Coming Home for the First Time: History, Family and University in Malta

Scott C. Brown
Mount Holyoke College

Colleges and universities provide a galvanizing backdrop where students continue to forge their personal identities. As an educator, I have assisted students on their journey towards greater self-knowledge, to help them discover who they are and how to frame that moving picture of their own evolving identities. I am able to assist them because I have come to a more nuanced understanding of this question in my own life, exploring life within the many hyphens that link my own multiple identities and roles. This holds true except for one aspect, the country of my mother’s origin: Malta. I have always had some envy when other educators could draw on their ethnic backgrounds to give them their own map and compass when working with students. Throughout my life I have felt the presence of that absence, looming large in the mythology of my own history.

Last summer, I delivered a paper and participated in a conference at Oxford. Going to England got me closer to my dream of going to Malta with my parents. I persuaded them to delay a long planned trip, so that we could see the island together. Given that my wife and I have three young children, it would be unlikely that I would be going to Europe under any other circumstances any time soon.

I knew this trip to Malta was to be a pilgrimage of sorts to find out what, I was not quite sure. But I did know that I would need to search within the web of history, family, and university.

Malta is not a country one hears about frequently. It is often left off of smaller maps and for the last 4 televised Olympics, one never saw the small but proud Maltese delegation (“Malawi, Mali…commercial break”). But it does flicker into consciousness every once in a while. Popeye, Cutthroat Island, Gladiator, and Troy were all filmed on the island. Yes, the Maltese Falcon is from here, a yearly tribute from the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain for the use of the island in the 16th century. I have no idea where the Maltese dog figures in.

Malta is approximately 60 miles south of Sicily, an archipelago of five small islands totaling just 122 square miles, about 1/10 the size of Rhode Island. However, because of its strategic location and deep natural harbors, Malta has been a critical player in world history, linking Europe and Africa and the East and the West. It has a Semitic language that bears the mark of those that have invaded or inhabited the island throughout the course of its long history, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Turks, French, and British. The Ggantija megaliths, massive stone structures, predate the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. Saint Paul is believed to have been shipwrecked here.

Two great sieges have left an indelible mark on the Maltese people. The first was from the powerful Turks in 1568 and the second was from 1942-1945 when it was the most bombed country on earth during World War II. There is still a saying “O Turks” when individuals are being inconvenienced–hearkening back to the days when villagers would have to travel far to get behind the garrisons of the walled city of Mdina from yet another attack from Sulieman the Great. The Maltese were ill equipped to fight any opposing force that could launch such an offensive. Although they always fought fiercely, the Maltese have survived by their ability to accommodate the invaders without sacrificing their core identity. They are a gutsy, resilient, and improvisational people and no matter who comes to the island they remain Maltese. The ancient buildings that the island is centered upon stand as an accusation and affirmation to the Maltese, a testament to being both conquered and unconquerable. But history is more a reference point than a shackle, and the Maltese people keep their eyes squarely pointed towards the future.

Before this trip I had little contact with the Maltese side of my family. My mother and her family fled Malta after WWII, lived in Tunisia for two months, then immigrated to America. I met my Maltese grandfather once, and only saw my Maltese grandmother a handful of times. She didn’t speak much English, was 4’ 9”, could crush tennis balls with her old world strength, and used to go in our garden and pick snails for escargot (“Mom, what is ‘deadly pesticide’ in Maltese?”). Because my father is Jewish, my mother’s family did not approve of their marriage. To this day no one in Malta knows my mother converted to Judaism. When my grandmother visited us, my mother would take her to church everyday as if she were still a practicing Catholic.

With little biological family (my father never met his own father), we have much “chosen” family. As blessed as my “aunts” and “uncles” were and continue to be in my life, they could never fill my need for a larger past. Somehow I believed the island would connect and accept me into its ancient history. As a boy, my conceptions of the island were very much a romantic idealization (what if I were of royalty?). But as I grew older, I simply hoped Malta could be a balm to my lingering affliction of rootlessness. What did it mean? What did it mean to me?

Despite having little connection with the island, I was reminded of being Maltese in one small way, my appearance. Because I am straight out of central casting for ‘dark males of indeterminate origin’, I have always vaguely reminded people of someone else they know. Sometimes people wonder about my ethnicity-they have guessed everything from Arab, Latino, Italian, Greek, light-skinned African American, and given the location and history of the island, they are not too far off. I joked that any swarthy Mediterranean male with mid-digital hair could be my cousin. But, to be honest I had never seen anybody Maltese aside from my own family. So when our Air Malta flight touched down, I sort of expected all the people to look like a version of myself. I mean, the place is only 14 x 8 miles long. But it was staggering to see the diversity. Olive skinned people with light green or blue eyes, lighter skinned people with dark eyes, and everything in between.

When we arrived in the resort town of Sliema, we were greeted by my mother’s first cousins, who immediately set to taking care of us for the entire trip. They practically stopped their lives for the week we were there. On the first night there was a party with all of my family. Photo albums were taken out, and the room filled with laughter and a delightful euphony of joyous reunion and remembrance. Coming from a family where we were first-generation college students, my Maltese relatives are engineers, hotel managers, dentists, architects, and surgeons. One cousin self-published a treatise entitled Living and Meaning when he was 14. I learned my great-uncle Emmanuel was awarded Member of the British Empire for his work as the chief telecommunications officer on the island during WWII.

They took us swimming in the pool blue waters off the island of Comino, introduced us to Maltese cuisine of pastizzi (pockets of phylo dough stuffed with ricotta), ftira (sandwiches of fresh Maltese bread, capers), aljotta (fish soup),fenek (rabbit), bragioli (beef olive), gbejna (homemade pepper cheese) and drinking Kinnie, a local soft drink made with oranges and spices.

Through our family, I learned much about my mother and the context where she grew up. They helped fill in blanks that were never explained, or underscored what was less understandable before the trip. I learned because of the war, my mother did not attend school until 5th grade. I learned she still won’t eat dark bread in Malta because it reminds her of the dirt they put into the bread to create more sustenance during the war. She is terrified of birds because the shadows they cast trigger memories of bombers. I learned what it was like to live with constant hunger. She recalled with shame how her grandmother called her into her bedroom to tell her that she was very ill and may not live much longer; my mom asked for her ration of bread. On our walks, my strong mother wept silently when we came to memorials. In the beginning of the trip there were so many monuments that I often hurried past them. They were still an abstraction. But I realized that they were her monuments, my monuments.

There were also many funny stories. When my father first visited Malta in 1961, people kept giving him whisky, their impressions of America shaped by John Wayne westerns. On their last visit to Malta, my parents went to my great-grandmother’s home. As they approached the front door, a very old man sitting across the alleyway bolted from his chair and asked my mother: “Are you Fabiola from New York?” He wagged a finger at her and said, “You stole fruit from me 50 years ago!!” I visited the church in my mother’s village of Balzan. When she was a girl she would knock on the parish priest’s bi-sected door and hold the top side so when he would open it up, he would invariably smack himself in the head. The same priest would continually hear about my mother’s pranks in confession eventually telling her, “If you would stop doing that to me you would have to come in here less often.”

My visit with my relatives was extraordinarily ordinary. I was accepted for no other reason than I was family, and they didn’t understand why I was so grateful. It was what families do. My genetics were my access pass, instantly unlocking the wonders of the island. They were genuinely concerned we spent so little time on the island, and they made me promise I would bring Anne-Marie, my wife, and the kids next time. Before I came here, I never believed I would return. Now I know I must.

Before coming to Malta, I did not know quite how to reach out to others that were Maltese. Would I just start accosting strangers once I arrived? What would I say? So I figured if I couldn’t immediately connect as Maltese, perhaps I could as a colleague. Not that I had ever had a connection with my profession and my background before. There has been little groundswell or legitimate need for Maltese Student Unions (or advisors) on our American campuses, and I have never seen caucuses, standing committees, or commissions in our national associations.

Before I left for Malta I looked on the University of Malta website, and to my surprise, they have functions within the institution that are very similar to our student services. Just before I left, I sent a note saying that I was a Maltese-American administrator who would love to chat with anyone who had a moment to speak with me. Once in Malta, I had one shot during my visit to get to the University. I took a vintage bus to the village of Msida. Although this campus was built in 1968, the University dates back to 1592 as the Collegium Melitense, where it is still located within the walled capitol of Valletta. After following a student up the hill to the campus, I found myself in the middle of registration. I am not sure what I was expecting, but seeing the long line of anxious incoming students and their expectant parents, I could have been in Massachusetts as easily as Malta.

As they were closing up to leave for the day, I met Nadia, an advisor in Students’ Advisory Services. After quickly explaining why I was there, she caught Manwel the director, and Noel, another advisor, to chat with me. In Students’ Advisory Services, a two-room office, they cover academic advising and increasingly do career counseling. Because of registration they had to unplug their phones so they could get through the long student lines without interruption, and worked from early morning into the afternoon without even a bathroom break. This was possibly the worst time for an “I happened to be in the country so I dropped by” visit, but they were gracious and patient with all of my questions.

Mercifully, we had much in common. The university currently has 8000 students, a ten-fold increase from 800 students only 15 years ago. They lamented not having enough staff, and the low status that they had where the professors have all of the resources. I was going to tell them that in America student affairs is at the center of the institution, and faculty spend much time wringing their hands wondering why we don’t respect them-but I figured the joke would get lost in the translation. We talked about assessing outcomes, and I shared some strategies for collaborations and creating more powerful learning environments. Throughout this conversation, I couldn’t believe I was talking about student affairs 6,000 miles away in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

It is now fall and the students have returned. As a student of my own history, I have returned as well. It is difficult to help a student answer the question, “Who are you?” if you cannot answer, “Who am I?” My visit to Malta allowed me to question the evolving answer of where I came from- to discover my past, and have my past discover me.

Technology in Student Affairs

Technology in Student Affairs

In every aspect of student affairs, technological events influence change. Almost every staff member uses a computer to improve communication, provide more effective management, gain knowledge, or provide information. Over the past several years websites have evolved from an “add-on” to an essential element for providing information and interacting with students. Today, websites are used to seek information, assess, and strategically evaluate and enhance programs and services. They are used as interactive tools for students and their parents/guardians. In 2004, campuses responded to the downloading of commercial music and videos, and in 2005 professional are reacting to “”. The need to explore the role and responsibility that student affairs professionals have in preparing students for acceptable online behavior in the classroom and workplace arises. New questions continue to emerge. Clarity and professional development is needed for those in our profession and institutions regarding issues related to technological topics such as ethics and online behavior, judicial sanction tracking, confidentiality and privacy, student clubs and organization support, and health and wellness information.

As time passes, the influence of technology within student affairs becomes clearer. Each of us sees, feels, and experiences this impact. However, the effect of this ever-changing technology on the transformation of our profession does not appear to be a paramount issue for many. Too many student affairs staff demonstrate a limited interest and minimal knowledge base for guiding how technology can best be used. Will we seize the opportunity to lead the future direction of our profession or will we allow others to make these important decisions for us? We are at a crossroad to determine if we will take the lead or be led. Action is essential during this crucial time.

Over the past several years, topics related to technology sporadically appeared at conferences and in discussions while an organized focus on the subject remained minimal. In January 2004, the Electronic Student Services Task Force (ESSTF) was established in ACPA to address issues related to technology. In spring 2004, professionals who attended selected sessions at the NASPA and ACPA annual conventions were asked about technology experiences on their campuses. The information was organized and included in a report to the ACPA Executive Board in July 2004. The ESS Task Force reported on the following trends and challenges: Online access to services overwhelmingly emerged as the most prominent topic about the use of technology within student affairs. The trends indicate that technology is being used to build community, for assessment, and improved communication. More advanced and blended technologies improve processes. Online information has become more dynamic and engaging, thus requiring more student and staff interaction. Student affairs professionals acknowledge several benefits from using technology, including the increased ability to get students involved and being able to provide more accurate and consistent information available at all times (American College Personnel Association, 2004, p. 2).

While most trends that were expressed by professionals promoted a positive reaction to technology, challenges incorporated a more negative response from the impact of technology. “The need for resources, improved staff technology skills, resistance to change, and fear were entwined with new concerns such as innovative methods for cheating, illegal downloading, and the loss of the personal touch [through face-to face meetings]. Professionals focused on the need for staff to use the technology available, to focus on student learning and development, and for administration support” (American College Personnel Association, 2004, p.2).

The ESSTF turned to ACPA, “as a vital organization that supports the student affairs profession, to develop and implement an effective plan to bring together experts and leaders in the field and to address, educate, and guide the path for innovative uses of technology” (American College Personnel Association, 2004, p.2). Understanding that the “findings showed that little was being accomplished to provide direction, planning, and sustainability for best practices and successful models for using and integrating technology within student affairs” (American College Personnel Association, 2005, p.1), the Executive Board responded favorably to the ESSTF report. A second report was presented to the Executive Board in January 2005 which focused on several recommendations and strategies to address technology issues.

At the 2005 ACPA conference, the Executive Board passed a motion to continue the ESSTF for another year in collaboration with the Commission on Administrative Leadership Technology Committee. Together, these two groups will work to establish effective means for professionals to discuss student affair trends, prioritize and categorize technology issues, discover educational opportunities related to these technology topics and issues, encourage research related to technology within student affairs, and report findings to the ACPA Executive Board.

To begin, professionals must move beyond their personal fears and phobias about technology. We are the “human element” that is driving technological change. We must begin to accept technology not only as a as “compelling force instigating movement and change” but also as “a mechanism humans use to move forward making ideas a reality” (Kleinglass, 2000, p.13). By understanding the role and the impact technology has on the actions, expectations, and behaviors of students, we can begin to guide the role of technology within student affairs and to influence the future path of the profession.

Today, technology-driven change impacts university activities including the development of community, sharing of experiences and learning (Duderstadt, Atkins, & Van Houweling, 2002). When professionals within student affairs accept the responsibility to act, they will become the leaders of the profession. Together, professionals on the task force and in the field can establish a meaningful foundation on which to build the future. Discussion on the impact and role of technology in student affairs can continue with a purposeful direction that benefits and strengthens the role of student affairs within educational institutions. Through this demonstration, administrators, faculty, and other members of the higher education community will increasingly be able to understand the important role of student affairs professionals to enhance student development, contribute to student learning, build upon the student experience, and suggest guidelines for training of new professionals.

Student affairs professionals are in an excellent position to lead, to take action, and to understand what is at stake. “[The] tools necessary for managing change might just lie somewhere in sociology, social psychology, cultural anthropology, economics, and organization theory” (Curry, 2002, p.128). Many student affairs professionals hold degrees in the humanities or social sciences and develop expertise in working with student populations. As experts in student and community development, student services, student communication, and student learning, we in student affairs must recognize our responsibility to advocate and to be a resource to understand, translate, guide, and incorporate the direction of technological change within the field, for today and for the future. Our responsibility to lead change becomes logical and necessary. We must face the questions about how to use technology to benefit students, incorporate the values of higher education, meet institutional goals, and enhance learning. We have to establish collaborative partnerships while advocating for student technological needs and expectations. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our profession and to students.

In the coming year, the Electronic Student Services Task Force will take steps to implement goals that provide venues for conversation on the impact of technology, now and in the future. How can we as professional increase our understanding of technological demands, functions, tools, and effectiveness? How can we seize educational moments and opportunities to use technology to improve student learning? How can we discover an effective balance between traditional face-to face communities and virtual communities? What are the professional competencies needed for students, staff, and new professionals? What do we need to know in order to build meaningful partnerships with administrators, faculty, and outside vendors? How can we take the lead for the destiny and direction of the profession?

Please join your ACPA colleagues; be proactive not reactive. Join the conversations and opportunities coming this year. Together, with guidance, commitment, and action from many of the experts in the field, we can affect the outcomes for the future. If you are interested in participating in the conversations or online meetings, or have suggestions, please send an email to [email protected].


  • American College Personnel Association. (2004, July). Report to the Executive Board from the Electronic Student Services Task Force. Washington DC: Author.
  • American College Personnel Association. (2005, January). Report to the Executive Board from the Electronic Student Services Task Force. Washington DC: Author.
  • Curry, J.R. (2002). The organizational challenge: IT and revolution in higher education. In R.N Katz & Associates (Eds.). Web portals and higher education: Technologies to make IT personal. (pp.125-138). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Duderstad, J. J., Atkins, D. E., & Van Houweling, D., (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  • Kleinglass, N. K. (2000). Addressing the reality of technology skills and competencies freshmen students use in their first year of higher education. D issertation Abstracts International (UMI No. 1042-7279).

Sudent Development Theory as a Foundation for Educational Practice: A Call to the Profession

Sudent Development Theory as a Foundation for Educational Practice: A Call to the Profession

The following article presents the outcomes of discussions from a student development think tank held in November 2002 in Indianapolis and funded by a grant from ACPA’s Educational Leadership Foundation. The think tank was an outgrowth of programs on student development theory held at the 2001 and 2002 ACPA National Conventions in which both presenters and participants affirmed the importance of student development theory. The think tank discussions addressed the future direction for student development theory research, theory-based practice, and related education, training, and professional development. Participants were: Dea Forney, Marylu McEwen, and Linda Reisser (the grant authors); Marcia Baxter Magolda, John Hernandez, Susan Jones, Terry Piper, Raechele Pope, Donna Talbot, and Vasti Torres (invitees). A draft of this document was presented for discussion and feedback at a program during the 2003 ACPA Convention in Minneapolis. This end product is an invitation to the profession to engage in reflection, dialogue, and action to integrate student development theory and practice for 21st century education.


We’re living in topsy-turvy times, and I think that what causes the topsy-turvy feeling is inadequacy of old forms of thought to deal with new experiences. I’ve heard it said that the only real learning results from hang-ups, where instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974, pp. 163-164)

We are still living in topsy-turvy times that, perhaps more so than ever before, are demanding new ways of thinking, believing, and acting, and this is more likely to happen in the presence of multiple perspectives and diverse life experiences. The environmental contexts of today’s higher education institutions pose challenges such as declining resources, institutional values and reward systems that may be based more on student satisfaction than student learning and development, technological advances that may limit face to face relationships, ever more increasing demands on a fixed amount of faculty and staff time, and student behavioral problems that violate safe and civil learning environments (e.g., alcohol abuse, relationship violence, and hate incidents).

Student affairs educators have a responsibility to respond to such challenges. Student development theories, along with critical analysis of these theories, can serve as a powerful guide for practice as a framework for viewing, comprehending, and reflecting on today’s campus climates and as a potential design tool for action. While not the only guide for practice, student development theories represent a resource that may be even more valuable now than in the past. As always, using theory intelligently, tentatively, and empathically is recommended.

We, as think tank participants, advocate for reflective practice, an approach to one’s work that integrates thinking and doing, that resists the tendency to permit the urgent to displace the important, and that recognizes the value of informal theory, i.e., theory generated from observations of the individual practitioner’s students and context, as a guide. We argue for a shift away from a reactive, problem driven practice to a more proactive, educational role. Clearly, at times a problem focus must dominate practice. However, as an ongoing, overriding operating style, such an approach imposes limits in regard to the impact of the student affairs profession on both students and institutions. Moreover, student development theory is not at odds with the day to day reality of student affairs work nor with the need to address problems. In fact, student development theory can be used to create a more meaningful and purposeful educational experience; it is a tool for constructing meaning; it speaks to the deepest reasons for being on the planet: to actualize potential, offer gifts, and evoke the best self. Student development theory has the potential to contribute to answers to pressing questions.

It is crucial that undergraduate education be reshaped to achieve the goal of preparing learners for adult life in the 21st century United States. The expertise to accomplish this goal potentially rests to a large degree with student affairs educators because of both our deep knowledge of students and our unique role in the academy. Student affairs educators also need to reshape student affairs practice to promote development. Although the profession has for the past thirty years endorsed student development as a foundation for practice, there are some who question whether student affairs educators as a whole know the knowledge base and use it in consistent, intentional, and appropriately sophisticated and complex ways.

A 21st Century Vision of Student Development Theory

We, as think tank participants, advocate a more integrated, less fragmented approach to theory development and use. We advocate both evolution and revolution. Evolution of theory, for example, encourages theory changes as populations change. Revolution, on the other hand, suggests the creation of new “interdisciplinary” theories (e.g., a more effective linking of cognitive and psychosocial theories) and additional focus on the multidimensionality of students. In the best of all worlds, we, as a profession, collectively share the role of educator, with different emphases characterizing our specific jobs. We recommend continuing to move toward this ideal role and to share collectively, regardless of job title, the responsibility for building the desired future of theory development and use. In the past, Knefelkamp (1980) has argued for a common language across higher education institutions. What may be more useful today and tomorrow is an ability for student affairs educators to be multilingual, i.e., to be able to acquire and understand multiple languages, lenses, and perspectives, to adapt one’s language to different audiences such as faculty, administrators, and students, to bridge communication gaps in order to provide leadership in reshaping undergraduate education so that the developmental transformations necessary to achieve many of the goals of higher education (e.g., learning, citizenship, ethical behavior, intercultural maturity) happen.

As student affairs educators, we may want to pay particular attention to identifying, promoting, and asserting our unique expertise throughout higher education. Our expertise in student development and its relationship to student learning have virtually untapped potential to transform higher education. By more thoroughly educating our academic colleagues about our unique knowledge base, we may be better able to advocate for students, engage faculty in meaningful exchanges, and more fully transform the academy. It may be helpful at times to substitute “personal transformation” for “student development” and to acknowledge that everyone in the higher education setting has the potential to influence positively the transformation process. Collaborative efforts among faculty, student affairs educators, and students are required to address the complexities and multiple dimensions of these transformations.

We need to re-center student development in the profession. We need to regard facilitating student development as a process of being rather than only a process of doing. We need to integrate theory into ourselves, rather than seeing it only as a tool in a toolbox, so that it becomes a part of who we are. We need to resist the urge for a quick fix and embrace student development as a process that requires deliberate thought and action and care. We need to re-conceptualize theory as being about meaning making and relationships, not just as a vehicle to foster movement toward a particular outcome. In other words, knowledge and use of theory can help student affairs educators develop more effective relationships with students and create environments and opportunities to assist students with their meaning making. Our profession has been prone to trying to create a formula that will work versus cultivating a way of thinking that would give rise to particular actions in particular contexts. We need to encourage student affairs educators to stretch intellectually and to understand and use theories in their complexity instead of providing overly simplistic recipes or one-shot interventions that look good on paper but have few, if any, long-term solutions for complex problems.

We need to remember that theory evolved out of practice and that theory-based practice requires reflection. In turn, reflective practice includes ascribing to the values and beliefs described in the next section; viewing development as a process, not just a targeted activity; focusing on meaning and purpose; and becoming multilingual.

We, as a profession, have the potential to integrate the roles of theorist, practitioner, and educator, but we probably cannot play all of these roles equally well as individual professionals, nor are we likely to be given the time or support from our institutions to try to do so. We, as think tank participants, do believe, however, that it is viable and desirable to strive for the role of intentional educator. This role requires: knowledge of theory; the ability to reflect upon, critique, and challenge self and context; the ability to ground practice in knowledge; and the ability to identify appropriate educational outcomes.

Core Beliefs/Values

The position we advance emerges from a set of core beliefs and values. At the outset, it is important to recognize that the application of student development theory to practice revolves around a nexus of socially constructed theories and individuals’ interactions with them. Perhaps our existing theory base is not only about description of students, but because of the relationship of environments to people within most of the theories, the base is also about description of our educational institutions and how students have responded to them.

An underlying assumption of student development is that the promotion of intentional practice depends on engaging with the following core values:

  • an in-depth understanding and critical analysis of the student development theory knowledge base;
  • an ability to use the existing knowledge base to guide construction of new theory to address contemporary particulars;
  • an in-depth understanding of self in relation to one’s environment;
  • an ability to ground our work in knowledge of self and theory through reflective practice.

Student development theory is important because of its contributions to understanding self and others, meaning making, the core values of the profession, and credibility for the profession. Student development theory can help in the following ways:

  • by serving as a way of understanding, informing, critiquing, and assessing practice;
  • by serving as a design tool to create safe and civil learning environments;
  • by contributing to the development of educational relationships among all members of the campus community that can serve as contexts for transformation.

Engagement with these core values generates the development of certain competencies and promotes intentional practice. Appropriate use of student development theory is not a luxury. Instead it is an essential component of intentional practice.

Principles Underlying Education, Training, and Professional Development

Student personnel workers should not so much be expert technicians as they should be educators in a somewhat unconventional and new sense.

Esther Lloyd Jones & Margaret R. Smith, Student Personnel Work as Deeper Teaching (1954, p. 12)

The ability to use student development theory depends upon a student affairs educator’s depth and breadth of knowledge of theory and how this knowledge is integrated into the core of one’s professional thoughts and behaviors. Knowledge about theories is necessary but not sufficient for effective application.

Education, training, and professional development of student affairs educators is most effective when grounded in theoretical perspectives. Graduate education and professional training and development ought to help practitioners think about and respond to the question, “What guides my practice?”.

It is important to consider the context in which theories were developed. Theories describing intellectual, moral, ego, and psychosocial development and development of social identities have served us well. We need to be well versed in these theories as well as expand our theory base. Continual creation of theory in contemporary contexts is critical.

As a profession, we need to help educators (including graduate students, student affairs educators, and faculty) develop the skills to critique and implement theory and the habit of doing so. We also need to expand the base of those who are knowledgeable about how to construct and critique theory. All student affairs educators, not just selected faculty and practitioners, have the responsibility to be knowledgeable about student development theory and how to construct and critique theory.

In order to successfully apply theory to practice, educators must have a clear sense of expected outcomes. Numerous national reports and particular institutional missions guide us in identifying the desired learning outcomes of college and the characteristics of a college-educated person. Educators must balance these desired outcomes with knowledge about where theory presumes students might be headed and student-constructed desired outcomes (e.g., recognize developmental issues and patterns as well as individual differences).

Recommended Actions

Student development theory has the potential to aid in creating optimal environments, interventions, and opportunities. To this end, we, as think tank participants, offer the following recommendations. Although we recognize that theory development, practice, and education are not discrete variables, we offer recommendations in these categories as a way to begin the process of moving forward toward a more integrated view and a more integrated role for those who engage in student affairs work. To support all three aspects, we recommend the creation of a student development clearinghouse.

Theory Development

We recommend:

  • identifying, reviewing, and critiquing what constitutes the current knowledge base;
  • a shared responsibility in the profession for improving our theory base by engaging in research needed to enhance and expand our theory base;
  • comprehensive, multi-dimensional, multi-campus, multi-method longitudinal studies that address both enduring characteristics and relevant particulars in order to produce a holistic vision;
  • a community of scholars approach, with involvement of faculty, students, and practitioners;
  • changing the culture in regard to the dichotomy between theory and practice;
  • bridging the gap between practitioners and researchers/theorists by reinforcing the idea that practitioners and students can also be researchers and construct theory;
  • hearing students’ voices directly, for example, by listening to and carefully studying student narratives to capture the complexities, richness, and variation in students’ developmental journeys;
  • a collaborative approach to conceptualization, implementation, and interpretation.

Theory-based Practice

We recommend:

  • thinking of using theory as the foundation from which one’s practice emerges rather than thinking of theory as something done after or in addition to one’s day to day practice;
  • showcasing examples of effective theory-based practice, including providing a forum for sharing via publications, presentations, and other formats and reducing the bureaucracy involved;
  • developing an essential reading list, updating it periodically, and maintaining it on a website;
  • having a theory-based practice track at national conferences and creating other conference-like vehicles such as traveling workshops and summer institutes;
  • generating conversations among preparation program faculty, administrators, graduate students, and new professionals about theory-based practice;
  • incorporating standards of theory-based practice into job performance evaluations; research on theory-based practice;
  • finding effective means to utilize theory to address pressing campus issues.

Education, Training, and Professional Development

We recommend:

  • that faculty in graduate education programs be well versed in traditional and emerging theoretical perspectives;
  • that faculty nurture theory development by both themselves and their students by emphasizing both theory content and approaches to theory construction;
  • that faculty serve as role models for students in regard to theory use and construction;
  • re-conceptualizing the professional role from that of “practitioner” to that of “educator”;
  • ongoing professional development opportunities that emphasize increasing self-knowledge and knowledge of students;
  • innovative methods and diverse delivery systems for education, training, and professional development (e. g., e-learning, training tapes, conferences, one time and longer term seminars) to reach as many individuals as possible and to meet the needs of those with varying degrees of prior education and experience;
  • that graduate preparation programs, with the cooperation of supervising practitioners, provide multiple opportunities for intentionally designed structured activity focusing on application of theory to practice and for developing the skills necessary for ongoing reflection.
An Invitation to Dialogue

This document’s aim is to encourage reflection and discussion about student development in the 21st century. To that end, we pose the following questions for both individual and group consideration:

  • To what extent is theory evidenced in our practice?
  • To what extent does our practice influence future theory development?
  • How do we reinforce theory use by practitioners?
  • Have we underestimated the role of context?
  • How can we balance the complexity of theory with the need for the “sound-bite” sized conceptual lenses for busy institutional leaders?
  • Has “putting out brush fires” replaced professional practice?
  • Do we teach theory as an answer versus a process? Do we view theory as a resource to help students make meaning of their own journeys?
  • Do we, as faculty and supervisors, ask our graduate students to be reflective in their practice?
  • Is theory use being masked in a different language, making it more difficult to identify and label?
  • What kind of evidence do we expect to see to know that theory in use is working? What are the expectations for validating theory use in practice, and how will we know when the expectations are achieved?
  • Although there has been an evolution of theory over the past 30 years, has the evolution been commensurate with the changing demographics of students in higher education? Further, has there been an evolution of practice?
  • Can we/do we wish, as a profession, to change the culture of the field?
  • Do we want to infuse student development theory in the student affairs profession? If so, how do we accomplish this infusion?

We invite and encourage student affairs professionals to engage in this dialogue about re-centering student development theory within student affairs. Re-centering student development theory involves embracing this body of knowledge as a way of being in our work. Re-centering student development theory also means engaging in reflective practice and using the knowledge to create more meaningful and purposeful educational experiences for students.

Student development theory became a cornerstone for the student affairs profession in the 1970s and 1980s. It is now time for student affairs professionals to renew our emphasis upon student development theory through theory-based practice, theory development, and education, training, and professional development.

The Donna M. Bourassa Mid-Level Management Institute Experience

Mid-Managers. Are you one? Do you aspire to be one? If you answered “yes,” then ACPA’s Mid-Level Management Institute is just what you need!

This past January I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Level Management Institute. I greatly anticipated what I would learn and whom I would meet, but I could not have predicted what I would take with me when I completed the experience. ACPA’s Mid-Level Management Institute is an excellent opportunity provided to help those mid-level professionals who want to strengthen their administrative skills and understand the ever-changing dynamics of our campuses and the profession. The Institute was renamed this year in honor of former ACPA Associate Executive Director Dr. Donna Bourassa, who established the Institute in 1999 as a way to ‘promote a more advanced understanding of the principles of student affairs and provide effective management tools to excel.’ This was the first institute that Donna did not physically attend as she had passed away the previous September. However, after hearing shared experiences by the long-time faculty in residence at the Institute, Donna was certainly there in spirit.

The Institute is grounded on several key areas: Building Foundations, Setting the Stage, Personnel and Professional Issues, Strategies for Enacting Change, and Continued Professional Development. In addition to classroom time, social time provided opportunities to interact with many of the approximately 35 nationwide participants. (Even Alaska!) What I enjoyed most about this experience was seeing that challenges affecting housing and residence life professionals also affect other student affairs professionals. Our faculty in residence was also a highly valuable programmatic component. These consummate professionals shared their experiences and wisdom with us as colleagues and mentors. Dr. Jill Carnaghi, Dr. Tom Jackson, Dr. Tim Pierson, Dr. Dawn Person, Dr. Vasti Torres, and Dr. Jacqueline Skinner helped our group navigate through subjects such as financial responsibility and management, the doctoral degree decision, keeping current with professional development opportunities, and avoiding burnout in the field.

The small groups were one of the most beneficial parts of the Institute. Each participant was placed into a small group which was facilitated by a faculty in residence. These small groups were vital in processing the day’s events and discussions and with analyzing where each of us was in our own career paths. The culmination of the Institute and small group work was the creation of a personalized career development plan designed to assess our strengths and deficiencies and seek out opportunities to better our skills and abilities in the profession.

The Donna Bourassa Mid-Level Management Institute is an excellent investment in your career development as a student affairs professional. The friendships and connections you make through this Institute will stay with you and will continue to support you long after the Institute ends. For more information, check out and feel free to ask me any questions you may have about participation in the Institute as well.

Student Affairs Study Tour to Australia

From Washington, DC, Australia is over 10,000 miles away; from Los Angeles, it’s only a mere 7,800 miles. No matter the point of departure, the trek to Australia, affectionately know as “The Land Down Under,” by 40 participants and 5 faculty members was well worth the time and effort. From May 16-31, 2005 ACPA, ACUI and NASPA co-sponsored a student affairs study tour for the first time. The participants represented close to thirty different colleges and universities; most were graduate students while others were full-time student affairs professionals.

With a curricular focus, the study tour was designed to do several things:

  1. Develop an understanding of the structure and practice of Australian higher education;
  2. Learn about the structure and practice of student services in the context of Australian higher education; and
  3. Gain insight into the issues and strategic directions for Australian higher education and student services.

Participants had the option to earn three semester hours of course credit or receive a program study certificate from the University of Arizona Center for the Study of Higher Education. All participants were required to participate in large and small group discussions and do readings of articles published on Australian higher education. Dr. Doug Woodard, faculty member at the University of Arizona and past president of NASPA, created the study tour curriculum and conducted lectures throughout the two-week visit.

The study tour included visits to eight Australian universities: University of Sydney, University of Newcastle, University of Wollongong, LaTrobe University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, Victoria University, and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT). Student services representatives at each university conducted presentations to the study tour group about their programs and services for students. There were also many opportunities to network with Australian colleagues and compare and contrast student services in the U.S. and Australia, as well as national higher education policies. While there were similarities in a few typical functional areas associated with student services, the study tour group also discovered fundamental differences.

The group learned that there are no professional preparation programs for those who wish to pursue a career in student services. Instead, most entered the field through the faculty ranks, from other academic offices, or did related work in social service or non-profit organizations. Unlike the U.S. where graduate preparation programs teach student development theory and this theory is applied in the work setting, the Australian counterparts were not very familiar with psychosocial development for college students, although a few knew the U.S. student affairs field widely used developmental theory in their work with students. Even the names of particular functional areas did not always reflect the same intent or focus in the U.S. For example, instead of using “Housing/Residence Life,” this service is known as “Accommodations.” And in Australia, the staff primarily assist students with finding housing, with little or no attention given to residence education.

A much larger issue for Australian universities is the recruitment and retention of indigenous students or those of Aboriginal ancestry. Most of the institutions visited had a program designated to the academic and personal/social support of this student population. When asked about overall retention and graduation rates, representatives admitted that the rates were poor (e.g. retention at one university was less than 50%). Relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples remain somewhat constrained; however, leaders are working towards national reconciliation to better group relations and enhance the quality of life for Aboriginal peoples. Known as the “Traditional Welcome,” it is expected that higher education institutions officially acknowledge to campus visitors that the grounds on which the university is located must be attributed to its original Aboriginal owners.

The Australian higher education policies for federal support and student fees were very much in the forefront of national news during the group’s visit. Over the last ten years or so, the Australian government has dramatically reduced its funding of higher education institutions. In the past, education was basically free for those who were privileged to be accepted into one of the 32 Australian universities, but today most students must pay for most of their educational costs. Students can apply for a payment program which will allow them to defer the costs; however, following graduation, the student is required to pay back the government. An unusual twist to this arrangement is the student must make at least $32,000 (USD) to be required to make these payments.

Another fiercely divisive issue is the federal government’s plan to dissolve mandatory student fees for student unions. These fees are a major source for staffing, both professionals and student staff wages and organizational activities and services funding. Pegged by the government as “voluntary student unions,” staff at all of the universities visited expressed great anxiety about the significant implications the fee removal could have if the policy is adopted by the government. Many student union leaders and student services staff feared that programs and services would be dramatically reduced, if not disappear, due to lack of adequate funding.

Beyond the campus visits, hosted receptions and dinners, and formal group discussions the group participated in tours to various historic and scenic sites including beaches and mountains and a visit to Parliament to observe the House representatives’ Q&A session with the Prime Minister. Kangaroos hopping through the wild during the group’s sojourn from Sydney to Melbourne; and learning the “Aussie lingo” made the trip wondrous, exciting, and intellectually stimulating.

ACPA plans to continue sponsoring future student affairs study tours and will explore other international opportunities for its members including global internships and colloquia.

Research Opportunity

Research Opportunity

A research study designed to examine attrition from the student affairs profession is underway. Current student affairs professionals are being asked to help identify potential participants by providing the research team with the names and contact information of former student affairs professionals who left the field within the past 10 years; no longer work for a college or university; or have left student affairs but work in another division of a university or college. These participants will be asked to complete a brief online survey. Your contact information will only be used for the purpose of this study.

If you or someone you know meets the criteria for this study, please provide the study team with the name, current e-mail address, phone number and mailing address. This information should be forwarded to:

Ute Lowery
South University

[email protected]

(The study is sponsored by a subcommittee of NASPA’s Center for Women)

Project 3R Ends after Three Successful Years

Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH) college students face different challenges today than in years past. Because of the passage of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, those students are allowed to attend practically any school they want, with the right to equal communication access. That has resulted in a wide dispersion of students into schools that have never worked with the D/HH before. Often, conflicts will arise because the school has limited knowledge and experience in the area of deafness, and does not accommodate the D/HH student properly. This is also complicated by the fact that students aren’t always aware of their rights and options and how to negotiate effectively. The big question is, how can we educate both students and schools, and avoid those conflicts?

Project 3R (Role, Rights, and Responsibilities of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students) can answer that question! This project’s purpose is to develop a curriculum for educating and training college students to become leaders in the future and advocates for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. Educating those students will result in a ripple effect, where each teacher and staff they come in contact with will learn something from the experience and be better prepared the next time they encounter a D/HH student. Project 3R recently completed the development of this curriculum, which is now ready for distribution. The curriculum includes two phases:

  • Phase I: This comprehensive training program covers topics ranging from legal issues, advocacy, effective writing, and problem solving. These topics are separated into a series of 11 modules, including pre and post tests, writing exercises, and informative readings. The students participating in the training will first complete the 11 modules online then undergo on-site training lasting two days. The on-site training provides them with an opportunity to discuss in depth the information included in the modules, and perform role playing exercises.
  • Phase II: After participating in the on-site training, the students will be ready to conduct a series of one-hour training sessions upon request at both their own institution and at other postsecondary institutions. Specialized materials are available for three different possible audiences: faculty, administrators, and students.

The curriculum was developed based on input from faculty, administrators, and students from around the country, along with feedback from hands-on testing. Fifty students, mostly from the “big three” – California State University, Northridge, Gallaudet University, and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology participated in Phase I testing. They provided valuable input in how to improve the training of student leadersprogram. During Phase II, a number of those students went to a variety of postsecondary institutions to test the one-hour training sessions. One interesting observation made during Phase II was that faculty and administrators reacted enthusiastically to our students, and took advantage of the opportunity to get input directly from the students on how to resolve a variety of issues they’ve encountered with D/HH students.

The curriculum is available on paper, multimedia CD-ROM, and online. The paper copy and CD-ROM are available free of charge. To obtain your copy, contact us via email or phone and we’ll be more than happy to send you one!


Until December 16, 2005:
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (866) 621-2933 (V/TTY)



After December 16, 2005:
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (818) 677-2099 (V/TTY)


The 3R website has information specifically for faculty and administrators who are new to working with D/HH students. It includes a quick reference guide with a compendium of tips, strategies, and other relevant information. Go to our website at, and click on either the Faculty or the Administrator link.

The Roles, Rights, and Responsibilities of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Project is a three year federal grant funded by the US Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. The grant expires December 31, 2005. If you’re interested in finding out more about the 3R project, check out our website at or call (818) 677-2099 (V/TTY).

California State University, Northridge (CSUN) has the largest mainstream program for deaf and hard of hearing students in the western U.S. Over 32,000 students attend CSUN and more than 200 of them are deaf or hard of hearing. Founded in 1962, the National Center on Deafness has provided student services, outreach and research facilities to and for deaf and hard of hearing CSUN students successfully for over forty years. NCOD strives to help meet the educational needs of deaf and hard of hearing students by making all university programs and services fully accessible. For more information on NCOD, check or call (818) 677-2611 (V/TTY).

Project 3R would like to thank the following institutions for hosting training sessions and for their assistance and input: Camden County Community College (NJ), Johnson County Community College (KS), Los Angeles Pierce College (CA), Montgomery College (MD), Ohlone College (CA), Santa Rosa College (CA), The University of Minnesota, and Utah Valley State College.