom our colleagues are gathering in the day-to-day dealings with emergency management.  We need to transform those personal narratives and lived experiences into knowledge that can be shared and generalized.

As noted earlier, we see this trend as we attend ACPA and NASPA, where increasing numbers of administrators are transforming these important lessons into dissertations and conference presentations.  As this special series unfolds over the next several issues of Developments, we encourage you to engage with the topics that will be reviewed, attempt implementing the relevant suggestions into your daily practice, and to seek ways to engage with the Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness.  You may follow or reach out to the Commission on Twitter, @ACPA_CCSEP.

Discussion Questions

  1. What sources do you use when seeking out information on emergency management?
  2. What key frameworks do you use to train your staff for emergency management?
  3. What have you learned from a recent emergency management experience that might help fellow administrators to do their jobs better?



Akers, C. R. (2007). Evolution of emergency operations strategies structure and process of crisis response in college student affairs (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3292920).

Asselin, M. J. (2012). Utilizing social networks in times of crisis: Understanding, exploring and analyzing critical incident management at institutions of higher education. Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3518565).

Auletta, J. L. (2012). Disaster vulnerability of university student populations (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 1515384).

Bataille, G. M., & Cordova, D. I. (2014). Managing the unthinkable: Crisis preparation and response for campus leaders. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Butler, A. M., & Lafreniere, K. D. (2010). Campus reactions to mass notification. Journal of College Student Development51(4), 436-439.

Catullo, L. A., Walker, D. A., & Floyd, D. L. (2009). The status of crisis management at NASPA member institutions. NASPA Journal, 46(2), 301-324.

Eaker, R., & Viars, J. (2014). Campus crisis response at Viberg College. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 17(4), 86-95.

Engstrom, D., & Mathiesen, S. (2012). Study abroad and an accidental death: Lessons learned. Journal of Social Work Education, 48(4), 785-796.

Farris, D., & McCreight, R. (2014). The professionalization of emergency management in institutions of higher education. Homeland Security & Emergency Management, 11(1), 73-94.

Hancox, M. K. G., & Allen, J. R. (2007). Sins of the father: Revisiting best practices of public relations and crisis management through case study analysis. Journal of School Public Relations, 28, 164-188.

Harper, K. S., Paterson, B. G., & Zdziarski, E. L. (Eds.). (2006). Crisis management: Responding from the heart. Washington, D.C.: NASPA.

Hemphill, B. O., & LeBlanc, B. H. (Eds.). (2010). Enough is enough: A student affairs perspective on preparedness and response to a campus shooting. Washington, D.C.: NASPA.

Jablonski, M. A., McClellan, G. S., & Zdziarski, E. L. (Eds.). (2008). In search of safer communities: Emerging practices for student affairs in addressing campus violence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jackson, R. A. (2016). An investigation into hazard mitigation tools at institutions of higher education. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 10117122).

Jarrell, C., Raymonda, D., & Marian, J. (2008). Academic and student affairs issues post Hurricane Katrina. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 32(3), 235-250.

Johnson, L. A. (2007). The great comeback: A comparative analysis of disaster recovery actions in higher education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3255882).

Johnson, T. C., & Frick, M. H. (2016). Investigation of millennial students’ responses to a shelter-in-place experience. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(4), 444-457.

Kennedy, M. (2011, June 1). School security after 9/11: The security improvements that schools and universities have embraced in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and other tragedies are keeping campuses safer. American School & University. Retrieved from

Maitlis, S., & Sonenshein, S. (2010). Sensemaking in crisis and change: Inspiration and insights from Weick (1988). Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 551-580.

Miller, T. E., & Sorochty, R. W. (2015). Risk management in student affairs: Foundations for safety and success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Molina, D. K. (2010). Sensemaking as a trigger for change in university emergency response routines: Ethnographic and case study analysis of a residential life department. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No.763597970).

Molina, D. K. (2016). On becoming Batman: An ethnographic examination of hero imagery in RA sensemaking about emergency management. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 42(3), 98-111.

Myer, R. A., James, R. K., & Moulton, P. (2011). This is not a fire drill: Crisis intervention and prevention on college campuses. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Penven, J. C., & Janosik, S. M. (2012). Threat assessment teams: A model for coordinating the institutional response and reducing legal liability when college students threaten suicide. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(3), 299-314.

Sharrika, A., Hazelwood, S., & Hayden, B. (2014). Student affairs case management: Merging social work theory with student affairs practice. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(4), 446-458.

Shaw, M. D. (2012). Crisis begets change: Hurricane recovery at Gulf Coast institutions. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 1287137594).

Shaw, M. D. (2016). Organizational change as a function of disaster recovery: Lessons from Gulf Coast institutions.  College Student Affairs Journal, 34(3), 62-75.

Shaw, M., & Meaney, S. (2015). Gang activity on campus: A crisis response case study. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 18(4), 365-373.

Stein, C. H., Vickio, C. J., Fogo, W. R., & Abraham, K. M. (2007). Making connections: A network approach to university disaster preparedness. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3), 331-343.

Trahan, L. L. (2012). An exploratory study of crisis management and disaster mental health training in master’s-level student affairs preparation programs. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from:

Treadwell, K. (2015). Compassionate complexity: Learning on the frontlines of campus tragedy. About Campus, 20(5), 14-20.

Treadwell, K. (2017). Learning from tragedy: Student affairs leadership following college campus disasters. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 54(1), 42-54.

  1. S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. (2010). Action guide for emergency management at institutions of higher ed­ucation (Publication no. ED-04-C0-009). Wash­ington, D.C.: Author.

Van Brunt, B., Denino, D., Raleigh, M.J., and Issadore, M. (Eds.). (2015). The prevention and management of mental health emergencies: Fifteen scenarios for student affairs professionals. Berwyn, PA: National Intervention Behavior Team Association.

Wooten, S. C., & Mitchell, R. W. (2016). The crisis of campus sexual violence: Critical perspectives on prevention and response. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zdziarski, E. L., Rollo, J. M., Dunkel, N. W., & Associates (2007). Campus crisis management: A comprehensive guide to planning, prevention, response, and recovery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.


Other sources

Palmer, C. (2010). Keys to campus safety: Collaboration, assessment, and training. Student Affairs Leader, 38(4), 5.

Sandeen, A., & Barr, M. J. (2007). Eight action steps for student affairs to consider. Student Affairs Leader, 35(10), 7-8.


About the Authors

Dr.  Danielle K. Molina is an Assistant Professor of Student Affairs at Mississippi State University, and Dr. Mahauganee D. Shaw Bonds is an independent researcher and consultant..  Drawing upon past administrative experiences in residential life and campus activities, respectively, they share a common research agenda exploring different facets of emergency management in student affairs and higher education.  Drs. Molina and Shaw Bonds have presented their research on emergency management independently, and together, at conferences such as ACPA, NASPA, SACSA, ASHE, SCUP, and AERA.  They previously served as the Co-Vice Chairs for Research, Scholarship and Practice on the ACPA Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Dr. Danielle K. Molina or Dr. Mahauganee D. Shaw Bonds.



The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Series: Views of Assessment (Part II)


The Commission for Assessment and Evaluation (CAE) is pleased to sponsor this “Views of Assessment” series. Focusing on the experiences of student affairs educators working with assessment, the series highlights reflections from practitioners at different levels in their careers–graduate student, new professional, mid-level, and senior student affairs officer (SSAO). Each article offers rich narratives, personal experiences, and professional examples, as well as instructive wisdom and advice related to assessment practices and implementation.

Everyday Assessment for New Professionals

Maureen Flint
The University of Alabama

John Tilley
Clemson University


As new professionals, assessment is the buzzword often heard but rarely understood. National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data, institutional reports, and CAS standards are all useful and important assessment tools, but they can be difficult to use on a day-to-day basis for entry-level, graduate, and even mid-management professionals. As new professionals, we are tasked with creating, implementing, and applying the results of assessment within our functional areas, often with little idea of where to begin.

What does assessment look like on a day-to-day basis for the new professional? Today, assessment is no longer relegated to the comprehensive annual report or campus-wide survey, but is embedded in our culture, shaping what we do and why we do it. ACPA and NASPA (2015) describe the Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER) competency area for student affairs professionals as “the ability to design, conduct, critique, and use various AER methodologies and the results obtained from them, to utilize AER processes and their results to inform practice” (p. 12). This competency area reflects the increasingly data-driven decisions and outcomes-based processes used to measure and validate our work as student affairs professionals. Bresciani (2011) reflects that “assessment begins with simply wondering whether what you do all day is contributing to what you hope your efforts can accomplish” (p. 1). How we approach assessment as new professionals can be creative, reflexive, and authentic, staying true to the purpose of assessment as a tool for improvement, growth, and development.

We will discuss simple yet effective strategies for new professionals to implement assessment tools and apply results to be more intentional in their everyday practice. As a hall director and a coordinator for training and development in residence life, we will share our stories as new professionals incorporating assessment into our everyday work.


Strategies for Everyday Assessment

The first foundational outcome of the AER competency emphasizes the importance of the student affairs professional’s ability to “differentiate among assessment, program review, evaluation, planning, and research as well as the methods appropriate to each” (ACPA & NASPA, 2015, p. 20). We agree that it is important to recognize the difference between these methods, particularly the distinction between assessment, or the process of gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence, and evaluation, or the process of applying assessment evidence to increase effectiveness (Upcraft & Schuh, 1996). Yet, as Bresciani, Hickmott, and Gardner (2009) note, many professionals neglect the full picture, focusing on data collection and analysis and failing to engage in evaluation or strategic planning by communicating and applying the results of their assessment. Considering this, we move forward with a holistic definition of assessment as a way of thinking, an interconnected and iterative process of asking questions, seeking evidence, and applying results.

We examine four overarching questions for new professionals to ask when starting their assessment process. First, what do you want to know, and why does it matter? How does your assessment connect to the bigger picture, within the mission and vision of your department, division, or institution? Second, what information do you already have at your disposal that could help answer your questions? Third, who do you ask, and how do you ask it? Finally, how do you share what you have learned?


What Do You Want To Know, and Why Does It Matter?

At first glance, asking, “What do you want to know?” seems like an obvious question; it forms the foundation for each subsequent step in the process of assessment. Asking what you want to know helps guide how you ask questions, who you ask, and how you share what you have learned. For a new professional incorporating assessment into their everyday work, deconstructing what you want to know can move you towards an authentic space where you can engage with assumptions and relationships of power and privilege in your practice, moving past static “question and answer” to a cyclical and iterative process of assessment. Pillow (2003) describes this process of looking back as reflexivity, “an on-going self-awareness…which aids in making visible the practice and construction of knowledge within research in order to produce more accurate analysis” (p. 178).

So, what do you want to know? One way to begin pulling this apart is to ask why and how. For example, if you are interested in knowing if a training workshop was successful, you could ask, “How would I know if it was successful?” or “What would it look like if this was successful?” As a coordinator for training and development within a large residence life program employing over 250 student staff, asking these kinds of questions helped Maureen understand that in her department, a successful training was not only about the knowledge gained, but also the self-efficacy of student staff, or their belief in their own abilities, and their feeling of connectedness to the department as a whole. Understanding this helped Maureen see that how student staff experienced training had larger implications for the department and the culture that was being created in the residence halls.

When asking what you want to know, it is also important to consider the stakeholders involved. This may come from an angle of social justice and inclusion, including the voices of underrepresented students or populations, or from a political perspective. Culp and Dungy (2012) noted that “the culture of evidence in student affairs must be tied to the institution’s culture of evidence” (p. 6).  Likewise, Edwards and Gardner (2010) discussed the importance of nesting a residential curriculum assessment within the context of an institutional, divisional, and departmental mission and vision. Considering how what you want to know fits within your institution, division, or department’s mission or vision can not only help clarify how you move forward with your assessment but can also create an avenue to share what you learn, creating a broader audience for applying your results.

Understanding why what you are asking matters often includes taking a social justice lens to how you think about what you want to know. Asking, “Whose needs are not being met by this training or program?” or “What invisible populations am I overlooking?” are questions to consider. In her first year as a coordinator of training, Maureen and her colleagues received strong feedback from a segment of our student staff population who felt unserved by our trainings. Freshman Advisors (FAs) are student staff who focus on programming and relationships, but do not serve on call or perform administrative tasks. In their training feedback, many of the FAs expressed their feelings of exclusion from a training that was largely focused on the RA staff. Even the training hashtag we had created, one FA pointed out, referenced Resident Advisor (RA) staff, leaving out the FA staff. As professional staff looked to future trainings, asking, “How is this training including or excluding student staff roles?” helped increase feelings of inclusion by FA staff in future years.


What Information Do You Already Have?

As entry-level professionals, we have a wealth of information at our disposal. Students coming to college are recorded and categorized in a number of ways, including applications for admission, housing or meal plan contracts, and learning management systems, among others. Although some of this data may be restricted depending on your institution, there are other options to consider. Partners in other offices, such as student involvement, first-year experience, or housing may capture important information through their respective programs or surveys that could be shared across functional areas. In addition, many universities participate in multi-institutional surveys through EBI-MapWorks/Skyfactor, which provides data in relation to peer institutions. Even something as simple as a welcome survey from a resident assistant can provide useful foundational information and help guide future assessment.

In addition to the captured data that exist in various locations in the university, there also exists information that may not be as tangible. A university application for an incoming student cannot capture an overarching trend present in their residence hall environment or a deficiency in their student organization, and an official survey cannot shed much light on students’ daily lived experiences. However, this information often exists within our reach in the form of personal messages and candid comments on social media. For example, as a current employee at Clemson University, John knows from recent campus climate surveys that students of color, especially Black students, often feel excluded on campus. By following the hashtag #BeingBlackAtClemson, John can gain a better understanding of the real-life struggles and successes of these students, beyond the climate survey. By following key accounts, staying up to date on popular hashtags, and just checking to see what’s out there, new professionals can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to get a glimpse of students’ narratives, language, and experiences in order to fill in some of the gaps between official survey instruments.

Knowing what information you already have can also simplify what questions you ask, while adding context to your results. For example, when we hire student staff, we ask a series of demographic questions including gender and birth date, as well as role-specific information such as how many years they have worked for us, what building they work in, and their major. Since we have an inventory of this information categorized by student ID number, when conducting future assessments or gathering feedback about trainings or programs, we can leave off these descriptive questions, adding them to the data analysis after the survey has been administered.


Who Do You Ask, and How Do You Ask the Question?

Knowing who to ask and how to ask is often the moment where new professionals feel out of their element when conducting assessment. The best advice we can give for practicing everyday assessment is to keep it simple and short. The new professional interested in developing more sophisticated methods can find texts dedicated to the creation of assessment questions, survey techniques, and methodologies (Alreck & Settle, 2004; Bresciani et al., 2010; Culp & Dungy, 2012; DeVellis, 2012; Schuh et al., 2009). We synthesize these texts into three suggestions as a foundation for more sophisticated methods.

First, only ask what you need to know. Earlier we discussed inventorying the information you already have, and we suggest referring to this to see what you already know about the group you are surveying. An additional piece of this is thinking reflexively about why you are asking for information. Is it necessary to ask about gender, race, or sexual orientation in an assessment of a recent hall program? The need for asking demographic information in surveys is embedded in our assumptions of research and, often, assessment. Consider the purpose for asking these questions and how asking (or not asking) questions regarding personal or social identities can be marginalizing.

A second tip for conducting assessment builds on the first: ask a question first and make it an easy question. An example is asking, “What did you learn from the program?” to students leaving an event. Alreck and Settle (2004) suggest sandwiching sensitive or difficult questions in the middle of a survey, leaving descriptive information until the end. This has a multi-fold purpose of building rapport before asking difficult questions, investing students in the assessment by asking for a response, and front-loading your assessment with information that is useful to you (Alreck & Settle, 2004).

A final consideration is not only to keep it simple, but to keep it short, both in the way that you ask your question, and the assessment itself. Schuh and associates (2009) note that “shorter questions maintain respondents’ attention and are less likely to create confusion” (p. 117), and this is true whether you are conducting a multi-part program survey or checking in about a recent program at the start of a staff meeting. If you plan to implement a larger assessment, consider pre-testing or piloting your questions. You could have RAs or student workers take an assessment, or workshop through possible questions before administering it to a larger group.

As an entry-level hall director, John frequently seeks ways to address the professional and developmental needs of the resident assistant staff with whom he works. One example of a simple assessment he used is the “sticky note” activity. Following an afternoon of conference-style, “choose your own adventure” sessions during resident assistant training, John led his staff in an activity where each staff member was given a sticky note and asked to briefly reflect on what they took away from one of the sessions and then stick the notes to the wall. Afterwards, John led a group discussion in order to shed more light and provide an opportunity to elaborate on individual answers. This not only produced detailed feedback on the preceding sessions, but also provided a jumping off point for developing staff-specific training and development activities for the semester. Compared to the larger narrative of assessment in higher education, such a simple activity might not seem like “assessment” in the buzzword sense, but gathering data in this example led to increased effectiveness of our resident assistant staff, which continues to advance the mission of the department and the university itself.


How Do You Share What You’ve Learned?

As we have discussed, collecting information is only part of the assessment process. The next step is applying and sharing the evidence and information you have gathered to improve processes and programs. How you share information, and with whom, can influence how they are perceived and ultimately implemented (Schuh et al., 2009). Often, once you have collected your data, it is helpful to go back to the first step, where you asked, “What do I want to know, and why does it matter?”

At this stage it is tempting to become self-congratulatory, focusing on what great things you learned, or stagnate, creating a list of descriptive statistics (Erwin, 1991). When creating a report to share, or communicating what you learned, consider your audience. When sharing information with institutional stakeholders, such as your division or department head, consider how what you learned fits within the mission of the organization, and focus on action steps to stimulate conversation and change (Schuh et al., 2009). This is another place to lean into reflexivity, considering who benefits from the results of the assessment, and how what you learned can create conversations about justice, or injustice, around your programs or services.

One group that is often forgotten at this step is the students you surveyed. Consider how to share the results of your assessment with them. Perhaps more so than numbers themselves, visual representations of data tend to be powerful tools for presenting evidence and illustrating concepts. This could look like creating and sharing a word cloud of responses to a minute-reflection or Poll Everywhere question, keeping a butcher-paper brainstorm on the wall in a common area or office space, or sending out an infographic with survey results in a newsletter.

As a training coordinator, Maureen shared what she learned from training assessments by conducting informal focus groups with community staffs across campus. After each monthly in-service, she would bring donuts to the weekly staff meeting of the team that had the highest response rate on the survey. She used the time with student staff to ask broader questions about training as a whole such as, “What are we doing well in our trainings?” and “What can we improve on?” These informal focus groups served to close the feedback loop by allowing a time to communicate what professional staff learned from assessment, and also giving student staff a voice and space to offer their feedback in a more personal manner. It is especially important at this step to think about sharing the information not as a finished product, but as the start of a new inquiry. What new questions were brought up from your assessment that you want to ask? What areas of improvement did you identify that you can assess in the future?



Although we are living in an age of assessment, where data-driven decisions and accountability are increasingly important, entry-level professionals often fall into the trap of thinking that assessment does not apply to their world. In conclusion, we suggest five key ideas to keep in mind when conducting your own assessment.

First, connect what you are doing to the big picture. Whether it is nested in your institution’s mission or vision, connected to a broader “why” in the narrative of student affairs, or answering a local question about your program, building, staff, or area, know why what you are asking matters. Second, only ask what you need to know. Whether it is information you already have or information that is not relevant to what you want to know, respect your students and their experiences by only asking the questions to which you need the answer. Third, involve students in the process of assessment. Incorporate focus groups as part of your staff meeting time, running possible questions by your student employees or asking them for qualitative feedback to guide what you want to know. Fourth, keep it simple, and have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish with assessment. It takes more than one committed and passionate entry-level professional to change a culture. Finally, close the feedback loop. Share your results with key stakeholders, including students as well as campus partners and divisional leaders, and set action steps to guide your next assessment.

Successfully incorporating assessment into your everyday work is not about knowing all the methodologies or theories or being an SPSS whiz. The core of assessment is curiosity and a desire to better understand the spaces, experiences, and perspectives around you. When you begin to practice everyday assessment, you start a process of inquiry that can help you better understand your context and the students you serve.

Discussion Questions

  1. As a new professional, what questions do you want to answer about your functional area?
  2. How can you demonstrate reflexivity in the way you practice assessment?
  3. What information do you already have that you can use to inform your assessment?



ACPA – College Student Educators International & NASPA – Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education. (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs educators. Washington, DC: Authors.

Alreck, P., & Settle, R. (2004). The survey research handbook (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Irwin Press.

Bresciani, M. (2011). Making assessment meaningful: What new student affairs professionals and those new to assessment need to know. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from:

Bresciani, M., Gardner, M., & Hickmott, J. (2009). Demonstrating student success: A practical guide to outcomes-based assessment of learning and development in student affairs. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Culp, M., & Dungy, G. (2012). Creating a culture of evidence in student affairs: A guide for leaders and practitioners. Washington D.C.: NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

DeVellis, R. (2012). Scale development: Theory and applications (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Edwards, K. E., & Gardner, K. (2010, October 28). What is a residential curriculum? [PowerPoint slides]. Plenary session presented at the 2010 Residential Curriculum Institute, St. Paul, MN.

Erwin, T. D. (1991). Assessing student learning and development: A guide to the principles, goals, and methods of determining college outcomes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure?: Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 16(2), 175-196.

Schuh, J. & Associates. (2009). Assessment methods for student affairs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (1996). Assessment in student affairs: A guide for practitioners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


About the Authors

Maureen Flint is a PhD Candidate in Educational Research with a focus in Qualitative Methodologies at the University of Alabama. She has worked in a variety of professional capacities in student life including housing, intercultural engagement, and student unions. In her role as the Coordinator for Training and Professional Development in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama, she oversaw the ongoing training and professional development of 250+ undergraduate student staff members and 26 graduate assistants. Maureen holds an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from The University of Alabama where she worked as a Graduate Community Director.

John Tilley serves as a Community Director for University Housing & Dining at Clemson University. He oversees a residential community of approximately 690 students and supervises a staff of 21 Resident Assistants (RAs) and two Graduate Community Directors. John earned his M.A. in Higher Education Administration from The University of Alabama where he worked as a Graduate Community Director.

Please e-mail inquiries to Maureen Flint or John Tilley.



The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Next Generation: Graduate Students, New Professionals, and Preparation Programs


Developing the “Scholar” in Scholar-Practitioner: How Peer-led Communities of Research Promote Agency and Growth for Student Affairs Master’s Degree Students

Genia M.  Bettencourt
Victoria K.  Malaney Brown
Caitlin J.  Kidder
Dr.  Chrystal A.  George Mwangi
University of Massachusetts Amherst


I feel very comfortable conducting research now.  This was a hard class and it had a lot of work involved, but it was such a good way for me to understand how research works.  I appreciated the hands-on experience.  –Master’s student

Higher education and student affairs programs have numerous strategies to prepare master’s degree students to take on professional roles (Janosik, Cooper, Saunders, & Hirt, 2015; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Anger, 2014).  Through experiences such as assistantships, internships, and practicum, master’s degree students acquire tangible skills to support students and navigate institutional systems.

In contrast, the development of research skills may be relegated to a single academic course within a master’s program.  Without a strong research foundation, administrators may make decisions based on limited information that perpetuate social inequalities for marginalized students on campus (Bensimon, 2007).  The integration of scholarship and practice situates programmatic decisions and institutional measures within data and best practices, leading to a higher caliber of work by student affairs professionals (Jablonski, Mena, Manning, Carpenter & Siko, 2011; Kupo, 2014).  For this reason, ACPA–College Student Educators International (ACPA) and NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education have articulated the development of assessment, evaluation, and research skills as a core priority for student affairs professionals since its first joint task force in 2010 (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).

Foundational experiences, such as those offered in master’s programs, may be particularly important to prepare professionals to engage with research, assessment, and evaluation throughout their careers (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008).  Graduate study offers a unique window of time when students are socialized into roles as active agents of their own learning alongside the expectations of their fields (Gardner, 2007; Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001).  If a research foundation does not develop during a master’s degree program, the discrepancy is likely to be compounded during professional practice in the field, as individuals face barriers regarding time, access, and the perceived value of such activities (Sriram & Oster, 2012).  As master’s programs prepare student affairs professionals for their careers by developing skill sets and establishing trajectories for future learning, preparing the next generation of scholar-practitioners requires continual examination into learning environments and strategies for success.

In this article, the authors explore the ways in which peer-led team-based projects can support the development of core research skills for master’s degree students.  Through our examination of a research course that included an applied empirical study component, we examine how to expose master’s degree students to experiential learning opportunities and applied research in order to encourage them to develop scholar-practitioner identities within graduate study and their future careers.

We define peer-led research communities as groups of graduate students in which master’s and doctoral students work together to design and implement a collective study with internal co-leadership and high degrees of autonomy.  These projects allow master’s degree students to partner with doctoral students to gain support and resources in the research process, to exercise their own leadership, and to develop new skills and approaches.  While our data analysis found salient themes for learning regarding both doctoral and master’s degree students, this article focuses on the latter as master’s degree students are predominant within higher education/student affairs graduate programs and are less likely to have exposure to research skills.  For master’s degree students to carry these skills into their professional roles, we recommend that faculty and supervisors (in this paper, used to refer to those overseeing master’s degree students in opportunities such as assistantships, practicum, and internships) work together to provide access to research opportunities and to build communities of peer support.


Overview of Course

I didn’t have much background in research, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect [about the class].  At the beginning, on the first day when I got the syllabus, I was like “wow, this is a ton of work.  How am I or anybody in this class going to be able to do all of this?” – Ryan

This article stems from our experiences within a semester-long research methods course that serves as part of a higher education graduate program in New England.  All first-year doctoral and master’s degree students in the program were required to take the course, which focused on how the field of higher education applies research designs and methods to generate new knowledge.  Our case study included four first-year doctoral (Ph.D.) students and 14 first-year master’s degree students during the spring semester of 2016.  Students in this course engaged in activities to understand the process of systematically researching a problem in the field of higher education and how to evaluate, interpret, and implement higher education scholarship.  Specifically, students participated in one of four research teams comprised of one doctoral student and three or four master’s degree students.  Each student on the team held a specific role within the project across a primary investigator (PI; the four doctoral students), literature specialist, data analyst, and dissemination coordinator (see Table 1).  Within these research teams, students developed an empirical pilot study relating to an issue in higher education and implemented the study from its conceptualization through dissemination of findings.  Research projects included investigating the role of on-campus employment on college student success; Black students’ experiences with racism, campus racial climate, and race-based activism; organizational silos in residential life departments; and the use of contemplative pedagogy in college classrooms.


Table 1

Research Team Responsibilities

Position Graduate Role Overview of Responsibilities
Primary Investigator Doctoral Led the research team and oversaw the project, team meetings, and final projects


Literature Specialist Master’s Created a process to gather, review, and manage relevant references


Data Analyst Master’s Developed and implemented research methodology and data collection


Dissemination Coordinator Master’s Copy edited and coordinated all submissions, including completing the final article and presentation



To examine students’ experiences with the research methods course, we conducted a single descriptive case study and gathered in-depth data for the case (Merriam, 1998).  The case study used a convergent mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011) that integrated both quantitative and qualitative data.  Our full data contained information from both master’s and doctoral students, including research team blogs that students wrote during the semester to document and reflect on their experiences; interviews with twelve students after the class was completed; and Likert scale and open responses on mid-semester and end-of-semester evaluations regarding participants’ experiences in the course and on a research team.

For the purpose of this article, we focused on the data specifically from master’s degree students.  We relay quotes from the interviews and open-ended survey responses that describe key learning moments from master’s degree students directly.  Pseudonyms are used to protect participant identity.  The four authors of this study have previous experience participating across different roles of peer-led research communities, providing us with an insider perspective to contextualize these collaborations.  This insider perspective was useful as it allowed us to have a strong understanding of the context of the research course and participants’ experiences, which is essential in case study scholarship (Merriam, 1998).



“I’d like to think that we supported each other through this particular course and, in some ways, through this transition.” – Dan

Throughout this study, we identified three key ways in which use of peer-led research communities supported master’s degree students in developing as scholars: 1) facilitating opportunities to gain support and resources in the research process; 2) exercising individual leadership; and 3) developing new skills and approaches.

Over the thirteen-week course, the primary forms of support for the master’s degree students came through the research teams themselves.  Most notable, the PIs were responsible for facilitating and leading the research communities and process.  The PI maintained communication between members, assisted with the writing process, implemented deadlines, and provided advice to their team around structuring the study.  Across teams, the PI was the first point of contact for any questions or concerns and served as liaison between the master’s degree students and any additional resources needed (e.g., the instructors, research consultation services, gatekeepers).  One student reflected on the experience, noting that “this class definitely provided me with research experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else.  It’s helpful having a doc student as a PI.  [Additionally], this course has helped bring me closer with my cohort.”

The second key support came from fellow master’s degree students within the teams, in which individuals helped the projects to move forward by sharing ideas, offering assistance, and validating progress.  As one student said,

While our PI was instrumental in organizing the structure of our logistical approach, we actually divided up the work fairly democratically throughout the semester.  While we met a handful of times in person at the beginning of the semester, by the end of our semester our group was primarily using online tools (Google Apps) to stay organized and remain in contact.

The initial leadership demonstrated by the doctoral student helped to provide master’s degree students with the structure they needed to continue to work toward completion of their research studies.

For many of the students, the course was their first involvement in a research study.  Working collaboratively and balancing the workload amongst each team member helped to reinforce group dynamics so that each master’s student benefitted from the opportunity to lead through their assigned roles over the course of the semester.  Maria shared an example of different leadership styles amongst her team: “the dissemination coordinator was a much more introverted person.  She was the most consistent student that we always had doing all these small things behind the scenes.  That was the way that she did her leadership.” Learning to adapt their working styles based on their group members’ roles and personality types were important moments of growth within the peer-led communities.  One master’s student shared a specific example of the challenge of trying to create this shared output in an assignment leading to the literature review of the project:

Last week was challenging for our group as we tried to prepare the literature map and accompanying documents to turn in.  It’s very difficult to write a group paper of any sort because we all write in different voices, and it’s difficult for someone to write one part without knowing what was discovered in the other.

The challenges of developing group expectations and processes were amplified by the steep learning curve required to engage with and apply new skills over the course of one semester.  Master’s degree students were required to proactively communicate concerns to develop a collective process for the project.  At other times, participants were required to let go of structure in ways that were initially uncomfortable, learning to trust the research process and rely on team members to follow through.  Finally, participants learned to embrace their own leadership style as a means to negotiate the process of creating a shared output.  Abigail noted that her group leadership supported her self-efficacy as a scholar, sharing that:

I pushed through my own impostor syndrome feelings in order to support and comfort other people in my group who were going through tough times either in this project or just in the class or in general in the grad program.  Seeing them struggling through those things made me feel like oh, I have experienced this, I have felt similarly frustrated or stuck.  Even if it wasn’t direct support, it definitely made me feel like less of an impostor.

The course helped students not only externally develop as leaders, but internally with their own self-reflection and comfort levels.

As a result of participating in the peer-led research communities, students gained many transferable skills in conducting literature reviews, developing data collection instruments, and implementing different forms of analysis.  One participant shared,

I really am proud of my accomplishments from this class.  I have learned a lot about the research process and I can actually participate in conversations about research with confidence.  Today, I attended [an event] and I was impressed with myself in understanding the researcher.  He was using jargon and language that prior to the research class I would not have understood.

However, one of the most salient lessons for master’s degree students was when to step up as leaders and when to step back.  Master’s degree students reflected upon and understood that their peers have different leadership and learning styles, which helped individuals to trust in the research process.  Abigail shared, “I tried to engage with my group, stepping back, making sure that the PI was the one actually leading everything, but we ended up being really democratic and having [a] really horizontal leadership structure.  Everyone contributed.” Although the research process was at times difficult, master’s degree students were guided and supported throughout the course by both the PI and the instructors.  The research course offered insight into not only how to conduct a full study, but how to approach working with future teams in shared research environments.

Master’s degree students also found that the leadership and support they received from their peers helped them to not only engage with the research process but changed their perspectives to better understand and value the importance of becoming scholar-practitioners.  Accordingly, Ryan concluded,

If I were to get a job in an [athletics] marketing department and for me to be able to say I spent a whole semester doing two research projects…it’s just another tool in the tool box for somebody, so it’s definitely beneficial to learn about it beforehand.

This course provided the opportunity for master’s degree students to understand the research process and how they could market their research experience in their forthcoming job search and directly apply their newly gained research skills to their future higher education careers.  Such a skill set ensures that professionals continue to integrate both theory and practice to shape their work with students and institutions (Reason & Kimball, 2012).  Moreover, graduate curriculum may not prepare professionals for all aspects of their careers (Kimball, Vaccaro, & Vargas, 2016).  As a result, the ability to continually seek out data and scholarship to inform decision making holds an important role in long-term success through peer-led communities, master’s degree students develop as scholar-practitioners in a supportive climate that cultivates their research skills and provides understanding of the nexus between higher education scholarship and practice.


Recommendations for Student Affairs

In the end you’re challenged to have something that has all those components in a much more intense way, where you’re not just trying to satisfy your group members, but having more critical perspectives about what you should be researching and why…I was forced to engage with the research process in a much more—frustratingly, at times—back and forth way, where you’re revising and things like that even when you think you’re way further along, but realizing that that’s sending you on a different path…it’s just like a mess that I think is a much more realistic depiction of the research process, and I think that it has primed me to engage in a much more realistic way.  – Maria

For peer-led research communities to help master’s degree students develop a scholar-practitioner identity, we recommend that engagement with scholarship be embedded in the entire student affairs graduate program experience.  First, students must be prepared to engage with research.  While we might assume that master’s degree students arrive in graduate programs with these skills, our participants identified challenges in learning to read research articles with a critical eye and reflect upon study design (e.g., asking such questions as “Why did the researchers approach their research questions this way? How might their methods have influenced their findings? How could this study be built upon?”).  Learning how to critically consume research prepares students to not only determine how to use research to inform their own practice, but to develop new scholarship.

Outside of the classroom, assistantships, practicum, and internships allow graduate students to learn from supervisors and colleagues how empirical research influences daily practice and long-term decision-making in a specific functional area.  By practicing developmental supervision, professionals in the field serve as role models in how to integrate as a scholar-practitioner.  Graduate students can form informal communities through professional relationships to share resources and knowledge about best practices across offices, units, or functional areas.  By encouraging students to engage with research in these applied contexts, whether that means reading foundational texts that influence practice or conducting research with available data, supervisors can provide space for the practical application of academic skills learned in courses and help master’s degree students develop the lifelong habit of incorporating research and practice.  These approaches challenge the idea that students must choose between scholar or practitioner roles to provide a standard within the field of integration.

Across the classroom and practice, professionals who work with graduate students can also help facilitate opportunities for reflection and action planning to support continued growth and development.  As students leave master’s programs, they should be equipped with skills to further their own learning.  Helping students to determine how they can gain key skills and facilitate this self-driven development is a crucial competency for master’s programs.  Strategies for such proactive engagement may include inviting master’s degree students to join existing projects or research teams led by faculty and doctoral students; encouraging practicum, internship, or assistantship supervisors to share foundational and contemporary research on relevant topics; or including graduate students in ongoing research within a unit, office, or functional area.



This course has helped me better understand the overall trajectory of what research is, how to conceptualize it, and how to design and implement a study.  I think that it will prove valuable as I continue my studies at my university and beyond.  – Master’s student

Student affairs master’s degree programs highlight the development and application of research skills as core competencies.  However, these skills are often siloed within a sole course that may not be enough time or exposure for students to feel comfortable carrying these skills into their eventual professional roles.  By developing peer-led research communities in pre-professional experiences, future generations of student affairs professionals may be better positioned to become research-literate scholar-practitioners (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).  Such a goal not only benefits individuals within their own practice but can lead to higher standards of rigor and collaboration within our field.


Discussion Questions

  1. How can we prepare master’s degree students to proactively shape their own professional development within graduate education?
  2. In what ways can graduate programs foster peer-led research communities to support collaborative learning?
  3. How can faculty and supervisors serve as architects of key environments to prepare students to pursue ongoing development?



ACPA, & NASPA. (2015).  Professional competency areas for student affairs educators. Retrieved from: 

Bensimon, E. M. (2007). The underestimated significance of practitioner knowledge in the scholarship on student success. The Review of Higher Education, 30(4), 441-469. doi: 10.1353/rhe.2007.0032

Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. L. (2011). Designing and conducting mixed methods research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gardner, S. (2007). “I heard it through the grapevine:” Doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. Higher Education, 54(5), 723-740. doi: 10.1007/s10734-006-9029-x

Jablonski, M. A., Mena, S. B., Manning, K., Carpenter, S., & Siko, K. L. (2006). Scholarship in student affairs revisited: The summit on scholarship, March 2006.  NASPA Journal, 43, 182-200.

Janosik, S., Cooper, D. L., Saunders, S. A., & Hirt, J. B.  (2015). Learning through supervised practice in student affairs (2nd ed.).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Kimball, E., Vaccaro, A., & Vargas, N. (2016). Student affairs professionals supporting students with disabilities: A grounded theory model.  Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice, 53(2), 175-189.

Kupo, L.V. (2014). Becoming a scholar-practitioner in student affairs. In G. L. Martin & M. S. Hevel (Eds.), Research-driven practice in student affairs: Implications from the Wabash study of liberal arts education (pp. 89-98). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reason, R. D., & Kimball, E. W. (2012). A new theory-to-practice model for student affairs: Integrating scholarship, context, and reflection.  Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 359-376.

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the national study of new professionals in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319-335.  doi: 10.133/csd.0.022

Sriram, R., & Oster, M. (2012). Reclaiming the “scholar” in scholar-practitioner. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 377-396. doi: 10.11515/jsarp-2012-6432

Wawrzynski, K. S., & Jessup-Anger, J. E. (2014). Building bridges: Using the office consultation project to connect students to theory and practice. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 85-97.

Weidman, J. C., Twale, D., & Stein, E. L. (2001). Socialization of graduate and professional students in higher education: A perilous passage? ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Research Report, 28(3). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


About the Authors

Genia M.  Bettencourt is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her research interests focus on college access and persistence for marginalized student populations.

Victoria K.  Malaney Brown is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her research interests focus on multiracial college students, intergroup dialogue, and critical race theory.

Caitlin J.  Kidder is a graduate of the dual M.Ed./MPPA Higher Education & Public Policy program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Her research interests include how state and federal higher education policy impact the experiences of marginalized and first-generation college students.

Dr.  Chrystal A. George Mwangi is an Assistant Professor in the Higher Education program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Genia Bettencourt.



The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

From One Dupont Circle


Chris Moody
Acting Executive Director

Hello, ACPA members!

I trust that this greeting finds you well and enjoying the successes of completing another academic year, while also finding the energy, rest, and renewal to begin again. I always find the start of a new semester or quarter to be an invigorating time for setting new goals, meeting new people, and welcoming new members into a community of care. The ACPA International Office has also recently experienced an exciting several months as we have welcomed our newest team members, Kennedy Gates (baby of ACPA Deputy Executive Director Tricia Fechter Gates) and Lukas Abello (baby of ACPA Expeditor Schawn Abello) since we were last together at the ACPA 2018 Convention in Houston! We join the entire ACPA membership in our excitement and support for Tricia’s and Schawn’s additions to their families.

I am honored to also have the opportunity to share with you some additional Association news from the ACPA International Office. In June, I signed the lease renewal for our office space in the National Center for Higher Education at One Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., which allows us to stay closely aligned, both physically and collaboratively, with other members of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat organization. These partnerships have never been more important as the United States’ higher education community and our campuses face increasing challenges and disruptions at the federal level. Our advocacy efforts have included outreach to the U.S. Congress, the departments of Education and Labor, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. I urge you to stay connected to our advocacy efforts on issues of federal governance and legislation on our website at Although we now have full-time staff working entirely remotely in Indiana, Virginia, and Washington states, One Dupont Circle has been the ACPA staff’s “home base” since 1992 and we are thrilled with the continued opportunity to remain a part of this vibrant workspace through 2028, at least.

With our physical space now committed for the next ten years, we turn our attention to who we will be as an Association in the next century. If you are not already aware, ACPA will celebrate our 95th year as an Association in 2019, and we will come together in Boston next March 3-6 to celebrate at the ACPA 2019 convention. Think about that for a second…95 years of history and leadership in higher education and student affairs. And who we are today as an organization is still largely shaped by the spirit and passion of the nine founders who were employed as “appointment secretaries” related to their roles in helping students find positions after graduation. It should be no surprise that ACPA’s first president, May L. Cheney from the University of California at Berkeley, was a change-maker in the creation of the field we now know as student affairs. If only we could go back to the $2 membership dues that they paid in 1924!

I return to our history for the purpose of seeking inspiration for our future. One needs not look very hard to find evidence throughout the last century of higher education’s and student affairs’ history to see the effects ACPA has had on our campuses and in the lives of professionals. We were providing workshops and resources on effective strategies in supporting student growth and development long before we could articulate best practices; we were networking and organizing ourselves around our social identities before our institutions understood the importance of inclusion and diversity; we have produced the most powerful and prolific research and scholarship in our field, particularly through the Journal of College Student Development since 1959; and we have long given voice and vote in the Association to all members, without regard to your age, position level, or years in the profession. Our identity today is intimately linked with our history of leadership in these areas, and it is these strengths that will continue to propel us into our next 100 years as an Association.

The ACPA Governing Board and International Office have our attention on the future, and we are doing this work not only grounded in the spirit of our history, mission, values, but also in transparency about our current financial wellness. In truth, we have seen some decline in membership and convention attendance over the last ten years. AND we know that a lot has happened over the last ten years: the global economy experienced a tremendous recession (2008-2009), and higher education was not immune. Campus budgets have become tighter, and professional development funds have often been among the first line items to be cut. We changed our governance structure. We voted not to join as a sponsor of The Placement Exchange. The proposed consolidation with NASPA was approved by a majority of voters in both associations, but failed due to not meeting the required threshold in 2011. ACPA and NIRSA co-located conventions in 2013. ACPA reinvented the convention experience in 2014. There have been two transitions in Executive Director leadership of the ACPA International Office. The financial bright spots in that decade have come when the Association hosted conventions in destinations with tourism appeal, such as Orlando (2007), Las Vegas (2013), and Montreal (2016).

Feedback from attendees at our most recent ACPA Convention (2018) in Houston demonstrated that this professional and personal development experience was among the highest quality as compared to prior ACPA Conventions as well as other student affairs or higher education conferences. At the same time, this convention was smaller for a number of reasons, including but not limited to discriminatory legislation in the state of Texas against transgender persons and the travel ban by the state of California. These were conditions that we were aware would effect registration for the 2018 Convention, so the Governing Board approved a fiscal year 2018 budget that reduced the reliance on the annual convention for revenue to support operational costs. With smaller attendance, the Houston convention team were able to provide laser-focus on quality of programs and experiences, including the introduction of race-based caucus sessions, which were attended by more than 600 participants.

When we were together in Houston, the ACPA Governing Board began the exciting work of picturing our future in honoring our 95 years of history, but also acknowledging the challenges higher education has faced in our most recent decade. We continued this important work at the recent Leadership Meeting in Boston in June 2018.  While we are not yet at the point of developing a new strategic plan for the Association, these discussions are beginning to shape our future identity about who we are, where we are going, and how we will get there. It is clear that we will continue to center the important work of helping college and university campuses address racial injustices and decolonization, while identifying how to once again be the leaders in higher education on this and many other critical issues of our time. We understand that our members expect us to be broad in our scope to support the diverse needs of our profession. We are still more than 5,000 strong as an association, and we have many exciting things to look to in our future as we envision “ACPA at 100” leading up to the 2024 Convention. You can expect us to soon begin working on a new strategic plan that involves modernizing our mission, vision, and core values, while still holding fast to our roots and history as an association.

We will share future opportunities for you to engage and provide feedback in this important work in the near future. Until then, I hope you will stay connected to us through involvement in the initiatives and innovations happening in the Commissions, Coalitions and Networks, Communities of Practice, and our State, Regional, and International Chapters. Also, program proposals for the ACPA 2019 Convention in Boston (where we will celebrate our 95th anniversary) are due on Friday, September 7th, so be sure to start working on how you will contribute to an even higher quality program next year! Hotel and Convention registration is open already, and you will want to take advantage of the early registration rates by registering as soon as possible. Thank you for being a member of ACPA and thank you for everything you do in support of college student learning and success. I am hopeful for our world’s future because of the work you do every single day.

All my best,


From the President


Jamie Washington
ACPA President

Happy Summer, ACPA Family!

I wanted to take this moment to say “thank you” for all you do on and off your campus to make a difference in the lives of the students and families we serve.  The role of the student affairs professional is one that continues to expand with many opportunities and challenges.  Thus, I want to start by making sure you are taking care of yourselves. I know that summer is not everyone’s downtime, but if it is, I hope you’ve found time to reflect, reconnect and rejuvenate for the coming year.  If summer is not your downtime, I trust that you will do the same as we enter the semesters and quarters.

As an association, we are excited about our 95th Anniversary in Boston.  Mark your calendars for March 3-6, 2019 for a celebration and our setting the course for our 100th year.  ACPA is in a powerful moment of reflection and redefining itself as an association.  While we remain committed to being a comprehensive student affairs association that exists to prepare professionals to serve and prepare college and tertiary level education students to be leaders and effective contributors to our global society, we are examining and redefining what that will look like in our practice, programs, and services.  The leadership is actively engaging with key stakeholder and you, our membership, to help us set the course so that we can best serve our membership and higher education moving forward.  Stay tuned, there’s more to come.

In the fall of 2016, we announced our Strategic Imperative on Racial Justice and Decolonization. This imperative is not only timely for our country but an absolute necessity for college campuses. It is our intention to help student affairs professionals better understand what it means to serve all students with a racial justice and decolonized lens. To that end, we are in the process of developing resources that will assist our membership in examining their policies, programs, and practices and to develop the tools and the capacity to more effectively engage this core value.  The work that ACPA and NASPA did in 2015 on Professional Competencies offers a great starting place for this effort and we intend to build on that work over the next year.

Your ACPA is busy working to provide a full and robust professional development experience for our members.  Please check out our website for the programs that you won’t want to miss this fall. These are great opportunities to do focused learning with professionals from around the country that will help you to build capacity to better serve your students.

ACPA is your association. Take advantage of your state, regional and international division conferences and meeting.  We need your leadership and it’s a great way to get involved.  You can also connect to one or more of our Commissions, Coalitions or a Community of Practice to contribute, learn and build a great professional community.  Go to for more information on all the ways to stay connected.

Finally, you will soon see a call for nominations and awards.  We all know great people who are doing amazing things on our campuses and for the profession.  Take time to nominate folks for the awards. Consider running for national and local offices within the association.

I wish you all a great opening season and I look forward to reconnecting and updating you in the fall, and remember, you matter, our work matters, and we are making a difference. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.  Until next time…

Rev. Jamie Washington Ph.D.

President ACPA