Collaborating with Neighborhoods


Collaborating with Neighborhoods

Tracey Walterbusch
Ezra Baker

Ohio State University


In this article, we highlight why collaboration was integral to the improvement of Ohio State’s annual Community Commitment event and how it aided two departments to meet their goals. First, we provide overviews of the Community Commitment event, the two key collaborators, and the theoretical framework that guided this work. Then we reflect on the effectiveness of the event including assessment, provide key information about the collaboration, and discuss implications for the future.


Pay it Forward is a student cohort comprised of approximately 20 students. The goal of the program is to expose students to avenues of civic engagement through co-curricular service experiences (Pay it Forward, 2016). One of Pay It Forward’s flagship programs is Community Commitment, a single-day of service during the first week of classes in which over 1,000 students serve at more than 50 nonprofit organizations in the greater Columbus, Ohio area. Community Commitment is one of the largest single day service events on a college campus (Community Commitment, 2016).

Community Ambassadors are students who work in the off-campus area at Ohio State. The program was originally developed in January 2003 (OCSS Community Ambassadors, 2016). The goal of the program is to foster community in the off-campus neighborhoods at Ohio State. The university defines “off-campus” as the housing areas immediately adjacent to the university, where many students live within walking distance to campus. This off-campus area is 2.83 square miles, with 43,996 residents, 1,227 businesses, human service agencies, and institutions, and is comprised of apartments and houses where students, renters, and permanent residents live (The City of Columbus, 2016; University District Organization, 2016). Ohio State is home to a large, diverse population of students who represent many different backgrounds and perspectives. In order to effectively serve the needs of the community, the Community Ambassador program utilizes the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Astin & Astin, 1996) because of the model’s emphasis on working as a group toward a societal common good.

Theoretical Background

The Community Ambassador program relies upon the Social Change Model of Leadership Development in all collaboration and program development. The goal of the Social Change Model is to integrate previously established leadership models to create a framework for social change in individuals or the community (Astin & Astin, 1996). The model outlines student’s self-knowledge and leadership competence and examines leadership from three different perspectives: individual, group, and community (Astin & Astin, 1996). Individual development is defined as self-awareness and establishment of personal values; group development is defined with an emphasis on collaboration; and societal development focuses on the common good (Astin & Astin, 1996). Individual values include consciousness of self, congruence and commitment; group values include collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility; and societal values focus on citizenship. The group values of collaboration and common purpose were of particular importance for the Community Commitment event. These values are also collectively referred to as the “7 C’s.”

On- and Off-campus Partners

In order to increase the reach of the Community Ambassador program, the Program Manager of Student Life’s Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement (OCCSE) department sought to work with colleagues across campus. One of these partners was the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach within Ohio State’s Student Activities Department. During the summer of 2014, the OCCSE Program Manager and the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach met to discuss avenues for potential collaboration. Since the goal of the Community Ambassadors is to reach students living off-campus and the goal of Community Commitment is to create service opportunities, each department saw an opportunity to work together.

The Program Coordinator for Service and Outreach shared that one of the most difficult parts of Community Commitment is accommodating a large number of Ohio State volunteers while not overwhelming community partners. Providing a one-day service event can be difficult because organizations may not have enough service opportunities to complete in just one day. Additionally, it can be difficult to provide a meaningful opportunity for reflection with each service opportunity.

Since community service within the off-campus area is in line with the Community Ambassadors’ mission, the two departments discussed adding an off-campus clean-up to Community Commitment. The goals of the clean-up included the following: to provide a service opportunity to all students who attend community commitment; to clean up the off-campus area; and to educate future student residents about the importance of maintaining a clean neighborhood. Additionally, the event allowed an opportunity for the Community Ambassadors to develop as a group and reflect on the problems of the off-campus area. The collaboration was most effective because it was mutually beneficial to both the Community Ambassador and Pay it Forward programs.

The two departments also invited community partners, campus partners, and students to discuss the prospective addition to Community Commitment. This one meeting provided an opportunity for all members of the community and neighborhood to provide feedback, insight, and offer services for the event. Many collaborators attended the meeting, including: Keep Columbus Beautiful, a community improvement plan and national affiliate of Keep America Beautiful; the University District Organization, a non-profit organization sponsored by Ohio State and the city to bring organizations together; Neighborhood Services and Collaboration, an Ohio State Student Life Department that worked with landlords in the off-campus community; and the Community Ambassadors themselves.

In this meeting, the Program Manager and Program Coordinator asked the partnering organizations and departments to share concerns about this day of service. One of these concerns was that the students were only serving their community for one day. During this meeting, the Program Manager and Program Coordinator emphasized the importance of empowering students to continue serving their communities after the Community Commitment event. A key part of the Social Change Model is citizenship, which demands that students are actively engaged in their community.

Making the Event Happen

In addition to the normal preparation for Community Commitment, the Program Coordinator of Service and Outreach worked with community partners, Community Ambassadors, and Pay it Forward Cohort members to develop the logistical framework for the event. Community Ambassadors worked to map out routes in the off-campus area and collaborated with partners such as Keep Columbus Beautiful to get materials for the off-campus clean-up including trash bags, gloves, and litter grabbers. During the Community Ambassador training, the Program Coordinator and members of the Pay It Forward Cohort provided training for the Community Ambassadors on the logistics of the event, key outcomes, and directions for running a guided reflection.  

On the day of the event, student volunteers attended pre-service training on the importance of keeping the off-campus community clean. The session provided student volunteers with logistical information and risk management information about the event. In addition, in this training students were provided space for pre-service reflection and learned about opportunities to continue their service involvement in the future. One of the Community Ambassadors spoke about his own experience as a resident in the off-campus community and the importance of taking care of one’s neighborhood. The Community Ambassadors each went to assigned streets with a group of three to five student volunteers.

The Community Ambassadors were encouraged to share their stories and their passion for the off-campus neighborhoods with their group during the clean-up. In this way, the event allowed each Community Ambassador to implement every domain of the Social Change Model: they used their own individual leadership, came together as a group, and provided service to the greater society.

Assessment and Reflection

After the clean-up, the Community Ambassadors led the students back to the Ohio Union. Over lunch, the students and Community Ambassadors reflected on their experiences in the off-campus neighborhoods. This allowed the students to discuss the common purpose by encouraging them to collectively evaluate the service project they completed and discuss working as a group to make change in society (Astin & Astin, 1996). As mentioned earlier, common purpose is one of the seven C’s defined within the Social Change Model (Astin & Astin, 1996). When the volunteers left, the Community Ambassadors met for the end of their training, which included a reflection for the Community Ambassadors. One volunteer commented, “it wasn’t until I was walking to campus this morning did I realize how much trash there was on the street.” The Community Ambassadors shared that they were more likely to pick up their own trash and recycling.

Generally, the volunteers for Community Commitment are first-year undergraduate students. Most of these students have not even walked to the off-campus area. At Ohio State, students generally move off campus after their second year living in the residence halls. Therefore, one of the outcomes of the events was increased awareness of the community in the off-campus area and the importance of caring for the neighborhood. Of the 21 students who attended the off- campus clean-up, 15 said they were more likely to pick up after themselves when they lived in the off-campus area.

Recommendations for Collaborations

The University District Organization and Keep Columbus Beautiful were specifically interested in this project and encouraged future collaboration on other off-campus clean-ups. This collaboration between university and city departments was integral to the success of this event. Collaboration can be tricky to navigate, and so the authors would like to provide some insight for future partnerships.

The Program Manager met with leaders across campus and created a collaborative framework that asked departments to reflect on the missions of both their own departments and their potential partnering office. After common goals of each office were identified, they then evaluated which programs in each department needed improvement. Many times departments felt that they must create a new event in order to collaborate with a different department. However, sometimes the best collaborations are adaptations and improvements to preexisting programs.

Second, it was important to invite all of the community partners to the table. Although it sometimes seemed overwhelming to have all members of the community join the meeting, it was important that they all had opportunities to give input and provide feedback. For example, one community partner recommended inviting permanent residents from the neighborhood to attend the Community Commitment event. Since it was the first year of the event, we chose to delay the invitation of neighborhood residents. However, we would recommend that it is always important to invite potential short-term and long-term partners to the planning stages of events and programs to get everyone on the same page.

Finally, a key part of this collaboration was the integration of student leaders. The Community Ambassadors and Pay it Forward student cohort members were given a chance to train one another and lead the development of this event. By integrating not just the professional staff but also the student leaders, the event ran more smoothly, provided professional development for the students, and led to future collaborations. Therefore, it was a benefit for all members involved; the event was more efficient and effective and the students received valuable leadership experience.

The event provided student leaders with an opportunity to engage with the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (Astin & Astin, 1996) at every stage. Student leaders reflected on their personal connection to the off-campus neighborhoods, rallied their small groups around a common purpose and helped society by cleaning up the neighborhoods inhabited by many of their peers. The Community Commitment collaboration has now continued for two years and the current staff in each department expect to continue the collaboration, which has grown to include a similar project on the Martin Luther King Day of Service which delivers winter wellness packages to residents of the off-campus area.

Discussion Questions

  1. With what office or neighborhood partners could your office create a partnership?  
  2. How do you start a conversation with an off campus partner?
  3. How could increased student involvement in programing aid in your success?

Astin, H. S., & Astin. A. (1996). Social change model of leadership development. College Park, MD: The National Clearinghouse of Leadership Programs.

Community Commitment (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from Programs/community_commitment

OCCSS Community Ambassadors (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from

Pay it Forward (2016). The Ohio State University. Retrieved from

The City of Columbus. (2016). Keep Columbus Beautiful. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

University District Organization. (2016). Discover: University District. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

About the Authors

Tracey Walterbusch is currently a Ph.D. student in the College of Education and Human Ecology with a concentration in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Ohio State University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Ohio State University and her master’s degree in Counseling and Personnel Services from the University of Louisville. She has experience working at four higher education institutions within a variety of departments such as student activities, residence life, off campus and commuter services, and career counseling. During the time of this event, Tracey oversaw Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement, a department serving 80% of the student population including both commuters and off campus students.

Ezra Baker earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics and French from The Ohio State University in 2016. As an undergraduate student, Ezra also worked for three years for Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services (OCCSS, formerly Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement). He served in multiple roles in OCCSS including as a Community Ambassador and a Student Supervisor of the Community Ambassadors. As a Student Supervisor, Ezra played a critical role in planning and overseeing Community Commitment and other related service events. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Tracey Walterbusch or Ezra Baker.


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.

Unprepared First Generation Students: Developing Autonomous Learning Strategies through College Academic Coaching

Kimberly M. Florence, University of Nevada Las Vegas

In the United States, billions of dollars are spent yearly toward remedial education to ensure students academically unprepared for college level study are equipped to meet the demands of post-secondary learning (Carter, 2013). For example, Complete College America (2012) revealed that upwards of three billion dollars in both state funds and student monies went toward remedial education courses. As a result, support programs such as academic coaching have been developed to hinder the reliance on remedial education and increase student retention rates. The purpose of this article is to outline how college academic coaching can develop independent learning strategies in Unprepared First Generation Students (UFGSs) by linking academic self-discipline to academic performance. If UFGSs develop independent learning strategies then they are more likely to persist through the demands of post-secondary learning. Thus, academic coaches can increase academic success rates for unprepared first-generation students through the development of autonomous learning strategies.

Unprepared First-Generation Students

Bettinger, Boatman, and Long (2013) describe the unprepared college student as someone who confronts academic, social, and financial issues. Consequently, if these issues are not managed, low self-esteem, frustration, and a greater propensity to drop out of college can result (Bettinger, Boatman, & Long, 2013). First-generation students are defined as individuals from families where no parent or guardian earned a baccalaureate degree (Soria & Stebleton, 2012). Thus, unprepared first-generation students characterize a demographic in need of further examination because of an increased likelihood to have difficulties transitioning into higher education (Soria & Stebleton, 2012).

The first-generation college student has commonly been described as being (a) female, (b) older than the traditional first-year college student, (c) Black or Hispanic, and (d) from a lower socioeconomic background (Engle, 2007). Coffman (2011) used a social constructivist lens to explore how these characteristics, specifically race and culture, influenced first-generation students’ perceptions of themselves in comparison to their non-first-generation peers. Findings indicated that low socioeconomic status and inadequate secondary preparation decreased the propensity for academic achievement. However, Coffman (2011) added that higher education institutions could overcome these social constructs by (a) not marginalizing students based on race, (b) providing supplemental learning opportunities on campus, and (c) fostering support networks for continued academic success.  Thus, Coffman’s (2011) work supports the need for first-generation college students to improve learning outcomes through specialized and/or extended campus services.

Concurring the contention that institutions can support first-generation students, a panel of academic professionals and first-generation students organized by the Huffington Posts’ “Huffpost Live” gathered to discuss the varying needs of first-generation students. Sara Lipka, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserted that instituting additional advising centered on both academic and career-based assistance was particularly helpful in serving this specific student demographic (Lipka as cited in Menendez, 2013).  Academic and career advising improved the development of self-efficacy and enhanced study skills (Young-Jones, Burt, Dixon & Hawthorne, 2012). It is from the development of self-efficacy and study skills, which are linked to college success, that enable long-term positive changes to occur. Lorna Contreras from the organization Students Rising Above, a non-profit founded in 1998 to help students manage the academic, social, and emotional challenges of college, stated that by upholding an initiative to help first-generation students remain committed to higher education, they are 93 percent more likely to have children who will be committed to post-secondary learning. Thus, their children acquire a college-going ideology that can be passed down from generation to generation (Contreras as cited in Menendez, 2013). In terms of UFGSs, academic coaching is an advantageous service for procuring long-term academic commitment to post-secondary learning.


Academic Coaching

Cheug (2012) described academic coaching as a service used to retain incoming students based on one-on-one mentoring. Generally established under the umbrella of academic affairs, academic coaching has been practiced through a variety of forums that include but are not limited to semester long courses, summer bridge programs, peer mentoring, and private sessions with academic advising professionals. The purpose of this service was to generate and apply varying strategies designed to enhance learning outcomes, such as organizational management diagrams, test taking strategies, goal setting plans, and motivational techniques. For example, InsideTrack, a company independently contracted to provide academic coaching services on behalf of colleges and universities, developed a comprehensive system of coaching, analytics, programs, and support services to improve student success rates and increase enrollment numbers. InsideTrack conducted a study that evaluated the effectiveness of their system across eight institutions (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). Results showed that academic coaching that took place within the first year of college increased persistence by five percentage points (Bettinger & Baker, 2013). The use of academic coaching to enhance learning strategies proved effective for InsideTrack. However, first-generation students are still more likely to leave a four-year university before their second-year of college (Irlbeck, Adams, Akers, Burris, & Jones, 2014).

Despite success in academic coaching, retention rates among unprepared first-generation students (UFGSs), especially first-generation students of color, remain low. In a 2012 article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 90 percent of first-generation college students failed to graduate within six years because institutions were not prepared to confront the financial, personal, emotional, social, and educational challenges associated with this demographic (Greenwald, 2012). Therefore, institutions must consider how to best reach first-generation students who are failing to complete college. Self-regulation is a strategy students can use to help improve learning outcomes and to persist with post-secondary learning (Stefanou, Stolk, Prince, Chen, & Lord, 2013). The following sections outline how institutions with academic coaching programs can assist UFGSs in developing self-regulated learning strategies.


An essential trait for any college student seeking long-term academic and professional success rests primarily on the ability to self-regulate learning. Self-regulation is a person’s aptitude to self-direct mental abilities into task-oriented academic skills therefore, forming the capacity to self-monitor, self-instruct, self-evaluate, and self-reinforce (Zimmerman, 2013). The development of self-regulation among UFGSs is particularly important due to the multitude of internal and external variables that can impact overall academic performance. Naumann, Bandalos, and Gutkin (2003) found that variables associated with self-regulation are better predicators of first-generation students’ overall academic success when compared to ACT scores. The purpose of their research was to “determine the predictive validity of self-regulated learning variables in comparison to traditional college admission test scores of first generation students” (Naumann, Bandalos, & Gutkin, 2003, p. 5). The researchers conducted a quantitative study designed to examine a variety of independent variables, three of which included (a) generational status, (b) ACT scores, and (c) self-regulated learning. These variables were assessed in relation to the grade point average (GPA) of both first-generation and second-generation college students (Naumann et al., 2003). Thus, the findings indicated that self-regulatory behaviors are significant to UFGS’s overall college success when compared to their second-generation counterparts.

Self-Regulation and Academic Coaching

Contrary to other services and programs devised to guide students toward academic success, academic coaches work with students to enrich their learning, develop academic accountability, and improve learning effectiveness (Webberman, 2011). Carol Carter, an international success expert for students grades K-16, said “at the core of the coaching relationship is always having the coach ask powerful questions to help students become as self-sustaining as possible” (as cited in Webberman, 2011, p. 19). To that end, academic coaches must guide UFGSs through inquiry with the aim of developing autonomous learning strategies.

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning

The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning (CPMSRL) illustrated the continuous process students encountered when developing self-regulated learning skills. The model consisted of three phases, which included (a) Forethought phase: Task Analysis and Self-Motivation; (b) Performance Phase: Self-Control and Self-Observation; and (c) Self-Report phase: Self-Judgment and Self-Reaction (Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman, 2012). Assessment of the transition between phases was conducted through the use of Self-Regulated Learning Microanalysis (SRL Microanalysis), a methodology used to measure the self-regulatory beliefs and reactions of students while they were engaged in real-time context-specific tasks. For example, Zimmerman and Cleary (2012) used SRL Microanalysis as an assessment measure for Self-Regulation Empowerment Programs (SREP). The programs required SREP tutors to assist at-risk middle and high school students set goals, implement learning strategies, and self-record outcomes. The CPMSRL was the process by which self-regulated learning behavior was developed. SRL Microanalysis was the procedure used to measure the CPMSRL. If both the CPMSRL process and SRL Microanalysis procedure were utilized by academic coaches to understand self-regulatory behaviors of UFGSs, then the following five-step procedure would be used (see Figure 1).

Fig1 - cyclical phase model self regulation

FIGURE 1: The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation and the SRL Microanalysis steps are referenced in accordance to developing self-regulatory behavior.

In the first step, the coach and student identify an impending academic task, activity, or assignment that must be completed by the student. In order for proper application of the SRL Microanalysis, the task should be suitable for evaluation by the academic coach, such as studying for a final examination. The second step requires the student and the academic coach to identify the self-regulatory sub-phase most relevant to productively completing the task. This is important to further the student’s ability to self-assess what is useful in executing the task. In other words, if a student can assess that crafting a strategic plan, which would fall under the task analysis sub-phase, is constructive to learning, then there is a greater propensity for identifying future tactics useful toward eventual success. Next, the academic coach transitions into the performance phase of the CPMSRL.

The third and fourth steps require the academic coach to develop Likert scale related, forced choice, open-ended, closed-ended or free response questions that measure the real-time academic activity. For example, the academic coach asks, “What steps within your strategic plan do you believe will be helpful in receiving a passing grade on your final examination?” This question has been presented prior to the student actively utilizing a learning strategy like flash card memorization. As the student performs the flash card memorization task, the academic coach may ask, “Do you have a system for keeping track of flash cards with concepts you did not remember?” Then, the academic coach poses self-reflection questions once the student has performed the task, such as “Why do you think you incorrectly defined the concept on your flash card?” In other words, the academic coach asks questions consistent with self-judgment and/or self-evaluation. Next, the academic coach examines the student’s responses.

The fifth and final step includes scoring and evaluating the process. Upon completion of the assessment, the academic coach evaluates the assessment based on the types of questions posed. The results of the evaluation inform both the academic coach and the student how the self-regulatory process comprehensively impacted the effectuation of the academic task. Therefore, it provides insight into which strategies do and do not work. According to Cleary, Callan, & Zimmerman (2012), if the strategy used has proven to be ineffective, then students are “more likely to infer that they needed to adapt their strategic methods to perform more effectively on the task in the future” (p. 15). Subsequently, the CPMSRL can be reexamined through the SRL Microanalysis to further contextualize what learning strategies are effective.

An important feature to the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning is the continuous application toward context-specific tasks. This allows the coach to work with a student as they jointly navigate learning strategies. Academic coaches have UFGSs self-report what learning strategies work for them. This report, as well as the coach’s evaluation, is used to monitor progress in relation to the task at hand. Therefore, academic coaches can reapply the CPMSRL and monitor overall growth as the student continues their coaching sessions.

The outlined five-step procedure can be conducted over a few sessions at roughly 15-20 minutes per session. The number of sessions dedicated to CPMSRL have been largely determined by the UFGSs success at completing a given task or, if additional factors such as self-efficacy and study skills need to be enhanced in association with the task. College academic coaching programs that utilize CPMSRL in conjunction with SRL Microanalysis when working with UFGSs will find the process beneficial to understanding UFGSs and the requirements necessary to help them become autonomous learners.

Expected Results

The application of the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulated Learning, assessed through the SRL Microanalysis, is anticipated to result in multiple benefits for unprepared first-generation students, academic coaches, and higher education institutions. First, when serving students through the acquisition of self-regulatory skills, academic coaches will gain the opportunity to help UFGSs identify their limitations while also building the skills necessary to establish behaviors and thinking that are autonomous and personalized to their learning. As a result, more UFGSs will be prepared to matriculate through college coursework and handle the difficulties of transitioning from student to professional. Second, higher education institutions will be able to retain and educate UFGSs that would have previously strayed from their college degree aspirations. Specifically, academic coaches will receive a greater competency in understanding their students’ challenges as well as provide strategies necessary to guide them towards academic success. The only foreseen limitation is the amount of academic coaching time available. If an academic-coach has a high student-to-coach ratio then time per student may decrease, which may limit the capacity to properly implement the five-step procedure. In conclusion, by assisting UFGSs to become autonomous learners, both academic coaches and higher education institutions will experience benefits such as student persistence and active learning engagement that are residuals of student’s improved academic performance.


Unprepared First Generation Students comprise a population with absolute distinction. They are entering the postsecondary environment with issues that influence the way institutions serve them. Although colleges have taken great strides to improve retention among UFGSs, it is also important to ensure that these students generate a deep understanding of themselves and the approaches that will advance their academic goals. The Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation based on SRL Microanalysis serves as a strong foundation for developing autonomous learning strategies dedicated to the short-term and long-term success of UFGSs.

Reflection Questions

  1. How can autonomous learning strategies impact long-term academic outcomes for unprepared first generation students?
  2. How can the CPMSRL, examined through SRL Microanalysis, help college academic coaches understand the individual academic needs of unprepared first-generation students?
  3. How can post-secondary institutions practically apply the phases/steps of the CPMSRL within current student academic advising/ coaching programs?

About the Author

Kimberly M. Florence is a Higher Education, PhD student and graduate assistant at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Her research interests include academic success and retention among first-year students, underrepresented students, and students of low SES backgrounds.

Please e-mail inquiries to Kimberly M. Florence.


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


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Fulfilling our Promise to Students: Fostering and Demonstrating Student Learning and Success

The benefit of June, July, and August on many college campuses is that the pace slows down allowing time for reflection and planning for the coming academic year. I’ve spent those months continuing to consider our role as college student educators in fostering student learning and success.

Currently, a great deal of focus is on student learning in higher education. President Obama’s completion agenda centers on post-secondary certificate or degree completion and the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AACU) (n.d.) Essential Learning Outcomes and the Lumina Foundation’s (2015) Degree Qualification Profile (DQP) identify the knowledge and skills United States college graduates should have. There are increasing calls for accountability from a variety of constituencies inside and outside higher education. As part of this call for accountability, the federal government is requesting demonstration of learning outcomes. In addition, legislatures, parents, and students are seeking validation of the return on their financial investment in higher education. And, employers are lamenting that college graduates do not possess critical knowledge and skills to effectively perform in the workforce. There is a great deal at stake for higher education if we cannot foster learning and then demonstrate what students acquire from their college experience. While accountability is one reason higher education needs to focus on student learning, it should not be the only reason. Our job is students’ education and we should be able to demonstrate our role in it.

While the current focus on accountability in higher education is centered on student learning across the entire collegiate experience, college student educators should be able to articulate the unique impact we have on student learning. To be an equal partner on campus and compete for valuable resources we need to be able to effectively articulate our contributions to student success. In a resource deficient collegiate environment decisions regarding financial allocations are based (or at least should be) on evidence of contribution to the educational mission of the institution. We need to focus on fostering and documenting student learning and success to demonstrate the connection to that mission. ACPA – College Student Educators International is providing an opportunity this fall to assist in achieving this goal.

ACPA will sponsor the 2015 Presidential Symposium: Fulfilling Our Promise to Students: Fostering and Demonstrating Student Learning and Success on September 29th from 1pm-5pm ET/12pm-4pm CT/11am-3pm MT/10am-2pm PT. This is an innovative, action-oriented, engaging educational opportunity with a live event hosted by our friends at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and “campus participation parties” across the North America. Our goal is to create a learning community of more than 5000 people for the world’s largest online professional development event.

An activity focusing on student learning would not be a quality one if it did not have its own learning outcomes. As a result of attending this event, participants will be able to:

  • Describe benefits of increasing accountability for student learning and development;
  • Identify current state of affairs regarding accountability for student learning and development; and
  • Articulate guidelines, strategies, and methods for improving accountability for student learning and development.

The symposium will be composed of three content modules guided by the following questions:

  • Why is it important for colleges and universities to focus on student learning and development?
  • In what ways do student affairs educators foster student learning and development?
  • How can student affairs educators effectively demonstrate our impact?

Each module will be comprised of two 12-15 minute high intensity talks streamed to participants. After each module will be an opportunity for a “campus conversation” allowing individuals at participating campuses to discuss and apply the information to their own context. Individual workbooks and facilitator guides will be distributed for reflection and discussion. Individuals who are not part of an individual campus site will be able to participate at a regional campus site or join hosted virtual conversations with other colleagues. The “campus conversation” after the final module will be dedicated to campus-based action planning identifying ways to improve fostering and demonstrating student learning.

Speakers include Jillian Kinzie, Shaun Harper, Linda Suskie, Amber Garrision Duncan (Lumina Foundation), Karen Solomon (Higher Learning Commission), and Deb Garrett (President of CAS). We also have “bonus” talks, which will be shared with registrants after the event.

All talks will be recorded enabling registered participants to use them for future professional development or in graduate courses. In addition, all materials for the symposium (recordings, manuals, supplemental resources) will be packaged to create a “professional development in a box” that can be used if an individual, department, or division is not able to participate synchronously on September 29th.

Hopefully, you are as excited as we are about this innovative opportunity and want to know how to sign up as an individual, department, division, or graduate preparation program. ACPA wants to make this high-quality educational event cost effective. The cost is a mere $19 per individual or $99 per site (for as many people who can fit into a room to view the streaming). With many webinars running as high as $400 for 60 minutes, this symposium is sure to be the most economical educational events of the academic year.

You can register here. I hope you will join 5000 of your colleagues and participate in the 2015 ACPA Presidential Symposium.


Association of American Colleges adn Universities. (n.d.). Essential learning outcomes. Retrieved from

Lumina Foundation. (2015). Degree qualifications profile. Retrieved from

Digital Storytelling in Graduate Curricula: Innovation in Student Affairs Preparatory Programs


Student affairs professionals must be able to engage with technology in their pedagogy and practice (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education [CAS], 2012; ACPA & NASPA, 2010). Faculty in student affairs graduate preparatory programs should therefore provide graduate students with knowledge, perspectives, and skills to identify and utilize appropriate technology and media resources for use in their daily practice. Digital storytelling is a pedagogical tool that can not only develop graduate students’ technological competence, but also facilitate greater understanding of student development and learning.

Digital stories are short vignettes that combine storytelling with multimedia (Rossiter & Garcia, 2010). Digital stories require students to discover and compile unique narratives using voice, image, and/or music through innovative technology (Gazarian, 2010). According to Barrett (2006), digital storytelling facilitates student engagement, reflection, project-based learning, and effective integration of technology into instruction. Digital storytelling is a social pedagogy in that it has the potential to create community and facilitate dialogue (Bass & Elmendorf, 2007). It is a powerful tool for practitioner-scholars because digital stories have the potential to change the ways others do their work (Meadows, 2003). In graduate education, digital stories enable students to understand and apply classroom knowledge in a practical manner while also developing their competence with technology.

The purpose of this article is to explore the utility of digital storytelling in graduate curricula through the experiences of one graduate preparatory program. Through this assignment, students developed technological competence, enhanced their understanding of theory and its application to practice, and fostered partnerships with student affairs professionals. This article describes the content of the course and digital story assignment, as well as lessons learned from both student and instructor perspectives.


The Higher Education program at The University of Alabama (UA) offers MA, Ed.D, and Ph.D programs for students interested in developing their knowledge and understanding of higher education. The program promotes professional development and critical thinking skills to help students identify and address problems at the institutional level as well as the field of higher education as a whole, and implement effective policies and practices based on sound research and educational theory.

Student Development Theory I (SDTI) is a required course in UA’s Higher Education program and is designed to introduce students to various families of student development theories. In fall 2013, Dr. Jason C. Garvey and Louis Shedd co-taught SDTI to help students learn and apply student development theory in their professional practice. Throughout the manuscript, both provide their perspectives and experiences through a unified instructor voice. To supplement the instructors’ perspectives, the manuscript also contains insights from former students who took SDTI in fall 2013. The student perspective is provided by Elizabeth McDonald, Kelsey Taylor, and John Tilley, representing all students’ voices to the best of their abilities.

Assignment Overview

The major assignment for SDTI was Student Reflection through Digital Storytelling. The purpose of this assignment was to learn the stories of a particular group of students and then generate student development theories grounded in these stories. SDTI students were placed in groups of two or three, and each group selected a population of students who shared similar qualities with each other, like a social identity (e.g., race or religion) or an experience (e.g., Honors College or international students). There were five components to this assignment: group contract and rubric, data collection, theory development, theory critique, and digital story. Each assigned group developed a contract and rubric that outlined general guidelines for their assignment collaboration. Groups developed a list of interview questions based upon experience and theoretical foundations learned in SDTI, and each member was required to interview at least two students who fit into the population they chose. In addition, group members each attended and observed at least one social event or organization meeting that targeted members of their chosen group.

Once students completed their interviews, each group developed a summary of information they observed and began to develop an emerging theory of development for their student population. Next, groups organized their themes into a core development story, using data to explain and support the themes they presented. Groups then considered the similarities and differences between their emerging theory and student development theories studied in class.

Groups were required to present their findings in digital story format in an interactive and creative manner. Each story was approximately 5-7 minutes and included multimedia such as video clips, images, and audio files. The project culminated in a public viewing and discussion of all digital stories, characteristic of academic and professional conferences. Several key stakeholders at UA attended the digital story premiere event, including College of Education faculty and students, Division of Student Affairs staff, interviewees, and students’ supervisors and colleagues.

Students were evaluated using a rubric across nine dimensions: achieved learning outcomes, performed data collection, learned students’ stories, demonstrated understanding of content, developed complexity of thought and creativity, generated student development theory, achieved depth of critical analysis, created digital story, and utilized teamwork. Portions of the syllabus were adopted from the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE Rubrics (2013) and from Dr. John Dugan (2009) at Loyola University in Chicago.

Findings and Lessons Learned

Both the students and instructors learned a great deal from the digital story assignment experience. The following section provides an overview of important lessons learned, each from a unique perspective.

Student Perspective

Students agreed that the digital story assignment helped them to delve into existing student development theories and understand how these theories apply to students on a college campus. By interviewing students on campus and comparing findings with existing student development theories, SDTI students were able to make connections between the unique experiences of their chosen student populations and the developmental trajectories outlined in existing theories. Throughout her experience, Elizabeth McDonald recalled feeling overwhelmed at the number of theories to utilize, but found clarity in brainstorming sessions with her group members and listening to participants’ narratives. Ultimately, the assignment helped breathe life into the theories learned in class and helped students reflect on ways they might use their knowledge of theory to facilitate student development in their practice.

Although a goal of the assignment was to strengthen the partnership between the Higher Education program and the Division of Student Affairs, some groups utilized departments in academic affairs or reached out to student organizations via informal networks to identify students to interview, which translated into a broader campus audience at the digital story premiere event. Students noted that the project helped them better understand classmates’ professional roles on campus. They also became more aware of campus resources and how students can utilize them more effectively. For example, throughout the assignment John Tilley learned more about Veteran and Military Affairs and the Crimson Secular Student Alliance as resources for students. In general, students were less concerned with larger goal of interdepartmental collaboration and more concerned with navigating the theory and technology pieces of the assignment.

Based on student feedback, the most difficult part of the assignment involved technological aspects of the digital stories. A majority of the class only had experience with Prezi and Microsoft PowerPoint and little experience with more advanced software. Kelsey Taylor recalled feeling slightly overwhelmed with Final Cut X, but utilized the Sanford Media Center (SMC) employees for guidance. Other students received help from staff at the SMC and they were able to quickly learn how to better use applications such as iMovie and Final Cut X. Upon completing the assignment, students felt that the required technology components were difficult but effective tools for better understanding student development theories.

Instructor Perspective

From the instructors’ perspectives, the three main objectives for the assignment were to develop technological competency, enhance students’ understanding of student development theory, and facilitate stronger partnerships with the Division of Student Affairs. Neither instructor had a strong understanding of digital media production, which presented a number of challenges. The most notable challenges included creating a realistic set of assignment requirements and goals, clearly articulating requirements and expectations of the assignment, and being prepared to address questions and concerns in an informed and helpful manner. Fortunately, the instructors were able to partner with the Director of the SMC to expand their knowledge of digital storytelling, learn about resources at the university for students, create realistic expectations for students, and develop a general timeframe for how long the different aspects of the assignment might take. Following advice from the SMC Director and reflecting upon prior experiences, the instructors embedded the digital story assignment with multiple, modular components to provide a framework for timeliness and frequent feedback.

Technological skills were the main hindrance to students’ successes throughout the assignment. Few students had any multimedia experience and although the instructors actively tried placing at least one student with multimedia experience in each group, some students felt overwhelmed with the technology components. Although the technological aspects of the assignment were difficult, the instructors felt that it was important to challenge students to broaden their multimedia skills in order to prepare them for entry-level jobs in student affairs and higher education. The instructors envisioned these skills as not only beneficial to their job candidacy, but as an increasingly imperative skill for all student affairs practitioners.

Additionally, students had difficulty translating components of a standard research assignment into a 5-7 minute digital story. The digital story assignment was significantly different than the types of assignments to which the students were accustomed. For first-year master’s students, the scope and depth of the assignment was much greater than what they had experienced as undergraduates but they were enthused with the potential creativity of the project. Doctoral students struggled with understanding how the digital story could enhance their academic writing and were therefore reluctant to pursue a final project that did not adhere to the typical doctoral-level course research assignment for the program.

In particular, students had trouble beginning the assignment, understanding the role and expectations of traditional research, and envisioning the final product. At the beginning of the semester, some groups were slow to make serious efforts on the assignment due to their unfamiliarity with creating a digital story and a mild sense of intimidation. Many of the students’ questions and concerns were addressed by an in-class presentation from the SMC Director and examples of digital stories shared by the instructors. However, students still felt overwhelmed by the projected time required to create and edit the video. As students moved on to the editing phase of the digital story, groups struggled to find a compelling way to visually represent the information outside of their interview portions, particularly their emerging theory, within the video. The instructors attempted to assist groups during class discussions, but ultimately the groups who utilized the SMC lab and staff found greater success than groups that chose to work outside of the SMC lab.

Pedagogically, the instructors recognized the opportunity for the digital story assignment to have impact on the graduate students and the campus community beyond the SDTI classroom experience. As such, they created a movie premiere night to invite College of Education faculty and staff from the Division of Student Affairs, including students’ supervisors and senior administrators. The movie premiere opened new opportunities for collaborations with the Division of Student Affairs and the Higher Education program. Sharing intimate undergraduate student narratives facilitated an openness and commonality between movie premiere attendees and the graduate student creators. In creating the digital stories, students became more aware of the processes and complexity of student development. Upon viewing the digital stories, attendees became intrinsically connected to the digital story participants and creators. The narratives also enabled practitioners to view student learning and development from a unique vantage point, possibly shifting perceptions on their collective work in student affairs.


From student and instructor perspectives, the digital story assignment was an innovative and pedagogically interesting approach to learning student development theory. Much of the assignment directly addressed both CAS (2012) standards for Masters-Level Student Affairs Professional Preparation Programs and the ACPA & NASPA (2010) Student Learning and Development professional competencies. By demonstrating the utility of digital storytelling, the instructors provided graduate students with additional technological skills to design and implement unique tools in their future professional practice in an applied and contextualized way (ACPA & NASPA, 2010).

CAS (2012) standards and ACPA & NASPA (2010) professional competencies encourage interaction with student affairs functional areas in order to gain an understanding of institutional cultures and develop effective practice. Through both the digital story interviews and public movie premiere, the digital story assignment actively facilitated partnerships with student affairs professionals on campus. Bass and Elmendorf (2007) describe digital storytelling as a social pedagogy that builds community. Students sharing their digital story narratives initiated a “process of bonding and cross-cultural alliance” (Benmayor, 2008, p. 199) between Division of Student Affairs staff, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The audiovisual narratives facilitated an empowering and relatable space whereby all attendees felt affirmed and connected to the social realities of undergraduate student experiences. Digital storytelling audiences are viewed not only as viewers but also as learners who can interact and shape the narrative and creative space (Dorner, Grimm, & Abawi, 2002). In their essence, digital stories spark creativity and innovations with practice (Meadows, 2003), thereby potentially impacting the cultural perceptions of divisional staff.

It is critical for future student affairs practitioners to be competent and confident with multimedia technology for their work in promoting student learning and development. Digital storytelling is a unique approach that not only enhances students’ learning and development, but also helps foster an appreciation for technology among student affairs practitioners.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can faculty best use digital storytelling to promote effective professional practice among graduate students?
  2. In what ways can digital storytelling be used to facilitate graduate student learning and development outside of the classroom context?
  3. In what other ways might digital storytelling be used to facilitate partnerships between academic departments and student affairs departments, or between multiple student affairs departments?
  4. How might digital storytelling be used in student affairs beyond the realm of graduate student development?


ACPA: College Student Educators International & NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Retrieved from

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2013). VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. Retrieved from

Barrett, H. (2006). Researching and evaluating digital storytelling as a deep learning tool. In C. Crawford, et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2006 (pp. 647–654). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Bass, R., & Elmendorf, H. (2007). Social pedagogies framework. Retrieved from…

Benmayor, R. (2008). Digital storytelling as a signature pedagogy for the new humanities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7, 188-204.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2012). CAS professional standards for higher education (8th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Dorner, R., Grimm, P., & Abawi, D. (2002). Synergies between interactive training simulations and digital storytelling: A component-based framework. Computers & Graphics, 26, 45-55.

Dugan, J. (2009). ELPS 433 (001): Student Development in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gazarian, P. K. (2010). Digital stories: Incorporating narrative pedagogy. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(5), 287-290.

Meadows, D. (2003). Digital storytelling; Research-based practice in new media. Visual Communication, 2, 189-193.

Rossiter, M., & Garcia, P. A. (2010). Digital storytelling: A new player on the narrative field. In M. Rossiter & C. Clark (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: Narrative perspectives on adult education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Dr. Jason C. Garvey is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Technology Studies at The University of Alabama. Jay’s research examines the experiences of diverse individuals in higher education and student affairs primarily through the use of quantitative methodologies, with specific focus on LGBTQ students, faculty, and alumni. Jay’s teaching philosophy emphasizes social justice reflection and action through relationship development and student self-discovery, utilizing technology and assessment purposefully and innovatively. He has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses in student development theory, assessment and evaluation, counseling, research methods, diversity and social justice, and student affairs, among others. Jay’s national service is primarily within ACPA: College Student Educators International where he served as Director of Education for the Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness and is on the Commission for Professional Preparation Directorate.

Louis Shedd is a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education program at The University of Alabama. He serves as a Research Associate for The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Elizabeth McDonald is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

Kelsey Taylor is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

John Tilley is a Community Director at Clemson University. He is a recent graduate of The University of Alabama’s Higher Education master’s program.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason C. Garvey.


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.

What the Articles About Administrative Bloat did not Mention

It made for great copy between the stories about the record snowfalls and the bitter cold of the winter of 2014. Articles written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and USA Today included headlines such as “Administrator Hiring Drove 28% Boom in Higher-Ed Work Force” (Carlson, 2014); “College Work Forces Grew, But Not as Fast as Enrollment” (Rivard, 2014); and “College Hiring: Helping Students or Padding Payrolls?”  (Marklein, 2014). So began another spate of articles on the high cost of higher education.

According to Carlson (2014), college is expensive because new administrative staff positions drove a 28% expansion of the higher-education workforce from 2000 to 2012.  Several authors seem to accept this statement at face value, advancing the notion that administrative staff positions are superfluous, do not add value to institutions, and do not support student learning and development (Ginsberg, 2011).  Very little has been included or written to indicate that there may be valid reasons for the increase in administrative staff positions—causes that mostly emanate from outside of the academy.

Administrative Bloat?

‘Administrative bloat’ is a term often used to describe the reported phenomenon—a term both catchy enough to draw attention and convincing enough to limit a more complex, nuanced analysis of this issue.  The same week several articles were published about administrative staff bloat in higher education, other articles were published that shed evidence into the reasons behind increases in administrative staff positions. For example, DeSantis (2014) reported that the University of Connecticut’s response to sexual assaults and other campus crimes included hiring staff specifically designated to work with victims of sexual assault as part of their duties.

Campus Safety

The federal government’s interest in preventing sexual assault on college and university campuses has been in the news for the better part of three years since the release of the now infamous ‘Dear Colleague’ letter in April 2011 (Ali, 2011).  The impact of this letter, played out at the University of Connecticut and elsewhere, has included the creation of new administrative staff positions related to student safety. However, this type of growth in student services positions was not concurrently published alongside the articles regarding administrative bloat.

The federal government’s interest in sexual assault prevention is but one example of increased government involvement in how colleges and universities are expected to manage the student experience.  The phrase ‘unfunded mandate’ has come to define the spate of government regulations that have in part fueled the need for new administrative staff.  Mettler (2014) described in-depth the impact of changes in public policy on the higher education landscape—changes that have reshaped how 21st century colleges and universities are perceived, funded, and run.

Federal Laws

Examples of federal government initiatives that have resulted in additions to college and university administrative staffs include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the new G.I. Bill.  Educational theorists have written extensively that increased access to higher education requires expanded support services and a level of student assistance that goes beyond that which faculty members have traditionally been able to provide.  New federal government programs lead to increases in administrative staff not because colleges and universities can add to their administrative ranks, but because it is a prerequisite to meeting the spirit and letter of new laws and directives intended to promote student access, persistence, and achievement.

Rise of Adjunct Faculty

Even faculty members can no longer be expected to provide the direct level of student support they traditionally provided.  Among the differences between the colleges and universities of the last generation and today is the transformation of what used to be a full-time professoriate to the part-time, adjunct, and contingent faculty of the current era.  The connection between the consequences of this trend and so-called administrative bloat seem to have eluded both the journalists who report on higher education and the self-appointed crusaders who yearn for a return to earlier visions of higher education.

Authors in both the higher education and mainstream media outlets have failed to connect the dots that, when institutions hire part-time faculty members instead of full-time faculty members, they also have to hire administrative staff members to do the things that full-time faculty do besides teach, such as advise students.  It is not a criticism of the adjunct teaching professional to state that they do not provide the same level of student support that full-time faculty do—it is just not humanly possible, as they scurry from course to course or campus to campus, piecing together a barely livable wage.  In fact, adjunct staffing has grown from 20% of all higher education faculty in 1970 to almost 50% today (The Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, 2014).  How could it be that the connection between the replacement of full-time teachers with part-time teachers and the subsequent growth in the number of administrators did not enter into the news accounts of the trend of increased numbers of administrators?

Mental Health Concerns

The increased prevalence of mental health concerns on college and university campuses, and high profile incidents of campus violence are further evidence of the connection between campus trends and the legitimate need for colleges and universities to hire more student support and campus safety personnel.  Journalists have been quick to write about the campus amenities race that has led to the sprouting of recreational climbing walls and other perquisites and have linked this phenomenon to increased college costs (Rubin, 2014).  Neglected for the most part by the media is the fact that colleges and universities have been compelled to add staff members to help manage campus mental health challenges, and that, even with these additions, campuses have for the most part failed to meet this increasing demand.

Increasing Campus Diversity

Even the most casual observer of higher education is aware of the increasing diversity of our college and university campuses, and in the United States overall.  On most campuses, increasing student diversity has resulted in the addition of staff to support a multicultural student body.  There is ample research that shows the contributions that the persons in these positions provide in terms of student retention and success.  It is likely, however, that the addition of these administrative staff positions has also contributed to the growth of the number of administrative staff hires in recent years.

Decreased Financial Support

And then there are the dramatic cuts in state support for higher education that have played havoc with college and university budgets in the 21st century.  With reduced state support (Lederman, 2014), colleges and universities have increasingly looked elsewhere for revenue, by sponsoring conferences, camps, institutes, and other income generators intended to offset declines in state funding.  These programs require coordination and oversight from administrative staff, and I would venture that there is a connection between this trend and increases in administrative staffing in higher education.


All of this adds up to what seems to be at least six valid reasons for the expansion of administrative staff positions in higher education:  increasing federal involvement in higher education; the proliferation of the part-time professoriate; the heightened concern about campus violence, sexual and otherwise; the demand for mental health services on campuses; increasing diversity of college and university students; and declining state support for higher education.  The term bloat conveys excessiveness.  Are institutional responses to the demand for student mental health services, support services for veterans, campus safety, and increasing federal intervention alongside decreasing state support for higher education truly excessive?  Or are they in line with societal expectations for safeguarding the student welfare?

Perhaps it is expectations for support that have grown, rather than our penchant for administrating, counseling, and mentoring.  It is unlikely that those who are sounding the alarm about administrative bloat are longing for campuses that do not support students in need, or veterans, or do not want campuses that are actively combatting sexual violence.  Colleges and universities need full-time faculty to fulfill their basic mission, and college and university students and their parents need and expect the support services overseen by administrators to promote students’ academic and personal development and their success in college and beyond.  Students of today do not expect fewer student support personnel than the students of yesteryear:  they expect more.

It should be noted that the student voice was noticeably missing from all of the news reports on the increasing number of administrators.  I suspect that students and their parents have many stories about their encounters with student services administrative staff, and could earnestly speak to why they exist, why they think they have grown in number, and the value they add on college and university campuses, especially in times of personal crisis or when students are in need.  These stories would portray a more complete picture of the college and university of today, which includes administrators providing critical support services to students in need on a daily basis, and a diminished number of full-time faculty to assist in that process.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are there other reasons for the expansion of administrative staff positions in higher education that were not mentioned in the article?
  2. How can those of us in the field of student development better convey greater understanding of our role in the educational enterprise to policy makers, the mass media and the general public?


Ali, R.  (2011, April 4).  Dear colleague letter.  Washington, D.C.  United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.  Retrieved from

Carlson, S.  (2014, February 5).  Administrator hiring drove 28% boom in higher-ed work force. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

DeSantis, N.  (2014, February 7).  UConn bolsters efforts against sex assaults and other campus crimes.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

Ginsberg, B. (2011). The fall of the faculty:  The rise of the all-administrative university and why it matters.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff (January, 2014).  The just-in-time professor:  A staff report summarizing e-forum responses on the working conditions of contingent faculty in higher education.  Retrieved from

Lederman, D.  (October 27, 2014).  The states’ “great retreat.” Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Marklein, M.  (2014, February 5).  College hiring:  Helping students or padding payrolls?  USA Today.  Retrieved from

Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality:  How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Rivard, R.  (2014, February 5).  College work forces grew, but not as fast as enrollment. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from

Rubin, C.  (2014, September 19).  Making a splash on campus:  College recreation now includes pool parties and river rides. The New York Times.  Retrieved from -pool-parties-and-river-rides.html?_r=0

About the Author

Robert A. Bonfiglio is Vice President for Student and Campus Life at SUNY Geneseo and has been recognized by ACPA – College Student Educators International with its 2013 Excellence in Practice award.  

Please e-mail inquiries to Robert A. Bonfiglio.


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.

Intentionally Using Environments in Student Leadership Developments

Intentionally Using Environments in Student Leadership Developments

Alex C. Lange
University of Georgia
J. Matthew Garrett
University of Georgia

There are several leadership development frameworks and theories that student affairs practitioners use on their campuses, such as the Social Change Model of Leadership and the Leadership Identity Development theory (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996; Komives, Longerbeam, Owen, Mainella, & Osteen, 2006; Komives, Wagner, & Associates, 2009; Kouzes & Posner, 2008; Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013).  As more literature emerges, practitioners must realize that leadership development does not occur in isolation from other life processes (Dugan & Komives, 2010; Jones & Abes, 2013; Renn, 2003).  As practitioners design programs to develop college students’ leadership capacity, they must keep another variable in mind: the environment.  How can practitioners who utilize the Social Change Model develop socially responsible leaders (i.e., leaders who feel an obligation to benefit society at-large) in campus environments that support or hinder social responsibility?  How can practitioners create environments that support students’ ability to learn and grow from leadership education?  How do current social forces impact the environments where leaders develop?  Essentially, students make meaning of their college experience across offices and campus departments; thus, it is important to consider how we structure environments to support student development, and more specifically, their leadership capacity (Renn, 2003).  While one may think of an environment as the immediate space or place where the leadership lesson, conference, or education takes place, environments are multifaceted and need to be thought of more critically.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Process-Person-Context-Time (PPCT) model provides a way for practitioners to analyze and create intentional learning environments for their students around leadership development (Dugan & Komives, 2010).  While there are other considerations for environmental frameworks, such as the Four Frames of Strange and Banning (2001) or Astin’s (1993) Inputs-Environments-Output (I-E-O) Model, the PPCT model looks more critically at different layers of environments that extend beyond the confines of a college campus and provides a guiding framework to analyze environments.  In this article, we discuss the PPCT model and heavily focus on the context component.  Implications of the model are discussed to help practitioners structure student leadership development opportunities beyond classroom lessons or program sessions.


As leadership educators ourselves, we personally and professionally believe that higher education is an opportunity for students to develop and learn more about themselves and the world around them.  We believe leadership is where students’ purposes and passions meet.  Students with a strong commitment to a given cause (e.g., social justice, AIDS education and prevention, climate change, etc.) can augment their classroom experiences into out-of-class experiences such as leading a weekly service trip or a student organization dedicated to a collaborative cause.  As partners in the learning process, we believe leadership development is work that all parts of campus life should help promote in students and that we should not see leadership development as housed within one office or division (Keeling, 2004).  Thus, we present Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model to help practitioners conceptualize how we develop student leaders with our current practice.

The PPCT Model

Bronfenbrenner (1979) built his environmental theory on two premises: first, human development is an evolving function of person-environment interaction; and second, this interaction must take place in the immediate setting in which the person exists (i.e., the immediacy requirement).  However, when Bronfenbrenner developed his model, technology and social media were over 20 years away from creation.  With mediums such as Facebook and Twitter widely used by college students, Bronfenbrenner’s immediacy requirement may no longer be applicable and often many of the interactions he described can be easily translated to a virtual series of interactions, such as a conversation over Skype, a series of comments on a Facebook quote, or the use of a Twitter hashtag to further a conversation about a trending topic.  While his original premises may need to be conceptualized differently, Bronfenbrenner’s framework still gives practitioners a strong model to structure developmentally supportive environments for students.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) proposed a model that allowed researchers to evaluate how development occurred “inside the interactions between individuals and their environments [and] see how and why outcomes may occur as they do” (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010).  All four levels of the Person-Process-Context-Time model are useful in broadly examining the processes and contexts of student development.  First, Person is considered to be the individual and the personal experiences and characteristics the individual brings to a given setting.  In Figure 1, the “student” in the center represents the person.  Second, the Process encompasses particular forms of ongoing, complex interaction between person and environment, as well as their reciprocal influences on one another (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006).  Process is the component that accounts for the interactions one has with the levels of context.  For instance, how does one engage with one’s classroom environment versus the student activities office?  There are differences between how one may interact within these various environments.

Figure 1. Adaptation of Renn and Arnold’s (2003) PPCT

Next, Context refers to the layers of surroundings in the ecological model – the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.  Each level of environmental analysis allows leadership educators to examine the messages students receive around leadership “developmental forces and challenges, and resources or supports for addressing those challenges” (Renn, 2003, p. 388).  An illustration of the Context dimension is located in Figure 1, adapted for college students by Renn and Arnold (2003).

Microsystems and mesosystems are easier to identify on college campuses.  The microsystem is a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relationship experiences by individuals in their immediate environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Microsystems for college students can include classrooms, residence halls, friendship groups, or student organizations (Renn, 2003).  Mesosystems occur when two or more microsystems interact.  It is important to examine mesosystems because the messages a student receives about leadership in one microsystem may be “supported or challenged” by messages in another microsystem (Renn, 2003, p. 389).  For example, a student may receive different messages about how leadership is viewed at home versus in a leadership education program.  Peer cultures are created within mesosystems and have a huge effect on college student development outcomes as they send powerful messages about the “desirability and acceptability of certain identities, attitudes, and behaviors” (Renn, 2004, p. 38).

Exosystems and macrosystems are levels of context that may be more invisible on college campuses.  Exosystems are environmental influences that have a direct impact on the student but do not necessarily have the student in that environment.  Renn (2003) cited faculty decisions about curriculum and federal financial aid policies as factors that influence the environment of a college student.  Decisions about these issues impact the student’s overall development, but the student is not present in those environments when these issues move forward and are decided upon.  These factors are unaccounted for in college student development research but are important in understanding the diversity of student experiences (Evans et al., 2010).  While exosystems do not contain the person, macrosystems encompass all people in any given environment.  Macrosystems are the most abstract levels of context, consisting of historical events and trends, social forces, and cultural expectations of the time (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  For instance, the election of President Barack Obama and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act did not happen on our campuses but may impact how our campuses operate or how our students experience their campus environments.

Finally, Time, the final component of the PPCT model, addresses “the cumulative effects of development before college, the course of events during college, and the larger effects of sociohistorical influences” on development (Renn, 2003, p. 392).  The PPCT model explicitly accounts for the time a person goes through a given process (i.e., time in college) while also accounting for the socio-historical forces of the time (i.e. elections, social trends while one is in college).  Time is represented as the thick gray outside ring of Figure 1.  Considering all aspects of the PPCT model, especially the Context dimension, it is important for practitioners to create intentionally supportive environments for college students’ leadership development.

Applying the PPCT Model

The Context dimension of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model for leadership educators provides practical applications for student affairs practitioners.  Practitioners have the most influence over microsystems through the intentional design of welcoming office spaces, the use of Twitter to engage students in conversations about leadership, or the design of programs that both challenge and support students around ideas of leadership (e.g., Who owns leadership?  Who gets to be a leader?  Is leadership positional?).  While practitioners cannot determine if campus offices and departments will become components of a student’s microsystem, practitioners can work to intentionally structure what is within their grasp.  The microsystems of an institution, which include the various departments inside and outside of student affairs, should all espouse and enact the same leadership framework throughout the institution. If institutions do not have a consistent framework, messages about leadership will clash with one another.  For instance, if an institution uses the Social Change Model of Leadership (Dugan & Komives, 2010) as a guiding framework, how is the physical space of an office on campus arranged to encourage collaboration amongst individuals?  Are there tables for individuals to come together and discuss different matters?  If an institution used the Leadership Identity Development model (Komives, et al., 2006) as a guiding framework for leadership development, how is leadership training offered?  Are trainings only opened to positional leaders?  Are there trainings and programs for students who may be new or beginning their respective leadership journey?  How are these programs communicated to students when they come into our offices or approach us on social media?  How do those trainings or programs challenge students’ current notions of leadership while introducing them to new ones?  Who is considered a leader in that office?  These questions are important to consider in terms of microsystems because they allow practitioners to understand how their immediate environments are set up and give a glimpse into how students make meaning of those environments.

Mesosystems provide great opportunities for practitioners to create consistent messages about leadership across campus offices and use a consistent framework to guide all offices and the division of student affairs at a particular institution (Garrett, 2012).  For example, a participant in Garrett and Cooper’s (2013) study indicated strong cognitive dissonance in the different messages a male student received about values from his religious community and his sociology class.  There was a lack of common ground that aligned the two values.  If campus offices and departments were more aligned, this student may have made more explicit connections within the mesosystem comprised of his classroom and religious community microsystems.

In practice, an optimal mesosystem at an institution seeks to have all students reach certain intended outcomes that the institution intends for students to achieve.  However, each microsystem can achieve these shared outcomes through different programs and services.  By using the mesosystem as a guiding framework, the individual experiences of students are honored while each office or department strives to set and achieve common leadership milestones.  When considering structuring micro- and mesosystems, consider the following questions: How do leadership educators help students make meaning from one leadership experience to another?  How are the skills learned as a Resident Assistant transferrable to their leadership experiences implementing a personal vision for positive change on campus?  Practitioners must have interdepartmental conversations about leadership development to help students make more connections and meaning out of their college experiences.

Exosystems are an area of context where practitioners can also make great strides in student leadership development.  Practitioners can help dismantle students’ exosystems and shift them to their microsystems.  Recall that exosystems exist “where there is a setting not containing the individual that nevertheless exerts influence on his or her developmental possibilities” (Renn & Arnold, 2003, pp. 271-272).  Leadership education curriculum is an example of an exosystem that students experience, yet they may not be a part of the curriculum development process.  The curriculum developed by a leadership curriculum committee has broad effects on the student who goes through that designed experience.

Another example of exosystems is students’ family environments.  Depending on the level of reliance, if any, to parents and family, students’ home environments can influence their development at post-secondary institutions.  A student’s ability to remain in college may be impacted by a parent’s income or workplace (Renn & Arnold, 2003).  While this is not an environment in which the student is present, it still affects the student’s development and ability to succeed.  An on-campus example of an exosystem is free speech zones and the policies surrounding free speech on campus.  How are students affected by these policies and how do they know what these policies are?  This exosystem could be dismantled by having students serve on the committee that makes policy decisions and/or providing them with a clear protocol to submit policy grievances.

While practitioners may have less control over exosystems, it is important for them to identify students’ exosystems and dismantle them.  For instance, when developing free speech policy or leadership curriculum, whenever possible, try to include students’ input and ideas.  By putting students on committees and/or giving them more voice in committee decisions through feedback and open meetings, we dismantle their exosystems and help them make meaning in a more immediate environment.

Finally, macrosystems are often out of the control of practitioners. As legislation, such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act moves through Congress, practitioners can use these macrosystems to create dialogue about leadership and positive social change (Dugan, Bohle, Gebhardy, Hofert, Wilk, & Cooney, 2012). Conversations can take place in specific leadership programs or through social media, such as Twitter or Facebook.  Twitter provides practitioners the ability to understand the social and historical trends affecting students’ development in real time.  When students observe and comment on these social forces (e.g., the DREAM Act, the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, etc.), this is a prime opportunity for practitioners to engage students in discussion on how these social forces may relate back to the Social Change Model of Leadership or challenge a student’s notion of leadership.  Macrosystems may be out practitioners’ control, but using them in discussions with our students can help further the way they make meaning about these social forces.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) PPCT requires a great deal of intention in practice.  Institutional buy-in and adequate time are both important considerations in utilizing this framework to promote student leadership development.  It is also important that an institution has a defined model of leadership development that is accessible to students, faculty, and staff to learn about and utilize in services and programs.  Using the model, practitioners can support students (the Persons) as they navigate, learn, and make meaning of their college experience (Process) over time through intentional design and use of environments (layers of Context).  While the model can help practitioners more intentionally structure their daily practice as student affairs professionals, we believe the model is well suited for student leadership development across the institution.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can you deconstruct students’ exosystems and make them into students’ microsystems?  For instance, where can we place students in decision-making processes so they help make decisions about their experiences (e.g., free speech policies, leadership curriculum committees, etc.)?
  2. Does your office share an idea about leadership with other offices in your division?  If so, how is that idea of leadership shared with students?  If not, how can you begin to move to a common leadership framework?


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About the Authors:

Alex C. Lange, M.Ed., recently received his degree in College Student Affairs Administration from the University of Georgia.  He will begin work at Michigan State University this summer as the Assistant Director for their LBGT Resource Center.  Alex’s research interests include environmental theories of student development and using critical theory in identity development research. Alex hopes to continue as a scholar-practitioner in the field of student affairs.

Please e-mail inquiries to Alex C. Lange.

J. Matthew Garrett, Ph.D. is the Director of the Office of Student Leadership and Service and Associate Dean for Campus Life at Emory University.  Matt received his Ph.D. in Counseling and Student Personnel Services from the University of Georgia.  Matt also serves as the Vice-Chair for Research for the American College Personnel Association Commission for Student Involvement.  Matt’s research interests include socially responsible leadership and integrity development of college students. 

Please e-mail inquiries to J. Matthew Garrett.


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.