Calling out the Heroes Who Make Things Happen: COVID-19 ACPA/IASAS/ACUI Webinar Reflections

Robert Shea
Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada

On March 31, 2020.  ACPA – College Student Educators International the Association of College Union International (ACUI), and the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS) facilitated an internationally attended webinar on institutional responses to the COVID -19 pandemic. Perspectives from higher education student service professionals in South Africa, China, the U.S., Australia, and Canada facilitated the first global student services webinar on the global pandemic commonly referred to as COVID-19. This thought provoking webinar was supported and encouraged by all three of the aforementioned organizations and coordinated by ACPA’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development. In a period of global crisis the webinar was attended by over 350 international attendees.

The webinar was hosted in order to share student affairs and services practitioners’ and scholars’ country specific experiences in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was developed “amidst the rapid global spread of COVID-19. Universities and institutions around the world were quickly responding to the ever-changing situation with changes, new instructional modes, and innovative ways to support faculty, staff, and students.” (Retrieved April 25, 2020

Each presenter provided their own perspective on how their institutions responded to the threat and ensured post-secondary students were supported in their academic and personal journey. As expected each country’s institutions responded in different ways depending on the geo-political situation in which the university was situated. Each institution responded differently, yet there were some commonalities. There was no proverbial ‘playbook’ for this student services response.

This article will explore the competencies commonly understood by North American student services professionals as the professional competencies for the profession. An important caveat is, that this is not an exhaustive list of professional competencies validated by those who support students in post-secondary institutions around the world. While research is ongoing in various countries and regions around the globe, for purposes of this article we will utilize the ACPA/NASPA professional competencies.

One can see where many of the ACPA/NASPA competencies (ACPA/NASPA, 2020) were utilized by presenters on this webinar. Competencies required of student service professionals included a solid personal and ethical foundation (PEF) and understanding of the Values, Philosophy, and History (VPH) of the profession to ground institutional support for students. It was evident throughout the webinar that an explicit or implicit foundation in understanding student learning and development (SLD) theories and research was required upon which to construct support and communication to students. Further, many of the presenters referenced country specific laws, institutional policy, and governance (LPG) were interwoven in their day to day work with students to navigate the complexities of the crisis. The competency of organizational and human resources (OHR) was detailed throughout the presentations from each country as student services professionals reflected on the need to manage interdisciplinary teams on their respective campuses.  Leadership (LEAD) was paramount in the personal reflections of all presenters as were the principles of social justice and inclusion (SJI) as student services professionals negotiated the complexity of working within institutional and country specific policies and politics. 

Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF)

It was apparent from the personal reflections and thoughts of the presenters that a thorough understanding of one’s own personal ethics was critical to the development of support services in the face of this unprecedented event. In many lived experiences student service professionals expressed their personal feeling of a need to ensure that students were cared for. In many cases, the need to support students in ensuring they had housing, food and thoughtful psycho-social support was critical for students well- being. It was exactly those personal ethics and “internal voice of care” that draws individuals to the field of student affairs and services that arose throughout presenters’ leadership in times of crisis. Many of the presenters expressed that there was no designed ‘playbook’ for their response to leading an institutional response to the crisis. The central tenant was the individual’s thoughtful development of programs and services to ensure student wellness and growth. In some cases, student services were not only supporting the day to day basic needs of their students but creating institutional responses to future admissions. It was apparent that each individual’s personal lived experiences formed the basis for a solid foundation to support students through their own journey through this crisis.

Values, Philosophy, and History (VPH)

It was interesting to hear each presenters experience with being involved in their institutions response to this crisis. Each brought their lived experiences to the forefront in reflecting on their institutions response and their own VPH of the student affairs profession to one’s current practice. While it is true that not all presenters have had the same experience with, and understanding of the values, philosophy, and history of the student services profession as is commonly known in the United States, it is with a deep sense of appreciation that each embraced the values and philosophy and history of how they defined their own profession. One stark example is that of our South Africa colleague Dr. Saloschini Pillay whose heartfelt presentation regarding the personal trials and tribulations of some of their students who required personal financial support for travel home, because they did not have the financial means to afford the trip while at the same time negotiating the movement of students out of residence who really would have much rather stayed. This experience reflects the history of what is known in North America as core values, philosophy, and history of the profession. To be able to affect effective services to students in a period of crisis requires the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that connect the history, philosophy, and values of the student affairs profession to one’s current professional practice. As the profession of student affairs and services evolves around the world the importance of capturing a countries student services values, philosophy and history will be critical for current and future professionals. The commitment to demonstrating this competency area ensures that our present and future practices are informed by an understanding of the profession’s history, philosophy, and values and in many cases around the globe the development of country specific values philosophy and history.

Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER)

Many of the presenters did not specifically mention the use of assessment, evaluation and research in their presentations as everyone was focused on the day to day response to the crisis. However, a number of presentations did highlight the fact that student services became central to the institutions response to the crisis as they had access to the student demographic data required for effective intervention. From data such as that housed in the registrar’s office to an understanding of the complexity of the number of international students on campus and demographic data of students such as country of origin and how many students were studying and working abroad was critical to an effective institutional response.

The refinement of future assessment, evaluation and research on a myriad of aspects relate to the COVID-19 pandemic will definitely provide intelligence and evidence based research that will guide institutions and student services work well into the future.

Law, Policy, and Governance (LPG)

This area of competency was one which elicited comments in all presentations in one form or another. A number of presenters mentioned that existing policies of universities was severely challenged in the face of this pandemic. In fact, having to ‘pivot’ from face to face delivery to remote instruction was critical and there were no existing institutional policies. Another interesting outcome was the intersection of country specific laws which impacted how universities were expected to operate. Concepts such as social isolation, social distancing, mandatory health testing, lockdowns were often prescribed by national governments. Changes occurred on a daily if not hourly basis depending on the number of COVID-19 cases spreading in a certain geographic area.  With these changes occurring many institutions were required to incorporate changes to policies on an emergency basis. Many institutions established emergency operations centers which had significant control over institutional responses to students. Sometimes with no senior student services representation on these committees. Significant lessons were learned from these experiences along with an understanding of university governance structures, policy development, policy administration and application. It seemed that in countries (for instance South Africa) where student and higher education unrest was felt over the past few years, student affairs senior staff were indeed involved in institutional Covid-19 management. Some lessons from the student unrest of 2015/2016 were carried over and ensured that student affairs senior staff were included in high level institutional planning around Covid-19.

Organizational and Human Resources (OHR)

There was significant enunciation of this competency throughout the presentations on this global webinar. Obviously in a requirement to move from a traditional university structure of teaching face to face to move entirely to online or remote learning required significant management of human and financial resources. In many cases the use of physical resources such as housing and food services and the move to remote work environments required staff to create a “new normal” work life. The challenge to student service professionals required remote work as the only way to support students from a distance due to government and institutional mandated social distancing requirements. Also here, it appeared, that some countries who experienced student unrest and had previously worked from home as part of an institutional response to crisis, seemed better equipped to engage with this organizational and human resource change.

Each presenter in their own way referred to the creation of teams to respond to pan institutional challenges and student specific challenges. In one case one of the presenters indicated it was critical to – have the right people around the table. From COVID-19 response teams to support transition to online learning to institutional responses to the psycho-social needs of students, faculty and staff student service professionals were in great demand. One interesting outcome was the fact that the student services perspective was often missing from pre-established committees and it was a glaring omission when teams were established in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when the macro view of students was missing which is cogently presented by student affairs professionals. Conflict resolution skills were deemed as essential in all aspects of leadership of organizational and human resources functions. Student services professionals bring personal strengths and grow as managers through challenging themselves with each new crisis and it was apparent through all the presentations that each presenter had personally grown in their understanding of organizational and human resources of their respective institutions.

Leadership (LEAD)

There could be no better title for this article than the words of Andrea Strachan, Director of Student Services, at the University of Queensland who mentioned in her presentation that the COVID-19 crisis presented a chance to “call out the heroes who make things happen”. This statement encapsulates leadership at its finest. It is not about the charismatic leader in a position of authority but the individuals in the organization who provided personal and institutional leadership at a time when institution required individuals to make things happen. In many cases the creation of new untested student supports such as creating opportunities for social isolation, dealing with intercultural challenges, creating new policies and leading multi sectoral teams of students, student affairs colleagues, faculty, and community members provided a spotlight on the leadership competencies of student services professionals at all institutions.

Social Justice and Inclusion (SJI)

This competency area is defined in the ACPA/NASPA guidelines as “both a process and a goal which includes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to create learning environments that foster equitable participation of all groups while seeking to address and acknowledge issues of oppression, privilege, and power”. It was instructive to hear each presenter speak in some way to their specific experience that spoke to the competency of social justice and inclusion. The presenters spoke about the potential for exclusion when one moves to digital learning as not all students have access to laptops, or computer connections outside of their campus environment. Many students were excluded because they did not have the financial resources to live anywhere else but residence as they were international students whose funding was tied to them being at university. In one particular case in South Africa post-secondary students often send their scholarship monies back home to pay for the basic necessities of life for their families. A keen understanding of social justice and inclusion is critical when an institution is making new policies in the midst of a pandemic. A voice of reasoned understanding of social justice and inclusion is critical if we are to understand the forces of oppression, privilege and power as they impact our student community.  To understand the theoretical constructs of social justice and inclusion is one important component of social justice and inclusion but to show maturity in the application and practice is critical.

Student Learning and Development (SLD)

As may be expected, the foundation of student services is the support for the holistic development of a student’s personal and academic development. While the presenters did not specifically specify the concepts and principles of student development theory they exemplified the principles in all their cases of student support during this crisis. From the creation of virtual psycho-social supports through to supporting virtual teams for work integrated learning opportunities and the inclusion of the principles of student development theories was evident. 

Future Implications of the COVID–19 Pandemic

The future opportunities and challenges emanating from the lived experiences in leading student service responses to the COVID-19 crisis around the globe may include:

  • An opportunity for countries and regions, and specific and collective institutions to develop their own values, philosophy and history for the student services profession;
  • Greater opportunity for student services professional’s voices to be heard within governance and leadership structures across the institution;
  • An understanding of the complexity of the competencies that student service professionals bring to the university experience;
  • Opportunities for student services to reflect on how they offer services virtually and how they support students at a distance;
  • One definite outcome from the COVID-19 crisis is the opportunities for more online and blended learning, development and support and how student services provide a voice to the social justice issues associated with this movement.

In conclusion, this webinar was the first webinar in the world to address the role of student services professionals in responding to a historic moment in our world history on university campuses. The ability of university communities to rally together to meet the academic and personal needs of post-secondary students was incredible. Many theorists will postulate what the future of post-secondary education has changed and in that one fact will remain true – the lived experiences of our faculty, staff and students has been indelibly changed. We hope for the better. Communities both internal and external to the university will be different as we move into a period of stabilization of the university experience. 

While not drawing parallels to other pandemics in history it is interesting to note the words of graduate student Edmund Adam a Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for the Study of Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, Canada who stated in a recent article that after the plague (1347 – 1352) “…reforms gave greater recognition to student rights”. (retrieved April 30, 2020 from

As to looking into our crystal ball for the future of higher education post COVID-19 I leave the last words to my South African colleague Dr. Saloschini Pillay from the University of Kwazulu – Natal, who stated,

“The institutional shutdown and the country lockdown provide an ideal opportunity for reflection and connection with the self and what really matters for one’s survival and for institutions to reflect on their readiness to respond to a global crisis and innovative ways of continuing the business of higher education.”

(S. Pillay, March 31, 2020)

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Using the above noted competencies as a template do you think your institution responded to this unprecedented pandemic with the all the competencies noted?
  2. Do you believe that a thorough understanding of these competencies and the further personal development of these competencies is required to lead during a campus crisis?
  3. Does a student services professional require all of these competencies to lead?


ACPA/NASPA (2020, April19). Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Educations. Retrieved from 

Adam, E. (2020, April 29).  A Tale of two Pandemics. A publication of Universities Canada. Retrieved from

Authors thanks:

We wish to thank Scarlett Winters from ACUI, Dr. Lisa Moscaritolo and Dr. Birgit Schreiber from IASAS, and Yuezhong Zheng and Dr. Gudrun Nyunt from ACPA – who together coordinated this webinar on the topic of COVID-19 and its impact on the global dimension of student development as part of the Around the Globe Webinar series ( 

Webinar Presenters/Coordinators

Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo
Vice Provost for Student Life
American University of Sharjah
United Arab Emirates

Dan Foley
Assistant Director for Facilities, Norris University Center
Northwestern University
United States

Damian Medina
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs
Duke Kunsham University

Gudrun Nyunt
Visiting Assistant Professor in Higher Education
Northern Illinois University
United States

Saloschini Pillay
Practitioner, Clinical Social Work
University of Kwazulu- Natal/
South Africa

Birgit Schreiber
Vice President, IASAS
Consultant, Ministry of Higher Education
South Africa

Robert Shea
Associate Vice President (Academic & Student Affairs) at the Fisheries and Marine Institute campus
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Lisa Andrea Strachan
Director, Student Services
University of Queensland

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